GIVING AID to your most fanatical enemies is nobody's idea of good strategy, but that is exactly how a growing chorus of counterterrorism experts sees the war in Iraq. The U.S. occupation, they argue, has handed Al Qaeda and other Islamic radicals not only a massive training ground but an invaluable tool for propaganda and recruitment. Like the American assistance naively provided to the mujahedin in Afghanistan during the 1980s, our efforts in Iraq, according to this dire view, will have a vicious and predictable "blowback": more and deadlier jihadism for years to come, and not just in the Middle East.
There's no disputing some parts of this argument. Hundreds if not thousands of foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Sunni countries have already heeded the call to confront the "infidels and crusaders" in Iraq. Led by the Jordanian Abu Musab Zarqawi and responsible for the grisliest acts of the insurgency, these would-be martyrs have plainly acquired technical and organizational skills, to say nothing of contacts, that will help them in other arenas of their apocalyptic struggle.
But some such expansion of Osama bin Laden's bloody franchise was bound to happen anyway, even without the American campaign in Iraq. The key event in bolstering the ranks of Al Qaeda and its affiliates was not Operation Iraqi Freedom but 9/11 itself, whose humbling of the "far enemy" was widely cheered in the Arab street. The great selling point of Bin Laden's movement was its stunning success, and any American response was sure to rally new troops to his side.
Iraq is now the main venue for this confrontation -- what the Bush administration rightly calls the central front in the war on terror. How is the Islamist cause faring there? By some measures, pretty well. Suicide attacks by non-Iraqis have escalated in the lead-up to Thursday's elections, and high-profile kidnappings, staged for international television, remain a problem. No one can doubt the jihadists' prowess at sowing terror.
But Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, as Zarqawi has named his organization, has also suffered serious losses. Hundreds of its fighters have been killed or imprisoned, thanks in large measure to improved intelligence on the ground, and recent U.S.-Iraqi operations on the Syrian border and in the Sunni Triangle have begun to clear and occupy their former strongholds. Moreover, jihadists who make a tactical retreat from the Iraqi battlefield now must deal with security services in the West and in the Arab world that are ever more attuned to their movements and increasingly determined to deny them a haven.
Military setbacks are the least of the radicals' worries, however. Despite their continuing appeal to a segment of Arab opinion -- think of young men shouting "Allahu Akbar!" as they watch endless iterations of beheadings on the Internet -- Zarqawi and his followers have lost considerable ground in the struggle for Arab "hearts and minds." Their indiscriminate brutality in striking at Shiites and at Sunni "collaborators" has turned much of Iraq, including elements of the insurgency, against them, and their early November bombings of Western hotels in Amman, Jordan, sparked outrage across the Arab world. Even Ayman Zawahiri, Bin Laden's top lieutenant, felt compelled to rebuke Zarqawi, instructing him (in a recently intercepted letter) to cease actions that "the masses do not understand or approve."
The still-deeper threat to the legitimacy of the jihadists, as they themselves recognize, is the ongoing democratic project in Iraq. In January, as Iraqis went to the polls for the first of their three elections this year, Zarqawi released a message declaring "a bitter war against democracy and all those who seek to enact it." He has made good on his pledge, even to the point of lashing out at the growing number of Sunnis who, despite hating the U.S. occupation, have reconciled themselves to the new Iraq. Just two weeks ago, Zarqawi's forces assassinated the grand imam of Fallouja. The 70-year-old cleric's crime? Urging fellow Sunnis to vote. A strong Sunni turnout is expected on Thursday, and the radicals will be left to sulk in the shadows.
Whether the United States will succeed in helping to establish a more liberal, pluralistic Iraq remains to be seen. But if nothing else, the conflict there has served a useful, clarifying purpose -- revealing the jihadists as nihilistic spoilers opposed to the aspirations of most of the Muslim world. In a fight likely to last for decades, that may be the most consequential "blowback" of all.