08/01/2007 10:42 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

We're Heading for 'Blowback' in Iraq

The debate in Washington over whether the al-Qaeda
we're fighting in Iraq is the same al-Qaeda that
attacked us on 9/11 seems pointless. It assumes an
ideological and linear coherence to al-Qaeda that
doesn't exist. "It's not the same organization,"
Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda
and the Road to 9/11, told Jim Lehrer last month,
"[It's] not the same hierarchical, top- down
organization with the ease of training and so on that
it had in the past." As confirmed [pdf] by the recent
National Intelligence Estimate,
the overarching point remains: The war in Iraq has
only emboldened terrorists, not denuded them, whether
or not they classify themselves as al-Qaeda. Peter
Bergen and Paul Cruickshank of NYU's Center on Law and
Security label this "the Iraq effect" and estimate
that terrorist attacks worldwide have jumped
seven-fold annually since the 2003 invasion,
including those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The focus for U.S. foreign policymakers then should
be: How do we prevent those foreign fighters in Iraq
from leaving and sowing chaos elsewhere? A new
generation of Islamist extremists, much like their
predecessors who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan,
are cutting their teeth and picking up valuable and
deadly know-how. "The skills that those higher ranking
people in Iraq are getting are much higher than those
higher-ranking ones got in Afghanistan twenty years
ago," Brian Fishman, a senior associate at West
Point's Combating Terrorism Center, told me a few
months back. "In Iraq, they learn how to operate in an
urban environment without protection and how to
communicate effectively." As Senator Barack Obama
noted in a July 13 statement he slipped into the
Congressional Record, "The decision to authorize and
fight a misguided war in Iraq also created a new cadre
of experienced terrorists bent on the destruction of
the United States and our allies. The recent attacks
in Britain are likely only the beginning of an Iraqi
'blowback,' which may haunt us for years to come."
Bergen and Cruickshank agree. "Jihadists are already
leaving Iraq to operate elsewhere, a 'blowback' trend
that will greatly increase when the war eventually
winds down," they write in Mother Jones.

Indeed, there has been scant attention paid to what we
do once (if?) we bring some semblance of order in Iraq
to prevent this inevitable blowback to avoid
repeating the mistakes of the early 1990s, when
jihadists left Afghanistan to continue their cause in
places like Bosnia, Chechnya, and Sudan. This time
around, how will Iraq's neighbors react to the outflow
of foreign fighters crossing into their territories?
"The Syrians may not mind people going into Iraq, but
they may be more concerned about highly trained people
going out," says Fishman. Just as policymakers in
Washington ignored previous post-war game plans for
Iraq, they should heed warnings and begin preparing
for the day when Iraq looks normal but its
jihadists--flush with skills, weapons, and
cash--migrate elsewhere.