THE MYTH OF AQI….Who’s responsible for the violence in Iraq? According to George Bush, the most dramatic and destabilizing attacks come from al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group supposedly responsible for the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samara last year and for a spectacular truck bomb attack in Tal Afar five months ago. This view of AQI’s unique lethality is widespread, but what if it’s mistaken? What if AQI wasn’t responsible for either of those attacks? And what if AQI is nowhere near as dangerous as everyone thinks?

Andrew Tilghman is a former reporter for Stars and Stripes who spent nine months embedded in Iraq in 2005-06. Since then he’s been investigating the role of AQI and has come to the conclusion that both its size and the scope of its operations have been systematically exaggerated for political reasons. His story, “The Myth of AQI,” is forthcoming in our October issue, but today we’re offering a sneak preview:

What if official military estimates about the size and impact of al-Qaeda in Iraq are simply wrong? Indeed, interviews with numerous military and intelligence analysts, both inside and outside of government, suggest that the number of strikes the group has directed represent only a fraction of what official estimates claim. Further, al-Qaeda’s presumed role in leading the violence through uniquely devastating attacks that catalyze further unrest may also be overstated.

….In a background briefing this July in Baghdad, military officials said that during the first half of this year AQI accounted for 15 percent of attacks in Iraq….Yet those who have worked on estimates inside the system take a more circumspect view….spectrum of estimates, ranging from 8 percent to 15 percent….But even the low estimate of 8 percent may be an overstatement.

….How big, then, is AQI? The most persuasive estimate I’ve heard comes from Malcolm Nance, the author of The Terrorists of Iraq and a twenty-year intelligence veteran and Arabic speaker who has worked with military and intelligence units tracking al-Qaeda inside Iraq. He believes AQI includes about 850 full-time fighters, comprising 2 percent to 5 percent of the Sunni insurgency. “Al-Qaeda in Iraq,” according to Nance, “is a microscopic terrorist organization.”

….The view that AQI is neither as big nor as lethal as commonly believed is widespread among working-level analysts and troops on the ground. A majority of those interviewed for this article believe that the military’s AQI estimates are overblown to varying degrees. If such misgivings are common, why haven’t doubts pricked the public debate?

Now, obviously AQI isn’t literally a “myth.” It exists. But amidst all the debate over violence levels, security benchmarks, and political progress in Iraq, the one thing that hasn’t been questioned until now is the military portrayal of AQI’s oversized, almost mythic role in sustaining the insurgency — as well as its political role as the last big argument for keeping U.S. troops in the country. Today Tilghman does just that. Read his whole piece to find out how and why it happened.

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