Andrew Tilghman in Washington Monthly
“Fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq is the last big argument for keeping U.S. troops in the country. But the military’s estimation of the threat is alarmingly wrong.”
Because uncertainty exists, the bar for labeling an attack the work of al-Qaeda can be very low. The fact that a detainee possesses al-Qaeda pamphlets or a laptop computer with cached jihadist Web sites, for example, is at times enough for analysts to link a detainee to al-Qaeda. “Sometimes it’s as simple as an anonymous tip that al-Qaeda is active in a certain village, so they will go out on an operation and whoever they roll up, we call them al-Qaeda,” says Alex Rossmiller. “People can get labeled al-Qaeda anywhere along in the chain of events, and it’s really hard to unlabel them.” Even when the military backs off explicit statements that AQI is responsible, as with the Tal Afar truck bombings, the perception that an attack is the work of al-Qaeda is rarely corrected.
The result can be baffling for the troops working on the ground, who hear the leadership characterizing the conflict in Iraq in ways that do not necessarily match what they see in the dusty and danger-laden villages. Michael Zacchea, a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Reserves who was deployed to Iraq, said he was sometimes skeptical of upper-level analysis emphasizing al-Qaeda in Iraq rather than the insurgency’s local roots. “It’s very, very frustrating for everyone involved who is trying to do the right thing,” he said. “That’s not how anyone learned to play the game when we were officers coming up the ranks, and we were taught to provide clear battlefield analysis.”