Is the War in Iraq a ‘War of Ideas’?


TO GRASP the appeal that becoming an al-Qaeda suicide bomber has for a young person in the Islamic world, Visiting NYU Wagner Professor Michael Doran recommends considering the story of the early 1990s Seattle grunge band Nirvana. Or more specifically, Nirvana’s tragic lead singer Kurt Cobain, whose suicide in April, 1994, at the height of the band’s popularity propelled him from rock star to mythic legend.

“They catch these guys at their Kurt Cobain moment,” Doran, speaking April 2, 2009, at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, said, referring to  the most vulnerable targets of recruitment efforts. “They fill their head with a lot of promises, and they’re ready to just go and do it.”

Doran is an expert on US foreign policy and the Middle East. Prior to joining NYU Wagner, he served in the U.S. State Department as Senior Adviser to the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. He has also served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defense for Support of Public Diplomacy and as the Senior Director for the Middle East at the National Security Council. He has taught at Princeton University and the University of Central Florida.

While it has been well-publicized that al-Qaeda recruits are promised 72 virgins when they reach heaven, Doran said, what many don’t realize is that al-Qaeda recruits are also told they can choose to bring family members to paradise with them. “They’re not just a hero of the community, but a cosmic hero.”

Doran first gained the notice of the Bush administration for an article he wrote in the January/February 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine entitled “Somebody Else’s Civil War.” In it, Doran asserted that Osama Bin Laden had “no intention of defeating America” by staging the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks but planned the attacks  as a method “to help his brand of extremist Islam survive and flourish among the believers.” Al-Qaeda wanted U.S. to send troops into Islamic countries so Muslims would turn on governments in the region allied with America and bring about their collapse. In essence, he argued (in the article, presumably?), “Americans, in short, have been drawn into somebody else’s civil war.”

More so than any other war America has fought, the war in Iraq is a “war of ideas,” or a “media war,” Doran told the audience at NYU Wagner.

Illustrating this, he displayed a letter that was intercepted from Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second in command, to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of one of the deadliest militant organizations in Iraq. In the letter, al-Zawahiri pleaded with al-Zarqawi, who was attacking Shia shrines and market places after declaring “all out war” on the Shia, to show restraint.
“Does this conflict with the Shia lift the burden from the Americans by diverting the mujahedeen to the Shia, while the Americans continue to control matters from afar? And if the attacks on Shia leaders were necessary to put a stop to their plans, then why were there attacks on ordinary Shia? Won’t this lead to reinforcing false ideas in their minds, even as it is incumbent on us to preach the call of Islam to them and explain and communicate to guide them to the truth? And can the mujahedeen kill all of the Shia in Iraq? Has any Islamic state in history ever tried that? And why kill ordinary Shia considering that they are forgiven because of their ignorance?”

Al-Zawahiri ends the letter with a reminder to his gung-ho comrade. “I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Umma (nation).”
For awhile, Doran said the United States’ military strategy in Iraq played perfectly into al-Qaeda’s hands, as insurgents lashed back at this perceived invading army of foreigners.”For a couple of years it looked it was building and building and building and al-Qaeda was getting stronger. Then it was gone,” he said snapping, “just like that.”

He credited what he called General David Patraeus’ “genius” in initiating counter-insurgency measures that took into account local politics and public opinion for turning the tide.  He said the military has been able to secure hot spot areas and gain the trust of locals who are now providing information on the “bad guys.” Also, through captured insurgents, the military learned that the overwhelming reason insurgents were fighting the United States wasn’t because of ideological beliefs but money.

“They were paid to do it,” Doran said.

To counter this, the United States military has provided jobs for the would-be insurgents or in some cases are simply paying them not to fight.

Doran said that the U.S. is just now starting to get the hang of this new type of nuanced warfare. Historically the United States military was geared toward fighting a potential super power like Russia or China and was not prepared for fighting a “war of ideas.”

“I think the way the military thought of war was either you are taking territory or you were destroying capabilities..You never asked yourself what was the nature of the populace,” he said.

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