I was just reading Mary-Anne Weaver’s long profile of Abu Musab Zarqawi in the Atlantic Monthly and suddenly, the man gets himself killed in an airstrike. So, he’s dead. Good riddance, and this does seem like genuinely good news for Iraq, although I guess the smart thing to say is that his death won’t make a difference to the overall level of violence there. That’s what Weaver’s piece suggests. “If Zarqawi is captured or killed tomorrow, the Iraqi insurgency will go on,” according to a “high-level” Jordanian intelligence official.
That’s almost certainly right. The Sunni insurgency has mostly been run by Iraqis opposed to both the U.S. occupation and the prospect of Shiite rule of Iraq. Zarqawi played at best a supporting role. At one point, it seemed like Zarqawi’s willingness to engage in big, bloody attacks against Shiites was genuinely exacerbating what was then a nascent sectarian war in Iraq. Maybe he was making a real difference then. But nowadays that sectarian war isn’t so nascent anymore, and Sunnis and Shiites are capable of killing each other by the dozens each day without Zarqawi’s help. One can hope that getting rid of Zarqawi will change things, but it seems unlikely.
Meanwhile, over at TNR’s blog, Michael Crowley notes that some caller on the “Diane Rehm Show” wants to know how many civilians were killed in the raid. Seems like a fair question to me. There have been lots of airstrikes on “safe houses” thought to be harboring Zarqawi. Here’s a failed strike on an al-Qaeda safe house that left 40 dead last November. Here’s another one two years ago, on a wedding party, that left “40 dead, including children.” Another missed attempt at an al-Qaeda leader, possibly Zarqawi. And that’s just after a quick google search.
These all add up. Sure, it’s easy to say that there’s a moral difference between accidentally killing civilians while trying to track down mass murderers and the actual mass murderers themselves, but at some point the fact that we’re doing counterterrorism by dropping “precision-guided munitions” on lots and lots of houses across the country should make people realize that there’s not really a moral way to conduct this war. I guess that counts as insufficient cheerleading…
UPDATE: Steven Benen provides a bit of historical context, noting that the Bush administration had the opportunity to take out Zarqawi before the war, but needed him alive to preserve the fiction that Saddam Hussein was harboring terrorists. On the other hand, perhaps Zarqawi’s death will give the White House the excuse it needs to declare “victory” and start pulling troops out of Iraq.
MORE: Fred Kaplan’s piece on Zarqawi’s death is (as usual) quite good.