The Brookings Institution reports that there are only between 800-2,000 foreign fighters operating in Iraq. While it is theoretically possible that this small quantity of transnational terrorists is secretly orchestrating insurgent operations, the argument falls apart under closer scrutiny.
Terrorist groups like al Qaeda are decentralized entities - that's what makes them so hard to defeat. To suggest that a relatively tiny contingent of foreign fighters exercises coordinated command and control authority throughout Iraq (perhaps with bin Laden calling the shots from some Pakistani cave?) seems a bit too convoluted and conspiratorial in light of publicly available combat reports. Loosely organized cells alternating between cooperative and independent action is a more apt description of al Qaeda's capability in Iraq.
Die-hard foreign fighters undoubtedly represent the worst of the worst - picture obstreperous al Zarqawi clones - but the primary threat they pose is as intensifiers of preexisting violence, not some sort of all-star terror squadron capable of single handedly running the show.
The Bush administration has tied its defense of the war to the premise that Iraq is the "central front in the War on Terror." But a recent Program in International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) poll found that 94 percent of Iraqis hold an unfavorable view of al Qaeda, including an astonishing 77 percent of Sunnis, the main group from which al Qaeda draws its membership.
If foreign fighters comprise a small proportion of the insurgency and Iraqis abhor meddling terrorist groups like al Qaeda, isn't it logical to conclude that the War in Iraq is being fueled by Iraqis? The U.S. unleashed the bloodshed with its mismanaged invasion, but Iraqis themselves are perpetuating the violence. They may receive support or encouragement from foreign terrorists, but to suggest that they don't want to rebel - in other words, to assert that Iraqis are being manipulated into violence against their will - is a glaring misinterpretation of the evidence.
The War in Iraq is not bin Laden or al Qaeda's war - it's the Iraqis' war. Bin Laden may have labeled Iraq the new microcosm for global jihad, but the facts repudiate this claim as little more than typical fundamentalist blather.
The U.S. can't successfully extricate itself from Iraq by killing all the foreign fighters. To believe that Iraqis would shower us with respect and admiration if we simply eliminated all outside terrorist influences is absurd. While we can't allow Iraq to become the new staging ground for al Qaeda attacks on our homeland, the PIPA poll indicates that Iraqis wouldn't stand for an al Qaeda takeover even if we left tomorrow.
The U.S. is left with nothing but bad policy choices in Iraq, but naively believing that the War on Terror will be won or lost there simultaneously overstates the influence of foreign jihadists in Iraq while underestimating the long-term threat posed by global terrorism.