BEATING AL-QAEDA….Andrew McCarthy, in a furious polemic over at NRO, lashes out at George Bush for his inability to convince the American public that Iraq really is the central front in the war against al-Qaeda. Even Democrats, he says, know it’s true in their heart of hearts:

That’s because, (1) whether or not they actually believe it, top Democrats keep saying we should be fighting al Qaeda, and (2) al Qaeda, like it or not, is in Iraq — massed, determined and deadly. It is the enduring failure of the administration that it cannot seem to make Americans see these two stark realities.

Iraq: The place where jihadists commit the latest atrocity hard on the last. Iraq: The “capital of the Caliphate,” as Osama bin Laden has called it, further describing it as the center of the “third world war … a war of destiny between infidelity and Islam.” Iraq: The site of the battle bin Laden aptly says will end either “in victory and glory or misery and humiliation.”

McCarthy goes on in this frothy vein for over a thousand more words, but it’s woefully insubstantial stuff. The fact that Osama bin Laden is delighted that the Iraq war has helped his recruiting effort is hardly a persuasive reason for us to stay there and continue to help him out.

In fact, there’s a dirty little secret of the Iraq war that neither party is eager to acknowledge publicly: namely that the fastest way to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is probably for us to leave and let the Iraqis do it themselves. Republicans don’t want to acknowledge this for the obvious reason: they want to stay in Iraq and this doesn’t help their cause. Democrats, I suspect, also don’t want to talk too much about this, but for a different reason: because it tacitly condones the reason the Iraqis can do a better job than us of stamping out AQI. It’s not just that Iraqis know their own neighborhoods better than us (though that’s part of it), but that when it comes to exterminating AQI Iraqis would almost certainly be far more brutal about it than Americans. That’s not really a subject anyone wants to bring up in polite company.

But that doesn’t make it any less true. If we leave Iraq, the country is unlikely in the extreme to become an al-Qaeda haven. Partly this is because it’s rage at the American presence itself that provides a big part of the fuel for AQI’s growth. Our withdrawal would eliminate that source of rage and devastate AQI’s ability to continue its recruiting. Partly it’s because, as we’re seeing in Anbar province right now, even Sunni extremists don’t like AQI. Left to their own devices they’ll kill off AQI jihadists in order to protect their own tribal turf. And partly it’s because once we withdraw, non-Kurdish Iraq will be free to finish its inevitable transition into a Shiite theocracy — a transition that’s sadly unavoidable whether we stay or not. Yes, this transition will be bloody, but in the end Iraq will almost certainly be composed of the Kurdish north, which has no use for al-Qaeda; the remaining Sunni sheikhs, who also have no use for al-Qaeda; and the victorious Shiite central government itself, which likewise has no use for murderous Sunni jihadists on its soil. Between the three of them, AQI isn’t likely to last a year.

Of all the reasons for staying in Iraq, a desire to finish off AQI is by far the least convincing. It’s our presence that largely keeps AQI going, and our withdrawal is the surest way to ensure their demise. It won’t happen without a lot of bloodshed, but it will happen.

NOTE: For the purposes of this post I’ve skirted the question of whether AQI is really al-Qaeda in the first place. For the time being, I’m agnostic on that question.

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