Questions to Ask About the Zarqawi Killing

Journalists may be tempted to do uncritical tick-tocks of what occurred prior to Zarqawi's killing, recap his life and deadly influence, and move on.
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The death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is, everyone seems to agree, unquestionably good news. No one needs reminding of all that he has done, but suffice it to say that he had on his hands the blood of US troops as well as innocent civilians in Jordan and Iraq, and that he was the leading figure in one significant component of the insurgency and violence that rages throughout Iraq today.

It is in times like these, however, when the country is in nearly unanimous agreement about the desirability of an action taken by the US government, that reporters may fail to ask some nagging and important questions. Getting caught up in the celebratory mood of the country is, to some degree, unavoidable -- particularly for the reporters stationed in Iraq, who have had to work in the violent conditions Zarqawi helped to create -- but there can be adverse consequences to this emotional involvement as well, in the form of dropped questions, missed opportunities, vulnerability to spin, and timidity in pursuing lines of inquiry that might place the American government and military in less than stellar light.

The problem is compounded by the fact that Zarqawi's death creates a sense of closure, as if one significant chapter in the history of the Iraq war has been definitively closed and we should direct our attention to the other challenges that lay ahead in Iraq. Journalists may be tempted to do uncritical tick-tocks of what occurred prior to Zarqawi's killing, recap his life and deadly influence, and move on. That temptation should be avoided, since there are sets of questions pertaining to Zarqawi that should be aggressively pursued by the people who cover the administration (whether White House or military correspondents).

What follows is a discussion of a few of those questions. Because this story has just been broken, this is not yet intended as criticism per se, but I think we all have an investment in seeing these issues probed in the weeks ahead.

Why was Zarqawi killed rather than captured?
According to the Times, reports from Iraqi villagers suggest that American forces on the ground may have exchanged fire with people in the house where Zarqawi was holed up prior to the bombings that ultimately killed him. Thus, the answer to the question of why Zarqawi wasn't captured may turn out to be very straightforward -- there was simply too high of a risk that large numbers of US troops would be killed, or that Zarqawi would yet again elude American forces -- but it is important nonetheless, for reasons that should be obvious.

I wrote above that Zarqawi's death was "unquestionably good news"; it was not, however, unquestionably the best news. As the head of a large segment of the insurgency, the potential intelligence value of Zarqawi could probably not be understated. The fact that people around Zarqawi appear to have turned on him by offering up information about his whereabouts suggests the military may be making notable intelligence inroads in at least certain parts of the insurgent elements in Iraq, but the operational details of the (formerly) Zarqawi-run operation are still shrouded in mystery. Indeed, as Professor Mohammed Hafez noted on the NewsHour, Zarqawi appears to have set up a highly decentralized network of cells that should be able to continue unimpeded in his absence. Zarqawi may not have offered intelligence on these networks or plans for impending acts of terrorism easily, but his death means there is no chance of that happening whatsoever.

It should be noted, incidentally, that while supporters of the Bush administration might deride the notion that Zarqawi might have been better off alive (and in our hands), the question of why Zarqawi wasn't captured is hardly an inherently partisan one. In fact, everyone should agree that this proposition is obviously true. I don't want to get sidetracked on debates about the administration's torture and detention policies, but readers are free to choose their preferred ending to the alternative storyline of a Zarqawi capture: Perhaps he would be interrogated in accordance with the Geneva conventions and put on trial (maybe with the result of a death sentence), or perhaps he would be locked up in a secret prison and tortured for intelligence.

Either way, whether Zarqawi's capture simply wasn't tactically viable or just wasn't pursued, reporters should try to get to the bottom of this issue.

Does the President regret not having killed Zarqawi when he was given the chance before the invasion of Iraq?
On three separate occasions before the start of the Iraq war -- in June 2002, October 2002, and January 2003 -- the White House was presented with plans for taking Zarqawi out, but all three times it declined to authorize them. NBC News reported in March 2004 that, according to military officials, "their case for attacking Zarqawi's operation was airtight, but the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam" (emphasis added, angrily). Though Condoleezza Rice, who was Bush's National Security Adviser at the time, denied the veracity of the report, the NBC story was later confirmed by The Wall Street Journal and Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA's Osama bin Laden unit. The results of the White House's seemingly inexcusable failure to kill Zarqawi, before he would go on to kill and maim US soldiers and Iraqis, were quite obviously disastrous.

To my knowledge, no one has asked Bush directly about this report and why, if it's true (as it appears to be), the White House did not kill Zarqawi when it had numerous chances to do so. The American people deserve an answer to this question from the President himself. In all likelihood, he will deflect the question, but that of course would be a story in itself. And if he answers it substantively, the result will be headline-worthy regardless of what he says ("Bush Regrets Failure to Kill Zarqawi Prior to Iraq Invasion," or "Bush Does Not Regret Killing Zarqawi Prior to Iraq War").

What's next?
The White House can be forgiven its willingness to take the day to make a victory lap, but while the press has so far been healthily (and rightly) skeptical of the idea that Zarqawi's death will slow the violence in Iraq, we have yet to get any sense from the White House of what America's next moves in Iraq are. This may seem like an obvious inquiry to pursue, but the increasing pressure to constantly produce breaking news has meant political reporting that focuses on broader questions and policy issues is all too often in short supply. Nowhere has this problem been more prevalent than in coverage of Iraq, where so much is constantly taking place that pauses for serious examination of our policy have been rare.

Indeed, for most of the last three years, the administration's strategy for victory in Iraq has seemed either to be nonexistent or seriously misguided, a problem that has no doubt fueled the increasing disapproval of war among the public. And despite the success in killing Zarqawi, everyone, including the President himself, grants that the violence in Iraq is unlikely to abate in the near term. (For the most thorough exposition of why this is the case, see Anthony Cordesman's report.)

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow was in an understandably good mood at his briefing yesterday, and the press was predictably (and again, understandably) trying to pin down details about Zarqawi's death, but some of the focus in the coming days needs to be on whether the administration has a larger plan for dealing with the insurgents and terrorists in Iraq. The questions should not stop with inquiries about potential troop reductions. Is there a strategy in place to deal with the potential infighting among Zarqawi's lieutenants to take his position? Does the US have any idea of how it will quell sectarian, militia-based violence (which, by pretty much all accounts, is the predominant cause of the turmoil in Iraq today)? Might there be overtures to any moderate groups previously aligned with Zarqawi that could be brought into the political process? I have my own suspicious about what the answers to those questions might turn out to be, but I'd still like to hear what the government and military have to say about them.

* * *

So far, the outpouring of reporting on the strike on Zarqawi has been impressive. In the weeks to come, however, it will be interesting to see whether the media steps out of the present and turns to the administration with the right questions about the past, as well as what lies ahead for the future.

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