A side from the larger question we won’t attempt to resolve here — whether killing people, even bad people, is the best way to move toward a more stable, civil and orderly society — the death of a terrorist like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi at the very least means there is one less person in Iraq planning violence and death for other Iraqis and for Americans. Whether his death from 500-pound U.S. bombs will have a significant impact on the insurgency and on the chances for relative stability in Iraq is a difficult question.
In some ways, Zarqawi’s death is more important to ordinary Iraqis than it is to Americans. Although Zarqawi, a native Jordanian with a long history of bloody jihadist activity, renamed his group “al-Qaida in Mesopotamia” and received a pro forma endorsement from al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, Zarqawi had his own agenda.
His goal of promoting civil war between Iraqi Sunni and Shia Muslims was not in line with al-Qaida’s larger goals, except to the extent that any chaos in a country not ruled by fundamentalist Islamists could be exploited by terrorists and revolutionists.
However important Zarqawi was in the larger Iraqi insurgency against the U.S. occupation and the still-emerging Iraqi government, his preferred recent targets have been Iraqis more than Americans. The celebrations by Iraqis at the news of his death were therefore appropriate. For the United States, however, as Charles Pena, author of the new book “Winning the Un-War” said, Zarqawi was a less-direct threat, and his death is more symbolic than substantive. “It will resonate for a news cycle or two, and things will return to business as usual in Iraq,” Pena said.
Zarqawi’s death means there is one less reason for the United States to remain much longer in Iraq. Insofar as his presence symbolized the perception that Iraq had become the “central front” in the larger “war on terror,” his death not only demonstrates the ability of U.S. and Iraqi government forces to find him and kill him. It offers an opportunity to redirect the resources deployed against Zarqawi toward the larger goal of capturing or killing bin Laden and disabling or neutralizing the “network of networks” that al-Qaida and other jihadist terrorist groups have deployed against the United States and other free countries.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s death is unlikely to end the insurgency in Iraq — indeed, as President Bush and others have noted, it could lead to more intense violence for at least a while. A more hopeful sign is that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Jamal al-Maliki has been able to get a new defense minister, an interior minister and a top national security official approved by Parliament, after a delay of several months.
Combined with the fact that Iraqi forces were the first on the scene at the “safe house” where Zarqawi was killed, it suggests that Iraqis are more prepared than ever to assume responsibility for their own future.
The U.S. should encourage this by beginning the process of withdrawal from Iraq. This will not only free resources for the larger mission of finding bin Laden and disabling al-Qaida, it will remove one of the issues that aggravates hatred of the U.S. by militant Islamist jihadists.
It was difficult, but the United States has shown it can track down and kill a brutal terrorist like Zarqawi. Now is the time to turn our resources more directly against bin Laden and the international al-Qaida networks.