The August 2009 issue of the Journal of Strategic Studies contains an article by Micah Zenko entitled, “Foregoing Limited Force: The George W. Bush Administration’s Decision Not to Attack Ansar Al-Islam.” Before 2003, the Bush White House singled out Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish Islamist group, and its camp in Kurdistan as a reason to invade Iraq. The U.S. claimed hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters had fled there after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. One of these was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who the administration said was an Al Qaeda terrorist leader. Finally, they said that Ansar was producing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and was supported by Saddam’s government. The base appeared to fit all of the criteria of President Bush’s new war on terror because it was an intersection of a dictator that supported terrorists working with Al Qaeda on WMD. In 2002 the U.S. drew up several plans to destroy Ansar’s base, but Bush vetoed the idea with no explanation. Zenko argues that the President made this decision because he thought that military action could derail the invasion of Iraq.
9/11 forever changed the Bush administration’s foreign policy. In the president’s first speech after the attack he said that the U.S. would not only go after terrorists, but the states that supported them. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz went even farther on September 13, 2001 when he said that the U.S. would end states that sponsored terrorism. This new stance was solidified in the President’s January 2002 Axis of Evil State of the Union where he said that preventing countries from possessing weapons of mass destruction and providing them to terrorists would be America’s new top priority. How this was going to be achieved was outlined in an address the President gave at West Point in June 2002 where he said the U.S. had the right to conduct pre-emptive wars to deal with threats in the newpost-9/11 world. This idea was incorporated into the White House’s September 2002 National Security Strategy that was very similar to a Defense Policy Guidance paper written by Wolfowitz in 1992, who was then Undersecretary of Defense for Policy under the 1st President Bush that called for unilateralism in foreign policy and pre-emptive war.
In a March 2002 issue of the New Yorker Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a piece about a Kurdish terrorist group called Ansar Al-Islam entitled “A Reporter at Large: The Great Terror.” While on a trip to Kurdistan he was taken to a jail controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) where he interviewed three prisoners who claimed, amongst other things, that Ansar was secretly controlled by Iraqi intelligence. This article caught the eye of the Bush administration.
Ansar was a breakaway group from the Islamic Movement of Iraqi Kurdistan, formed at the beginning of September 2001. They operated in a small camp near the town of Khurmal along the Iranian border. They declared war on the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and invited Islamist militants to join their fight. They received support from Al Qaeda, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. They had about 600-1,000 fighters, who were quickly joined by thousands of militants, including Al Qaeda members, fleeing the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his Jund al-Sham group, Soldiers of the Levant, were one such group who arrived in the Ansar camp in December 2001.
Beginning in March 2002 the Bush administration began discussing what to do about Ansar, its growing camp of militants, and Zarqawi. In May the Joint Chiefs of Staff received its first intelligence briefing that said Ansar was a separate group from Al Qaeda, and that it was working on poisons. The Pentagon also began working on military plans against the camp. In the meantime officials were split over what to do, some were for taking action, and others were not. By June the White House was presented with a recommendation for a joint air-ground strike against the Khurmal base. The President vetoed the plan, but with no explanation even though it seemed like a perfect case to apply the new Bush doctrine to fight terrorism, the spread of WMD, and their state sponsors.
Zenko goes over four theories for why Bush might have made this decision. The first was that the threat was not great enough. The problem with this was that the reports about Zarqawi’s presence in the Ansar camp and the group’s production of WMD was believed to be real and a growing danger. Administration officials, beginning in May 2002 also began mentioning the importance of Ansar as an example of Iraq’s alleged support for Al Qaeda. Second was that there was no actionable intelligence to base the attack upon, but that was countered by the National Security Council’s Director for Combating Terrorism, Kurdish intelligence, and others who all said that Zarqawi was at the camp at that time. Third was that the White House was afraid of any possible negative repercussions of an attack such as dead American soldiers or civilian casualties. Zenko refutes this by going through a series of limited strikes by other presidents that failed, but had no real repercussions. Bush himself was also not against limited strikes as he okayed several missile attacks against Al Qaeda operatives in western and central Asia. The last possible reason was that Bush did not want to derail the drive to overthrow Saddam by a sideshow like attacking the Ansar camp. Sometime in the first half of 2002 the President decided to remove Saddam by force. In April 2002 Bush told the BBC that, “I made up my mind that Saddam needs to go.” In a July 23, 2002 memo from the British cabinet, Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of British intelligence, said that after a recent trip to Washington he came away with the impression that the U.S. was now committed to using force to remove Saddam. Geoffrey Hoon, the Defense Minister said that the Americans had come to no specific decision yet, but he expected the invasion to begin by January 2003. Douglas Feith, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy told Zenko in 2006 that a strike on the Ansar camp that turned up nothing would’ve been problematic for the push to remove Saddam. General Jack Keane, who was the Army Chief of Staff at the time, said that he kept asking about striking Ansar in the fall of 2002 and the spring of 2003 and was told that it was too close to the invasion date. To Zenko this was the most convincing reason for Bush’s decision.
During the 2003 invasion, U.S. and Kurdish forces took the Ansar camp after four days of fighting. There they found that Ansar was working on poisons and WMD. They did not find evidence that the group was supported by Baghdad however. The group did receive foreign aid, and was considering launching attacks in other countries. Zarqawi was no longer at the camp though, having left when plans for a military strike against Ansar began leaking out to the press in 2002. Khurmal turned out to be the only place in Iraq that the U.S. actually found WMD being produced, which was the major justification for the war in the first place.
Bush’s decision not to attack the Ansar camp and Zarqawi was not only a tactical error, but showed that removing Saddam was the centerpiece of the Bush administration by 2002. Zenko writes that this was a mistake because Zarqawi became a leader of the insurgency in Iraq, was also responsible for terrorist attacks in Jordan, and organized a network that reached into France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and Turkey. In late 2004 he also joined Al Qaeda, and gave them a new base of operations outside of their strongholds in Afghanistan and Pakistan. His reign of terror could’ve been ended before the war. Bush’s decision not to attack the Ansar base also showed that by the summer of 2002 the President was focused upon planning and preparing for the invasion of Iraq, and apparently did not want other operations in the country that could detract from the ultimate goal of removing Saddam from power. This was seen in the fact that the Ansar camp and Zarqawi increasingly became talking points in speeches by the president and other administration officials advocating for war, while people like General Jack Keane were told that the U.S. would do nothing about them.
Eisenberg, Daniel, “’We’re Taking Him Out,’” Time, 5/5/02
Goldberg, Jeffrey, “A Reporter at Large: The Great Terror,” New Yorker, 3/25/02
Karon, Tony, “Why Saddam Remains a Tough Target,” Time, 1/30/02
PBS Frontline, “Chronology: The Evolution of the Bush Doctrine,” War Behind Closed Doors, 2/20/03
- “Interview Richard Perle,” Truth, War and Consequences, 10/9/03
- “The War Behind Closed Doors – Transcript,” War Behind Closed Doors, 2/20/03
Zenko, Micah, “Foregoing Limited Force: The George W. Bush Administration’s Decision Not to Attack Ansar Al-Islam,” Journal of Strategic Studies, August 2009