The death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq yesterday must come as welcome news to anyone concerned about the fate of Iraq, the US, or the world at large. As leader of one of the most violent and high-profile elements of the insurgency Zarqawi has ordered or perpetrated execrable acts of cruelty and destruction. He lent his imprimatur to senseless and gratuitous attacks that can produce nothing but death, anarchy and mayhem. The shattered rubble of the Golden Mosque and the copious innocent blood spilled in his vicious career stand mute testimony that any portrait of Zarqawi as a "freedom fighter" is a pathetic falsehood.
The ability of the US military to track and target Zarqawi is a hopeful sign. This action is a victory for the counterinsurgency, and the soldiers and leadership of the Coalition forces deserve ample credit for carrying out a difficult and vital mission. Though the long-term strategic significance of Zarqawi's demise will take time to assess, for now it is undeniably a significant psychological triumph for the Coalition. At the very least it will detract from the insurgents' aura of inviolability and boost confidence in the prospects of the counterinsurgency among the Iraqi populace, the Coalition forces, and the international public.
All that being said, US leaders would be wise to temper caution with optimism in communicating this development to the public at large. Though the defeat of Zarqawi is undeniably a positive event in the short term, the ultimate effect it will have upon the insurgency itself is an open question. Much hinges on a question that may seem counterintuitive or obvious to some observers: did Zarqawi create the insurgency or did the insurgency create Zarqawi? This was an irresoluble question as long as Zarqawi was alive and operating in Iraq, but it might be resolved by observing how the insurgency does or does not transform in the wake of his demise.
On a surface level it is clear that Zarqawi did not create the insurgency. Though he is a foreigner to Iraq and leads a tendency of the insurgency heavily constituted of non-Iraqis his activities do not indicate that the Iraq insurgency lacks a domestic base of support. The international Al Qaeda movement to which Zarqawi swore allegiance has carried out terror attacks across the world. Yes, Al Qaeda would very much like to see the govnerment in Baghdad collapse. But the same could be said about the government of Morocco, or Saudi Arabia, or Turkey, or Indonesia, or that of any number of a host of countries that have been targeted by the movement. The only condition that can account for the disparity between the degree of violence that Zarqawi has managed to engineer in Iraq and that which Al Qaeda has produced in other nations is the fact that Zarqawi's movement was operating in support of and in tandem with a home-grown Iraqi insurgency of which it was a part. Zarqawi might have perceived himself to be an agent of an international Islamic jihad, but he only achieved the degree of purchase in Iraq that he did because his aid and leadership were perceived as instrumental to furthering the interests of a critical mass of disaffected Iraqis (principally Sunni Arabs). Zarqawi's appeal in Iraq owed as much or more to his credentials as an experienced insurgent from his Afghan days and the perceived anti-American successes of Al Qaeda post-9/11 as to his devotion to an ecumenical Islamic revolution. Zarqawi would not have been embraced by his Iraqi hosts and comrades if they had not already been intrinsically opposed to both the Coalition and the nascent Baghdad government and persuaded that Zarqawi had the "right stuff" to help defeat both.
Acknowledging that fact, however, still compels the question of how much Zarqawi's presence influenced the goals and methods of the insurgency itself. According to both Zarqawi himself and official observers among the Coalition, Zarqawi's element of the insurgency was resposible for the most lurid and destabilizing attacks of the ongoing conflict. Zarqawi lent his name to the indiscriminate homicidal assault upon the Iraqi Shi'ite community and its sacred icons that has done so much to sow the dragon's teeth of chaos in Iraq in recent months. Was this strategy one of his devising or did it grow organically from the intrinsic impulses of the insurgency itself?
At first glance the former might seem the case. The most militarily powerful opponent of the insurgency has always been the Coalition, and the strategically wise course in attempting to oust the Coalition from Iraq would have been to make common cause with all armed groups that oppose the US presence. The popular Shi'ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr had taken up arms against the Coalition twice in the immediate wake of the invasion, and even after being militarily defeated it has never been clear that his commitment to the political process is firm. The insurgency could have doubled or tripled its combat power by allying with the Mahdi Army and incorporated an "interface" that might have drawn progressively more Shi'ites into the anti-Coalition cause. Given the advantages that might have accrued from such a policy the brutally sadistic anti-Shi'ite campaign pursued by the insurgency seems anomalous, prompting suspicion that it originated in the personal initiative and leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Though such a conclusion seems plausible, there is some evidence to suggest that it is incorrect. Zarqawi's ruthless anti-Shi'ite strategy costed him in support and confidence among the international leadership of Al Qaeda. US intelligence intercepted communications from Al Qaeda leaders urging Zarqawi to ameliorate his anti-Shi'ite campaign. In the broad view it would seem clear why such would be the case- Osama bin Laden and his confederates ex-Iraq were chiefly concerned with co-ordinating an ecumenical Islamic jihad, antagonizing other Muslims (like the leaders of Iran) did not make good tactical sense toward that goal in the short term. Why, then, would Zarqawi have pursued his anti-Shi'ite strategy though it cost him standing among Al Qaeda internationally? The most likely answer is that this strategy was not dictated by Zarqawi himself but by the Iraqi hosts and comrades upon which his position of leadership among the insurgents depended. The insurgency itself is fueled as much or more by fear of a Baghdad government in which Kurds and Shi'ites enjoy significant power as it is by hatred of the US or the Coalition. Pursuing a brutally anarchic anti-Shi'ite strategy was the condition upon which Zarqawi's influence in the insurgency was sustained.
Thus though the personal defeat of Zarqawi is a step forward in the counterinsurgency for which the Coalition is to be congratulated, it would be ill advised to leap to the conclusion that a sustained Coalition troop presence is the answer to Iraq's problems. If it is true that Zarqawi and his tactics were more product than source of the insurgency then his removal does not eliminate the underlying political impulses that nurtured his sadistic career. In the end only a broad belief in and trust of the Baghdad government on the part of the Iraqi people will defeat the insurgency, and in that regard the continued presence of Coalition soldiers will prove more hindrance than help to the political defeat of the insurgents in the long run.