The gist of the story is that, indeed, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has formed a real alliance with Osama bin Laden in Iraq, and that the alliance is likely to have broader significance outside Iraq.
One of the weird justifications of the war by some of our true believers is known as the "flypaper" theory, which is the idea that because we're fighting The Terrorists abroad, we won't have to fight them at home. Which would be a dandy idea if The Terrorists were a finite group of enemies with no ability to recruit new participants. The "flypaper" part being that Iraq is attracting The Terrorists like flypaper.
At its best, the "flypaper" theory is one more misapplication of conventional war thinking to a guerrilla war situation. In a regular army, if you decimate a certain number of the enemy's soldiers, you're reducing his capability to fight. At it's worst, it's just a mindless rationalization, since the official reasons for the war - WMDs and Saddam's alleged ties to anti-American terrorists - turned out to be bogus.
And there's little question that there are foreign terrorists/jihadists coming into Iraq to fight. Since Rumsfeld's Pentagon can't come up with any kind of consistent estimates on how many active insurgents there are, it's hard to speculate about how many of them may be foreign as opposed to Iraqi. The article quotes Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside Al Qaeda (2003), as saying that Bin Laden and Zarqawi have been able to subordinate their previous differences out of a common strategy of targeting the US. Gunaratna says that Zarqawi's role in Iraq ""now makes him the de facto operational head of the Al Qaeda movement, not the Al Qaeda group, worldwide.'' But "Al Qaeda movement," he apparently means what I usually refer to as the jihadist movement.
It sounds like Al Qaeda and the jihadists also see a flypaper effect at work. And they may well see it as working in their favor:
"There's no doubt that Iraq has become a major battleground for the global jihad movement, which is composed of many different autonomous groups of which Al Qaeda is but one component,'' says M.J. Gohel, director of the Asia Pacific Foundation, a security think tank in London.
"Iraq is one place in the planet where they can hit very directly at US interests and with much tragic success, so naturally bin Laden wants a piece of the action. He's happy to give his blessings to [Zarqawi], who has operational capabilities in Iraq that Al Qaeda doesn't have, and expand his franchise in this way,'' says Mr. Gohel.
Gunaratna expects that the role of Islamist fighters, both foreign and local, will continue to rise in Iraq in the years ahead, mirroring the evolution of the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In the first few years of the conflict, there was only a trickle of foreign fighters into Afghanistan, but that accelerated as the war dragged on.
He says that more and more Muslims from the Middle East and Europe are seeking to fight in Iraq, and that Al Qaeda is seeking to position itself to integrate these fighters into its broader vision of a jihad against all American interests, not simply limited to the specifics of Iraq.
And we shouldn't forget that "Afghanistan" is not just a metaphor. We have 13,000 troops on the ground in the real Afghanistan, the last I heard.