By Ted Galen Carpenter
"The notion of al Qaeda using Iraq as a sanctuary is a specter -- a canard that the perpetrators of the current catastrophe use to frighten people into supporting a fatally flawed, and seemingly endless, nation-building debacle."
In his State of the Union Address last Tuesday, President Bush warned that if the U.S. fails in Iraq, al Qaeda will gain a safe haven from which to launch attacks against America. It is an argument that the President, other members of the administration, and neoconservative hawks have been using for years.
In late 2005, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld warned that al Qaeda leaders "would turn Iraq into what Afghanistan was before 9/11 -- a haven for terrorist recruitment and training and a launching pad for attacks against U.S. interests and our fellow citizens."
Despite such scare mongering, it is highly improbable that al Qaeda could use Iraq as the kind of safe haven it enjoyed in Afghanistan. There, the organization had the protection of an entrenched, friendly government, which it will not have in Iraq. Al Qaeda also had a much larger force in Afghanistan -- an estimated 18,000 fighters. Even the U.S. government concedes that there are fewer than 2,000 al Qaeda fighters in Iraq, and the Iraq Study Group put the figure at only 1,300.