BILL MOYERS: So who is the enemy in Iraq and how can we even be sure? I'll put those questions to my guests who know there's a lot riding on the answers.
Fawaz A. Gerges just returned this week from yet another of his many journeys into the Muslim world. On the ground is where he does his scholarship. And from that fieldwork has come two highly acclaimed books, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global; and just this year, Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy. Here in New York he teaches international affairs and Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence. But he's currently a Carnegie scholar and visiting professor at the American University in Cairo.
Brian Fishman is part of a team at the U.S. Military Academy whose mission is to train young officers who may find themselves up against those Muslim militants. The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, where Brian Fishman is a senior associate, does just what its name implies. It was established to make sure cadets get the best possible education in global terrorism. Let's start with you, Brian. Assume I'm one of those cadets at West Point who may well be in Iraq a few months from now. What do you want me to know about Al Qaeda in Iraq?
BRIAN FISHMAN: Well, I think the first thing we want you to know is that Al Qaeda in Iraq is not the only problem in Iraq. In fact, it's a small sliver of the insurgency there. Our cadets, when they go out as officers, as platoon leaders, need to know more than just how to move their platoon on an objective and fight the enemy. They need to be able to operate strategically. They need to understand who their enemy is because there's so many different factions operating in Iraq. They need to be able to decide, "Well, do we need to fight these guys? Do we need to be diplomats? Do we need to build them a bridge?" Not everybody with a gun in Iraq needs to be confronted violently. And our cadets need to have the tools to make those differentiations.
FAWAZ A. GERGES: In fact, if you ask any American soldier in Iraq, "Who is the enemy?" he would tell you Al Qaeda. And this has done a great deal of damage to relations between the American military and the Iraqi population.
BILL MOYERS: How come?
FAWAZ A. GERGES: The overwhelming number of insurgents or resistance fighters are Iraqis. They are not Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is a critical component, is a tiny, small, critical component in the Iraqi equation, less than five percent of all insurgents and resistance fighters. So, while Al Qaeda is very lethal, is very deadly, it has carried out some of the devastating attacks in Iraq, in fact, the United States is facing a highly complex and determined resistance or insurgency numbering in the tens of thousands, most of whom have nothing to do with Al Qaeda.
BILL MOYERS: Just the other day the United States launched an offensive about 30 miles north of Baghdad. And helicopter attacks killed 17 of what the military said were Al Qaeda gunmen. But after the military left, the BBC went in and the villagers told the BBC that these were not any way connected to Al Qaeda. They were village guards trying to prevent attacks from the very insurgents he talked about. What do you tell those young men --
BRIAN FISHMAN: Well, we have to prepare our cadets to try to make those differentiations.
BILL MOYERS: But how do they on the ground?
BRIAN FISHMAN: It's very, very difficult because, at the end of the day, many of the insurgents operating in Iraq are operating because of very local concerns. Not even concerns of just about the occupation. They're concerned about local neighborhood security. If they're a Sunni group, they're concerned about overt Shiite pressure. They're concerned about another tribe that they have a history of problems with. I mean, many of these people are operating for reasons that can't be described from far away. We have to prepare them to understand those local issues.
FAWAZ A. GERGES: It's one thing to say that we have to prepare our soldiers and officers to fight a highly complex and nuanced war, but when you have the president himself, day after day, time and again, keep saying that this war against Al Qaeda, yes, there is Al Qaeda. But, in fact, according to American military commanders, the bulk of attacks that are taking place in Iraq are basically carried out by Shiite and Sunni militia in revenge attacks against each other. Yet the administration keeps telling us it's Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda.
BRIAN FISHMAN: Al Qaeda in Iraq is an organization that has tied itself to the global Al Qaeda movement.
BILL MOYERS: It's connected to Central Al Qaeda?
BRIAN FISHMAN: It's connected ideologically and it's connected in name only. It has attempted to brand itself as Al Qaeda because that improves its position. That allows it to sort of up its stature. It's taken on a brand name. It's a franchise. It's --
BILL MOYERS: By fighting the Americans and fighting for --
BRIAN FISHMAN: By fighting the Americans, but really their goal, again, with all of these al Qaeda movements -- and this was the goal of Zarqawi in Iraq -- is to purify, in their terms, the Islamic world.
BILL MOYERS: Zarqawi was the terrorist who came in and actually organized Al Qaeda in Iraq?
BRIAN FISHMAN: Well, no, when he first arrived in Iraq, he was not connected to Al Qaeda. In fact --
BILL MOYERS: When was that?
BRIAN FISHMAN: He arrived there probably 2002. And didn't sign on with Al Qaeda until October of 2004.
BILL MOYERS: After the war was going on.
BRIAN FISHMAN: After the invasion.
FAWAZ A. GERGES: You know, Bill, the question on the table is not whether Al Qaeda in Iraq exists or not. It does exist. It has carried out some of the deadliest, lethal attacks against mainly civilians. I would go further and say based on everything that we have seen, in fact, according to American military commanders up until the last few months, even if Al Qaeda in Iraq were to be removed entirely from the Iraq equation, if tomorrow, Bill, we said, "We remove Al Qaeda," the strategic predicament of the United States would not change dramatically.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
FAWAZ A. GERGES: And that's the question? If our reading of the situation is correct that the United States is facing a complex and a highly determined insurgency or armed resistance, then the question is you're facing tens of thousands — with probably millions of supporters in terms of families and neighborhoods. And this is why unless we understand that this is basically a political problem and, in fact only Iraqis can defeat Al Qaeda. That's the irony. The president keeps saying we need to stay in Iraq in order to defeat Al Qaeda. In fact, the evidence shows that Al Qaeda in Iraq can only be defeated by Iraqis, chased out of Iraq by Iraqis. Iraqis are beginning the task now to do it.
BRIAN FISHMAN: I agree completely. And — but I think that we are starting to see a trend in Iraq where some of these Sunni insurgent groups are starting to do that. And the reason — they're making a very complex strategic calculation. The Sunni insurgent groups, they don't like the U.S. occupation. They fear Shiite power. And they despise Al Qaeda who wants to come in and tell them what to do. And their calculation right now I think is that they expect the U.S. occupation to end. And so they feel they can work with the United States against Al Qaeda, at least temporarily.
BILL MOYERS: And are we arming them?
BRIAN FISHMAN: I don't know if we're arming them or not.
FAWAZ A. GERGES: Some of them, yes. We are arming some of the Sunni tribes and —
BILL MOYERS: So are we becoming hostages to the local parties no matter who's there?
BRIAN FISHMAN: Well, it — in some senses, I don't think this is a bad strategy, though. I think it's possible that there will be negative repercussions down — in fact, I think it's likely there'll be negative repercussions down the road.
FAWAZ A. GERGES: As a historian to me, what happened to Britain in 1920, as you know, Britain was in charge of Iraq. And it put Iraq — glued Iraq together in the 1920s. And by the end of this, Britain became really a hostage to local players in Iraq. And in fact the United States is finding itself in the same place as Britain did in the 19 — at the mercy of local players initially Shiite political leadership. And now the United States has gone against the wishes of the Iraqi government and trying to arm some Sunni tribes to fight Al Qaeda. In fact, the American military presence in Iraq, the preponderant American military presence has become a liability, a liability against America's vested interest. The American presence in Iraq, Bill, and for a person like me who lives for long periods of time in the Middle East, is not just —
BILL MOYERS: Born in Beirut, right?
FAWAZ A. GERGES: Born in Beirut. And I have spent several years doing field research in the last years. The way the American mission is perceived in the Muslim world is that this not about democracy. This is not about the fight against Al Qaeda. This is a fight to subjugate the Arab and Muslim world and control its resources. And that's why what I find most really alarming, Bill, Al Qaeda's ideological claims basically are finding receptive ears in that part of the world because Al Qaeda is telling Muslims the United States is waging a war against Islam and Muslims. And, in fact what the war itself has done, it has radicalized and militarized a tiny segment of mainstream public opinion.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me who are these young people you've met — the fourteen, fifteen year olds that you've been interviewing. Give me a vignette of one of them.
FAWAZ A. GERGES: 14-years-old kid, unemployed. No religious education. No formal education whatsoever. His name is Hamad (PH). He's telling me he's trying to raise $100 to take a bus ride to the Syrian/Iraqi border —
BILL MOYERS: From?
FAWAZ A. GERGES: — and fight the Americans. From Syria.
BILL MOYERS: From Syria?
FAWAZ A. GERGES: From Syria. And —
BILL MOYERS: And to go and fight the Americans?
FAWAZ A. GERGES: Yes, to fight the Americans. And I asked why. And he said, "You're asking me why? You're asking me why I want to go to Iraq? Muslim land is being occupied by the United States of America. It's my duty, my personal duty — and he's not the only one. Most of my interviews, most of my interviews show that these young men had nothing to do with Al Qaeda, had nothing to do with militants, even though there's ideological mobilization.
BILL MOYERS: What's inspiring him?
FAWAZ A. GERGES: You go to any café, Bill, outside any mosque in Algeria, in Yemen, in Syria, in Egypt, and you hear the same — in Jordan — you hear the same talk that basically look what the Americans are doing. Not just the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, the subsequent revelations, reports about the abuse, the human rights abuse. I mean, I have — I am shocked sometimes some of the kids are telling me American soldiers are raping Iraqi women and Iraqi children. I mean, this is not just one-one narrative. Multiple sources, including intelligent, intelligent people who believe in those reports that American soldiers are humiliating, insulting, and raping Iraqi women and children.
BRIAN FISHMAN: With the cadets in class, we walk through some of the jihadi chat rooms that are used to spread propaganda against their fellow soldiers. And they need to understand — there's a photo out there, a very famous photo that's on all of these chat rooms. It's a picture of a bunch of American soldiers taking a rest in a mosque with their boots on. And it's everywhere. And because it's just a symbol of sort of insult to Islam. And the cadets need to understand that even if they are doing something that they think is completely benign, that they don't mean any sort of insult, it can be used against them. And it's that kind of awareness that they need to get to the point where they understand that they could accidentally do something extraordinarily insulting. That photograph is more of the strategic defeat than any sort of tactical engagement on the battlefield. And we need to understand it and the cadets need to understand that.
FAWAZ A. GERGES: I mean, yes, Bill. I mean, I worry about the so-called cultural misunderstandings. I mean, in terms of — I mean, going to a mosque with their boots, trying, you know, to insult, go into certain homes, the bedrooms. But I think lets also look at the firepower that's being used in Iraq. Look at the number of civilian casualties. When you tell 19-year-old kids, American soldiers, "You are fighting evil, the evil doers in Iraq" — and you tell them you have basically — you can use all the firepower at your disposal, no wonder why the number of civilian casualties in Iraq is overwhelming. So while I worry a great deal about the cultural misunderstandings, I also worry about the bigger problem. The problem is, I mean, Muslim public opinion is basically bombarded on a daily basis with images of hundreds of Iraqis being killed on daily basis. And guess what? I hardly met a Muslim, a devout Muslim who believes that somehow the Iraqis are doing the killings. It's either the Americans or the Mossad, who are basically perpetrating sectarian violence in order to dominate —
BILL MOYERS: They're saying this about Israel, about Israel's —
FAWAZ A. GERGES: And the United States. American intelligence. And this tells you about the strategic predicament that we are facing. We are an empire. We are seen as an empire. We are playing empire. And these are the costs of empire.
BILL MOYERS: What would you want the cadets at West Point to know about these young people?
FAWAZ A. GERGES: I would like them to know that most of them don't really have two hundred dollars to take a bus ride to the Syrian/Iraqi border and join the fight. In fact, really, Bill, if it was not for logistical reasons or the fact that the United States is putting a great deal of pressure on Arab government and the lack of resources, the flow of young Muslim men to Iraq would exceed the flow of young Muslim men to Afghanistan in the 1980s. I would tell our American officers that, in fact, this particular fight in Iraq has created a bigger problem, a bigger headache for the United States.
BILL MOYERS: So Iraq has become the new Afghanistan? A breeding ground for terrorists?
FAWAZ A. GERGES: Iraq has the potential to become an Afghanistan. In fact, I would go further and say that Iraq has the potential to become a bigger headache than Afghanistan. Iraq is the in the heart of the Arab and Muslim world, Bill. Iraq was the caliph, the Muslim caliph for 500 years. Iraq is at the center of the Arabian Islam. And you can imagine how this particular matter resonates in the region.
BRIAN FISHMAN: Not only that, but one of the real dangers coming out of Iraq — in Afghanistan, the 1980s, just in terms of the skills that Mujahideens that had gone there to fight learned, they learned a couple of different things. They learned how to organize. They learned how to communicate and work in sort of a multicultural setting and that people are coming from all over the world. They learned how to ambush Soviet columns in mountain valleys and occasionally shoot down helicopters. In Iraq, the fighters there are learning much more relevant skills, much more dangerous skills.
BILL MOYERS: Such as?
BRIAN FISHMAN: Because they're learning how to build IEDs. They're learning how —
BILL MOYERS: The IEDs are those explosives —
BRIAN FISHMAN: Explosive devices. They're learning how to operate in urban settings rather than mountainous settings. They're learning how to communicate covertly when there is a powerful, well-equipped, sophisticated force trying to catch them. In some ways, individual fighter coming out of Iraq scares me a little bit more than that fighter that came out of Afghanistan 15, 20 years ago because I think they're going to have more relevant skills to apply to places that we care about, whether it's major cities in the Middle East, Europe, or potentially the United States.
BILL MOYERS: Both of you remind me that the Administration lately has been talking less and less about the global — the war on global terrorism and more and more about, quote, the long war. What do you make of that?
BRIAN FISHMAN: Well, we don't call it a war against terrorism. We call it a war against Al Qaeda. You know, our class on terrorism starts 2,000 years ago and moves forward. We don't get to Al Qaeda until the last third of the class. There's a lot to learn before you get to Al Qaeda. And we think that that context is important because they need to be able to compare Al Qaeda to something. They need to understand how and why it's similar and how it's different. And so what we tell these cadets is, look, this war against Al Qaeda cannot be won or lost in Iraq. Ultimately what this is is a fight for hearts and minds around the Middle East. And that's a cliché but it's true. And that's why these cadets, they can't win that fight with an M-4.
BILL MOYERS: They can't — what do they win it with?
BRIAN FISHMAN: They —
BILL MOYERS: What — in other words, what the United —
FAWAZ A. GERGES: I mean, the question — I mean, the war itself, the war — the global war on terror. And if you really look what Brian said, it's a war against Al Qaeda. It's a military campaign, a police campaign, a — this is what really — what it's all about. What the administration has done and I think can keep coming back to the bigger thing. By expanding the war, the extension of the war on terror, in fact, has done the opposite from its intended consequence. It has proved to be counterproductive. If our reading of the situation is correct and you talk to any American intelligence officials in Washington, they would tell you, yes, we are losing the war for the hearts and minds of Muslims. If Brian says that I'm going to tell my officers, my cadets, basically to realize this particular war cannot be won on the battlefield, this particular war has to be war in terms of hearts and minds, we are losing this particular war, Bill. Because they expanded, the administration, the president's expanded the war by over reliance on militarism, on muscle. Military power instead of using —
BILL MOYERS: But these people, I mean, the president says these were the people killing us on 9/11. How do you deal — you don't —
FAWAZ A. GERGES: But no one is suggesting telling the president not to use military force against those murderers who basically visited death and horror on our shores on 9/11. What did Iraq have to do with the war on terror? The administration's argument is that we have to stay in Iraq in order to win the war against Al Qaeda does not make sense. In fact, the opposite is true. The longer we stay in Iraq, the more we help Al Qaeda spread its ideology and tactics. And Al Qaeda ideology and tactics are truly spreading into many communities in the Arab and Muslim world.
BILL MOYERS: Do you agree that with the president who says repeatedly, has been saying for two months emphatically now, if we don't fight them there, we'll have to fight them here?
BRIAN FISHMAN: I think we're better off empowering Iraqis to take care of the Al Qaeda inspired elements on the ground in Iraq today. I think it's likely that there are folks that have been inspired by Al Qaeda in Iraq's behavior in Iraq or that have even been in Iraq with Al Qaeda in Iraq that are now outside of Iraq in a place like Lebanon or Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East.
FAWAZ A. GERGES: My fear is that the so-called Al Qaeda centric approach, Bill, is to lump all activists and militants together as Al Qaeda. And since 9/11 in particular, the Al Qaeda centric approach has really basically become the dominant model in the United States amongst some of us who work in the field.
BILL MOYERS: That it's all Al Qaeda all the time.
FAWAZ A. GERGES: While Al Qaeda in Iraq does exist and we know there are some major differences between the leadership of the Al Qaeda in Iraq and Al Qaeda central. I would go further here and say that, in fact, while we have Al Qaeda Central and we have some Al Qaeda affiliates, it's Al Qaeda ideology that's resonating in the Arab and Muslim world and in some communities elsewhere. And that's what we need to focus on. Al Qaeda inspired ideologies.
BILL MOYERS: If you put that ideology on a bumper sticker, what would it say?
FAWAZ A. GERGES: It would say that the West is waging a war against Islam and Muslims and it's your duty to stand up and fight this particular aggression against Islam and Muslims.
BILL MOYERS: All right, but to try to state the administration's argument as I've been following it, the administration, the president is saying that, yes, we know we got a mess in Iraq. But if we leave prematurely, we'll create a new Afghanistan. If we don't stay and get rid of this ideological group of terrorists, the Al Qaeda, then Iraq will become like Afghanistan after the Russians left. It'll be a rogue state and we will be dealing with Iraq as a terrorist —
FAWAZ A. GERGES: Bill, most of the insurgents and resistance fighters in Iraq have nothing to do with Al Qaeda. In my interviews with the insurgents or resistance leaders in Iraq, basically they tell me Al Qaeda is liability. Al Qaeda represents a liability. Bill, there is civil war taking place today in Iraq —
BILL MOYERS: Between?
FAWAZ A. GERGES: Between some of the Sunni tribes, Iraqis, and Al Qaeda. And we are arming some of the Sunni tribes. And the larger argument about Iraq, in fact, if we succeed in convincing Iraqi public opinion and the larger Muslim public opinion that we are genuine, I mean, about leaving Iraq, this is where the beginning of the end of Al Qaeda. That is, in fact, Iraqis are the only competent agents who can defeat Al Qaeda. We are telling the administration, "Mr. President, you have a larger problem on your hands. And the larger problem is that your strategy, your — by being in Iraq, you are fueling the insurgency in Iraq. You are providing Al Qaeda with motivation. You are radicalizing mainstream Arab and Muslim public opinion. Convince them that we will be out in a year or two and begin the process of fighting Al Qaeda."
BRIAN FISHMAN: I don't disagree. The only solution in Iraq is a political solution.
BILL MOYERS: Agreement between the Sunnis and the Shiites and the other —
BRIAN FISHMAN: And between different Shiite factors, between different Sunni factions. And it's absolutely true. I am more hopeful that however the United States leaves in Iraq, Al Qaeda will not be able to build a base there precisely of what Fawaz was saying. That not — the Sunni community in Iraq wants nothing to do with them. These are people coming in trying to tell them what to do. And they want to run their own affairs rather than have Al Qaeda impose — or Al Qaeda inspired groups is probably a better way to say it — try to impose their vision of religious law.
BILL MOYERS: What's your worst nightmare about the long run?
FAWAZ A. GERGES: Well, I worry a great deal about the spillover effects of the Iraq War. I worry a great deal about the intensifying Sunni/Shiite divide.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
FAWAZ A. GERGES: I mean, Lebanon, Bill, now stands at the brink of a major crisis between the dominant Shiite community and the Sunni community.
BILL MOYERS: But that existed before Iraq.
FAWAZ A. GERGES: But the escalation and the intensification and the blood, the spilling of blood in Iraq has really poured gasoline on this particular sectarian divide in the Gulf, in Lebanon, even in non-sectarian states, in Egypt, in Yemen, in Jordan. In my interviews — I mean, even some radical Sunnis are telling me the Shiites now will represent a more existential threat to the Sunni community than the Americans.
BRIAN FISHMAN: And, again, that just demonstrates that this is a war for hearts and minds. It's not a shooting war.
BILL MOYERS: So neither of you make policy and I don't either. But what would you tell the president we ought to do? What do you think we ought to do now we're in this swamp, this quagmire, this mess?
BRIAN FISHMAN: I think we have very few good policy options.
BILL MOYERS: Well, thanks. That's a big help.
BRIAN FISHMAN: I wrote last summer and I stand by it that I think we need to be moving troops out of Iraq — soon. And I think that what's very important in my mind, and this has been bandied about a little bit in the media recently, is that it's not good enough to leave 20,000 or 30,000 troops in Iraq because that's not going to do it. Because if we haven't established an Iraqi government that can control territory on its own, then 20,000 or 30,000 Americans isn't going to be able to control that territory either. And those 20,000 or 30,000 Americans are going to remain a sticking point and a propaganda tool for Al Qaeda around the world. So I really worry about this option of drawing down to 30,000 or 40,000 troops. I think if we're going to draw down that far, you've got to go all the way. And what I was arguing last summer that I think still holds is if you're going to stay, you really have to go in with everybody. And I —
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
BRIAN FISHMAN: Well, I would say it's almost not an option at this point with the state of the military, but you would — we would need 300,000 troops, something like that, to really impose order. And that's simply not an option at this point.
FAWAZ A. GERGES: Bill, I don't think America's strategic predicament has just to do with Iraq. I think our strategic predicament is much greater than what is happening in Iraq. The extraction of American forces must be a priority. But we also need a grand strategy, a strategy that takes into account the multiple risks and the regional — trying to resolve regional tensions in Palestine and Afghanistan and Kashmir, and also begin to shift the tide against Al Qaeda. I mean, if we think — if we all say that this war is about winning hearts and minds, the question is we need a grand strategy to basically hammer a deadly nail in Al Qaeda's ideological —
BILL MOYERS: But can you win a battle for the hearts and minds when people, Muslims, are united by essentially their faith, their scripture, and their perceptions of America?
FAWAZ A. GERGES: Well, all the polls, all surveys show that Muslims believe that the United States is not there to promote democracy, is not to fight Al Qaeda, but rather to subjugate Arabs and Muslims. And this is why it's a priority now for the American foreign policy to begin the process of extracting its forces from Iraq. It'd be balancing a complex grand strategy.
BRIAN FISHMAN: We teach our cadets at West Point, you know, we rely on Clausewitz a lot, the great Prussian military strategist. And he says the most important thing a commander has to do before going into a war is determine exactly what kind of war it is. And I'm not so sure we have done that yet in Iraq. And I think that's one of the reasons why we're having so much trouble. We still haven't figured out, collectively, exactly who we're fighting and exactly where we want to go at the end of the day. What does that look like? And it's very hard to fight and win that war if we haven't done that.
BILL MOYERS: To be continued. Brian Fishman, Fawaz Gerges, thank you very much for this very interesting discussion.