It’s a curious thing that, over the past 10 – 12 days, the news from Iraq refers to the combatants there as “al-Qaida” fighters. When did that happen? Until a few days ago, the combatants in Iraq were “insurgents” or they were referred to as “Sunni” or “Shia’a” fighters in the Iraq Civil War. Suddenly, without evidence, without proof, without any semblance of fact, the US military command is referring to these combatants as “al-Qaida”.
Welcome to the latest in Iraq propaganda.
That the Bush administration, and specifically its military commanders, decided to begin using the term “Al Qaeda” to designate “anyone and everyeone we fight against or kill in Iraq” is obvious. All of a sudden, every time one of the top military commanders describes our latest operations or quantifies how many we killed, the enemy is referred to, almost exclusively now, as “Al Qaeda.”
But what is even more notable is that the establishment press has followed right along, just as enthusiastically. I don’t think the New York Times has published a story about Iraq in the last two weeks without stating that we are killing “Al Qaeda fighters,” capturing “Al Qaeda leaders,” and every new operation is against “Al Qaeda.”
The Times — typically in the form of the gullible and always-government-trusting “reporting” of Michael Gordon, though not only — makes this claim over and over, as prominently as possible, often without the slightest questioning, qualification, or doubt. If your only news about Iraq came from The New York Times, you would think that the war in Iraq is now indistinguishable from the initial stage of the war in Afghanistan — that we are there fighting against the people who hijacked those planes and flew them into our buildings: “Al Qaeda.”
What is so amazing about this new rhetorical development — not only from our military, but also from our “journalists” — is that, for years, it was too shameless and false even for the Bush administration to use. Even at the height of their propaganda offensives about the war, the furthest Bush officials were willing to go was to use the generic term “terrorists” for everyone we are fighting in Iraq, as in: “we cannot surrender to the terrorists by withdrawing” and “we must stay on the offensive against terrorists.”
But after his 2004 re-election was secure, even the President acknowledged that “Al Qaeda” was the smallest component of the “enemies” we are fighting in Iraq:
A clear strategy begins with a clear understanding of the enemy we face. The enemy in Iraq is a combination of rejectionists, Saddamists and terrorists. The rejectionists are by far the largest group. These are ordinary Iraqis, mostly Sunni Arabs, who miss the privileged status they had under the regime of Saddam Hussein — and they reject an Iraq in which they are no longer the dominant group. . . . The second group that makes up the enemy in Iraq is smaller, but more determined. It contains former regime loyalists who held positions of power under Saddam Hussein — people who still harbor dreams of returning to power. These hard-core Saddamists are trying to foment anti-democratic sentiment amongst the larger Sunni community. . . .
The third group is the smallest, but the most lethal: the terrorists affiliated with or inspired by al Qaeda.
And note that even for the “smallest” group among those we are fighting in Iraq, the president described them not as “Al Qaeda,” but as those “affiliated with or inspired by al Qaeda.” Claiming that our enemy in Iraq was comprised primarily or largely of “Al Qaeda” was too patently false even for the President to invoke in defense of his war. But now, support for the war is at an all-time low and war supporters are truly desperate to find a way to stay in Iraq. So the administration has thrown any remnants of rhetorical caution to the wind, overtly calling everyone we are fighting “Al Qaeda.” This strategy was first unveiled by Joe Lieberman when he went on Meet the Press in January and claimed that the U.S. was “attacked on 9/11 by the same enemy that we’re fighting in Iraq today”. Though Lieberman was widely mocked at the time for his incomparable willingness to spew even the most patent falsehoods to justify the occupation, our intrepid political press corps now dutifully follows right along.
Here is the first paragraph from today’s New York Times article on our latest offensive, based exclusively on the claims of our military commanders:
The operational commander of troops battling to drive fighters with Al Qaeda from Baquba said Friday that 80 percent of the top Qaeda leaders in the city fled before the American-led offensive began earlier this week. He compared their flight with the escape of Qaeda leaders from Falluja ahead of an American offensive that recaptured that city in 2004.
The article then uses the term “Qaeda” an additional 19 times to describe the enemy we are fighting — “Qaeda leaders,” “Qaeda strongholds,” “Qaeda fighters,” “Qaeda groups,” the “Qaeda threat,” etc. What is our objective in Iraq? To “move into neighborhoods cleared of Qaeda fighters and hold them.” In virtually every article from the Times now, anyone we fight is automatically designated “Al Qaeda”:
American troops discovered a medical aid station for insurgents — another sign that the Qaeda fighters had prepared for an intense fight . . . In a statement, the American military said it had killed 41 Qaeda operatives.
The problem of collaring the Qaeda fighters is challenging in several respects. . . The presence of so many civilians on an urban battlefield affords the operatives from Al Qaeda another possible means to elude their American pursuers. . . . Since the battle for western Baquba began, Qaeda insurgents have carried out a delaying action, employing snipers and engaging American troops in several firefights.
The Qaeda and insurgent strongholds in Baquba are strongly defended, according to American intelligence reports [though even that article described the enemy in Baquba as “a mix of former members of Saddam Hussein’s army and paramilitary forces, embittered Sunni Arab men, criminal gangs and Qaeda Islamists”]
With the influx of tens of thousands of additional combat troops into Iraq now complete, American forces have begun a wide offensive against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia on the outskirts of Baghdad, the top American commander in Iraq said Saturday. The commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, in a news conference in Baghdad along with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, said the operation was intended to take the fight to Al Qaeda’s hide-outs in order to cut down the group’s devastating campaign of car bombings. . . .
The additional American forces, General Petraeus said Saturday, would allow the United States to conduct operations in “a number of areas around Baghdad, in particular to go into areas that were sanctuaries in the past of Al Qaeda.”
From The Washington Post today:
The battle came Friday to the town of Khalis, about 10 miles northwest of Baqubah. U.S. forces saw a group of al-Qaeda in Iraq gunmen attempting to avoid Iraqi police patrols and infiltrate Khalis from the southwest, according to a U.S. military statement. . . . . With those deaths, at least 68 suspected al-Qaeda operatives have been killed in the offensive, according to the U.S. military’s tally.
And here is the headline from CNN’s article yesterday:
Note that, in the sub-headline, CNN totals the number of “militants” killed as 68, which, in the headline, magically becomes “68 al Qaeda militants killed.” That is because, in our media, everyone we kill in Iraq, and everyone who fights against our occupation, are all now “al Qaeda.” Each of these articles typically (though not always) initially refers to “Al Qaeda in Iraq” or “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia,” as though they are nothing more than the Iraqi branch office of the group that launched the 9/11 attacks. The articles then proceed to refer to the group only as “Qaeda,” and repeatedly quote U.S. military officials quantifying the amount of “Qaeda fighters” we killed. Hence, what we are doing in Iraq is going after and killing members of the group which flew the planes into our buildings. Who could possibly be against that?
Are there some foreign fighters in Iraq who have taken up arms against the U.S. occupation who are fairly called “Al Qaeda”? Probably. But by all accounts — including the President’s — they are a tiny part of the groups with guns who are waging war in Iraq. The vast, vast majority of them are Iraqis motivated by a desire to acquire more political power in their own country at the expense of other Iraqi factions and/or to fight against a foreign occupation of their country. To refer to them as “Al Qaeda” so casually and with so little basis (other than the fact that U.S. military officials now do so) is misleading and propagandistic in the extreme.
Making matters much worse, this tactic was exposed long, long ago. From the Christian Science Monitor in September, 2005:
The US and Iraqi governments have vastly overstated the number of foreign fighters in Iraq, and most of them don’t come from Saudi Arabia, according to a new report from the Washington-based Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS). According to a piece in The Guardian, this means the US and Iraq “feed the myth” that foreign fighters are the backbone of the insurgency. While the foreign fighters may stoke the insurgency flames, they make up only about 4 to 10 percent of the estimated 30,000 insurgents.
And in January of this year, the Cato Institute published a detailed analysis — entitled “The Myth of an al Qaeda Takeover of Iraq” — by Ted Galen Carpenter, its vice president for defense and foreign policy studies, documenting that claims of “Al Qaeda in Iraq” is “a canard that the perpetrators of the current catastrophe use to frighten people into supporting a fatally flawed, and seemingly endless, nation-building debacle.” What is always most striking about this is how uncritically our press passes on government claims. War reporting in Iraq is obviously extremely difficult and dangerous, and it takes a great deal of courage to be in Iraq in order to file these stories. There is no denying that.
But precisely because of those dangers, these reporters rely almost exclusively on the narratives offered by U.S. military officials selected by the Bush administration to convey events to the press. Almost every one of the articles referenced above is shaped from start to finish by accounts about what happened from American military commanders (with, in isolated instances, accounts from Iraqis in the area). That is inevitable, though such accounts ought to be treated with much greater skepticism.
But what is not inevitable is to adopt the patently misleading nomenclature and political rhetoric of the administration, so plainly designed to generate support for the “surge” (support for which Gordon himself admitted he has embraced) by creating the false appearance that the violence in Iraq is due to attacks by the terrorist group responsible for 9/11. What makes this practice all the more disturbing is how quickly and obediently the media has adopted the change in terms consciously issued by the Bush administration and their military officials responsible for presenting the Bush view of the war to the press.
UPDATE: Posts from other bloggers who previously noticed this same trend demonstrate how calculated it is and pinpoint its obvious genesis. At Kos, BarbInMD noted back in May that Bush’s rhetoric on Iraq had palpably shifted, as he began declaring that “Al-Qaida is public enemy No. 1 in Iraq.” The same day, she noted that Bush “mentioned Al-Qaida no less than 27 times” in his Iraq speech. As always, a theme travels unmolested from Bush’s mouth into the unexamined premises of our newspapers’ front pages.
Separately, Ghillie notes in comments that the very politically cognizant Gen. Petraeus has been quite noticeably emphasizing “the battle against Al Qaeda” in interviews for months. And yesterday, ProfMarcus analyzed the top Reuters article concerning American action in Iraq — headline: “Al Qaeda fight to death in Iraq bastion: U.S” — and noted that “al qaeda is mentioned 13 times in a 614 word story” and that “reading the article, you would think that al qaeda is not only everywhere in iraq but is also behind all the insurgent activity that’s going on.”
Interestingly, in addition to the one quoted above, there is another long article in the Post today, this one by the reliable Thomas Ricks, which extensively analyzes the objectives and shortcomings in our current military strategy. Ricks himself strategy never once mentions Al Qaeda.
Finally, the lead story of the NYT today — in its first two paragraphs — quotes Gen. Odierno as claiming that the 2004 battle of Falluja was aimed at capturing “top Qaeda leaders in the city.” But Michael Gordon himself, back in 2004, published a lengthy and detailed article about the Falluja situation and never once mentioned or even alluded to “Al Qaeda,” writing only about the Iraqi Sunni insurgents in that city who were hostile to our occupation (h/t John Manning). The propagandistic transformation of “insurgents” into “Al Qaeda,” then, applies not only to our current predicament but also to past battles as well, as a tool of rank revisionism (hence, it is now officially “The Glorious 2004 Battle against Al-Qaeda in Falluja”).