April 29, 2005

A Snapshot of the Insurgents in Iraq

Here's a useful summary of opinion about shifting tactics by the insurgency in Iraq, from the Council on Foreign Relations. It provides ammunition both for those who claim progress is being made and those who insist it isn't. Read the whole thing, as the saying goes.

Two questions: first -- and I apologize for inviting historical analogies, an overused tool in discussions about Iraq -- but what is the likely impact of (apparently) widely divergent objectives on the part of different groups of insurgents on the future of the insurgency? Second, at what point does the enthusiasm of some Sunnis for massacring Shiites become a factor in our relations with Iran?

Posted by at April 29, 2005 06:12 PM | TrackBack (3)
Comments

First, I don't think the reduction in attacks on American forces is all that significant. Insurgents attack vulnerable targets, and US forces are avoiding situations which make them vulnerable to attack.

The Sunni's are, of course, trying to start a civil war. But, since they are a distinct minority in Iraq, that doesn't make a lot of sense....unless...

If the Sunni's are thinking strategically, they see US forces as their eventual allies, because the people who would control the Shiite's in a civil war would be the religious leadership that is affiliated with Iran. The Sunni's would wind up representing the "good guys" in the war on fundamentist Islam (see below), and would eventually be returned to power.

The Zarqawi/al Qaeda faction has far larger goals. They are happy to support a civil war in Iraq because they believe it would spread throughout the middle east -- and acomplish two goals

1) the disruption of the oil supply to the USA, sending its economy into a long-term tailspin...

2) the replacement of "royal" regimes in the middle east with islamic fundamentalist regimes.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at April 29, 2005 11:00 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The article was informative, but also quite odd in that it focused on the U.S military and made hardly any mention of Iraqi security forces and how they are attacking the insurgents.

What makes me optimistic, long-term, is that over the last year the total number of insurgents seems to have stayed constant, while the number of trained and experienced Iraqi security force soldiers has skyrocketed. According to strategypage.com, they are getting very good at taking the war to the insurgents. There doesn't seem to be any way the insurgents can win, and from what I understand the Sunni's are becoming increasingly aware of this.

Posted by: Les Brunswick at April 30, 2005 01:01 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Outstanding point, Brunswick. See also :http://www.mnstci.iraq.centcom.mil/ for more on your contention.

RI Army now at 3 Divisions - and check out their SFs...http://www.mnstci.iraq.centcom.mil/facts_troops.htm

Posted by: Tommy G at April 30, 2005 02:36 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

What the CFR report fails to mention is that the terrorist attacks on US soldiers have resulted in devastating losses for the terrorists. The Abu Grhraib prison attack is estimated to have produced 75% fatalities for the attackers. US forces are deadly, and now very dangerous for terrorists to attack. The attack on the Syrian border post and the recent convoy also produced similar losses. US forces do not panic, expect to be attacked, and vigorously counter-attack, often with combined arms (air, artillery, etc).

With the likely loss of Syria as a safe outpost (the Assad regime needs better relations with the US after losing Lebanon as it's colony) the terrorists are limited to Iran and Saudi Arabia for men, equipment, and supplies. The Sunni Baathist elements aren't going to find US support, despite P. Luksiak's argument, since the US has clearly backed the Shia majority in the not unreasonable hope that majority rule (Shias are 60% of the population) moderated by federalism with the Kurds and Sunnis will result in stability, much more so than another Saddam. In a civil war the Sunnis will lose, since the US can seal off any outside support and they simply don't have the manpower or control of the Army. I would assume at some point internal fighting as elements of the Baathists come to terms with reality and try to make deals, while the true Islamic believers fight to the bitter end hoping God will send them a miracle.

Posted by: Jim Rockford at April 30, 2005 11:56 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Historically, internal conflicts in an insurgency become important if (and only if) the government can enlist some insurgent factions in legitimate politics. Because insurgents don't need to coordinate large-scale activities, insurgents who don't like each other are almost as draining on a government as insurgents who stick together. But if internal disaffection lets the government pull some groups out of insurgency altogether, that's usually a big step toward peace.

In the leftist insurgencies in both the Philippines (1947-55) and El Salvador (1980s), the insurgencies weakened enormously after honest elections started being held and former insurgent supporters could resort to the ballot box. On the other hand, the fact that many Afghan anti-Soviet guerrillas hated each other didn't help the Soviets that much during their 1980s struggle in Afghanistan. And in the Vietnam War, the fact that Buddhists and Communists didn't trust each other didn't keep them from both being a drain on the Diem regime's ability to call on support and resources from the population.

Likewise, in Iraq, it doesn't matter that al-Sadr and Zarqawi hate each other; what matters is whether al-Sadr's folk can be convinced to stay in legitimate politics. Guerrilla war often doesn't require central command. What matters is how many parts of the population are cooperating with some kind of anti-government violence, not which anti-government faction they like.

You might think we could set one faction on another, but that would just get us civil war... not exactly an improvement. So exploiting dissent and sowing distrust is useful but limited; seducing more folk into peaceful politics is much more powerful.

As far as Iran, it's complicated: they want the US tied down in Iraq, yet they don't want Iraq to become so disastrous as to make trouble for them, and they do sympathize with Iraqi Shiites. For Iran the definitive war experience was the disastrous Iran-Iraq War, and the mullahs really don't want to ever go there again. Also, the Iranian army is not loyal to the mullahs even though it is loyal to the state as a whole. That keeps Iran's leaders a lot shyer of open challenges than their counterparts in, say, Russia or China. Iran much prefers to work behind a polite smokescreen of diplomatese and legalese.

In a confusing situation, the usual reaction of the Iranian leaders has been to avoid dramatic steps, try to make friends with all sides, and play for time. They'll probably go on doing just that, with regard to Iraq as much as with their nuclear program, for as long as they can.

Posted by: Daniel Starr at May 1, 2005 12:17 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Guerrilla war often doesn't require central command. What matters is how many parts of the population are cooperating with some kind of anti-government violence, not which anti-government faction they like.

And then the old government collapses and the day of reckoning comes. Those leaders of the anti-Batista coalition who survived Castro's purge fled to Florida and have continued their efforts to bring democracy to their homeland.

Posted by: triticale at May 1, 2005 12:43 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I have to correct myself: there's one other reliable use for divisions among insurgents, even if you can't recruit them politically. That's to play them off so that one group gives you intelligence on another group they've had a falling out with. Sometimes you can even start a feud between two factions and get them betraying each other left and right -- the Soviets did this in a couple of cases in Afghanistan.

So, on a purely military-intelligence level, insurgent divisions are always useful. But that's a minor boost to your day-to-day operations, not a huge thing that converts a losing struggle to a winning struggle. It's the political recruitment of former insurgents that (if it happens) makes a war-winning difference in a struggle with guerrillas.

Posted by: Daniel Starr at May 1, 2005 04:03 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The likely impact of the divergent insurgent groups in Iraq, in the long-run, is that U.S. deaths from relentless ambushes, snipers fire and suicide bombings will wear down U.S. and "coalition forces" and create conditions that will cause public support in the U.S for the war to erode further. As the death toll continues to rise, and the crippled and maimed become more visible, citizens will demand that U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq. The only way that his doesn't happen is that the groups abandon guerilla tactics for conventional warfare, start fighting among themselves, forget their objective or lose the necessary support of Iraqis who provide them with logistic support.

And despite claims by American Forces Press Service that a Hotline established by U.S. occupation forces is "succeeding In foiling Iraqi insurgents," and boasts about the capture of dozens of insurgents, the insurgents attack at will both U.S. forces and those viewed as aiding them. Of course insurgents leaders and guerilla fighters, possibly including al-Zarqawi, will continue to be killed or captured in large numbers. Such fighters usually expect to be killed. It has been that way for centuries. If the Iraqi insurgency follows the standard insurgency blueprint new leaders and new guerillas will step forward. So will a political arm. It will send out feelers for negotiations. In fact, some groups seem to have already offered feelers although it is difficult to tell who they are. Such gestures usually cause some uniformed Americans to suggest that the insurgents are losing, and see the handwriting on the wall. That's not necessarily so. In fact, it's rarely the case. U.S. military leaders understand this although it seems to escape some politicians.

The U.S. will win the battles but won't win the war.

Finally, Mr. Britt asks, "at what point does the enthusiasm of some Sunnis for massacring Shiites become a factor in our relations with Iran?" Question: where is the evidence of "the enthusiasm" of some Sunnis for massacring Shiites? If a massacre occurs, how do you place a value such as "enthusiasm" on it? If there are massacres, what do they have to do with U.S.-Iran relations? If U.S. forces massacred Shias--and I don't know that they have or haven't--I could see that impacting U.S.-Iran relations. But not a Sunni-Shia fight unless Iran applies the "but for" rule, which, as those in law knows, means but for your actions, this wouldn't have happened.

Posted by: Munir Umrani at May 2, 2005 02:34 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

MU: Thanks for the comments, and the trackback to DTR. I have time right now only to respond to your second point, regarding Iran.

I've thought for some time that the American government has more options with respect to Iran than it has understood: options for recruiting intelligence sources, to exploit factional divisions within the Iranian clergy, even options with the most militant Shia Islamists, the very core of the regime in Tehran, whose ideology has rested on perpetual opposition to the United States but who must have noticed by now that Sunni Islamists in Pakistan as well as Iraq and some of the other Arab countries see Shia as heretics and worthy targets of violence.

There are Iranian clergy cynical enough to disregard this and maintain ties with Sunni Islamists with whom they share a hatred of the United States. But there are probably others whose anger at the persecution of their co-religionists is something we can use.

I don't have a road map for this, which was why I asked the question in my post. I just don't think it's realistic to think that the systematic targeting of Shiite Iraqis, using the most barbarous and indiscriminate tactics, by Sunni insurgents is not going at some point to produce a reaction.

As for the insurgents' enthusiasm you seem to doubt, let me speculate that most of the people planning suicide bombings in crowds or executing hostages enjoy their work. Let's not be sentimental about the kind of people who become insurgents, especially in a place like Iraq, the former government of which accustomed large numbers of men to habitual cruelty over the course of many years. When insurgencies win the governments they establish tend to be vicious and oppressive, and this is one reason why.

Posted by: JEB at May 2, 2005 08:43 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"The likely impact of the divergent insurgent groups in Iraq, in the long-run, is that U.S. deaths from relentless ambushes, snipers fire and suicide bombings will wear down U.S. and "coalition forces" and create conditions that will cause public support in the U.S for the war to erode further. As the death toll continues to rise, and the crippled and maimed become more visible, citizens will demand that U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq. The only way that his doesn't happen is that the groups abandon guerilla tactics for conventional warfare, start fighting among themselves, forget their objective or lose the necessary support of Iraqis who provide them with logistic support."

A (internal complications) leads to F? (US loses)...So what does A have to do with F?

Seperation within any insurgency is not a positive attribute, it is a weakness that can or cannot be exploited. The US may lose, but it won't be because of the resistance's divisions. If it wins, it might be because of them, however.

Posted by: Cutler at May 2, 2005 11:24 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

JEB and Cutler make great points in the debate at hand.

Posted by: Munir Umrani at May 3, 2005 03:53 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

If the insurgents were unified, we might manage to make a deal with them. Or we might kill off the top guys and discourage the rest.

But we can't make a deal, we can only hope to kill them until they finally mostly give up.

I've seen estimates that if we kill as little as 5% of the iraqi population that will be enough.

Posted by: J Thomas at May 5, 2005 02:01 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

A foreign occupation army that kills five percent of a population will make guerillas and guerilla supporters out a considerable portion of the remaining population. Not only that, such an army and its political leaders would likely be brought up on war crimes charges.

Keep in mind that, no matter how noble the stated intent of an occupying force, it is still an occupying force. Such a force always use killing, intimidation, torture, bribery and other means to maintain an edge. Insurgent groups use the same tactics. The difference is that they are not an occupying force. They are resisters whether the occupiers and their consituents back home like it or not.

Posted by: Munir Umrani at May 5, 2005 02:58 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

MU & JT - most probably, there is MUCH less than 5% or the entire population enganged in the terror activities. We as in US/UK/Coalition forces would not have to kill them all, either. More succinctly, not an "occupying force" whatsoever.

As the majority of the Iraqi people get tired of the constant unrest and as their internal security forces grow ever larger and better trained to strike against the insurgents, they, the general population, should take a increasingly active role in policing their own cities and quality of life. And the way that will happen is through information; odd behavior reported, strangers in neighborhood reported, etc., not through civilian warfare/guerilla actions.

This won't be an easy struggle for them....but the end result should be much better for the entire nation, PROVIDED the Iraqi people can and do in fact rise to the challenge before them, that of taking care of their own riff-raff.

Posted by: Bob C at May 6, 2005 01:46 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Bob C, I like your optimism.

Note though that 5% of the population would amount to 25% of the Sunni population. Maybe the iraqis will do that themselves so it won't be on our hands.

We've seen essentially no evidence yet that the iraqi security forces are ready to fight against iraqis under US command. But the whole thing would surely die down pretty quickly if we put the iraqi forces and coalition forces under iraqi command. Except, we won't. No way, no how. Given that, how is it you say we aren't an occupying force?

Posted by: J Thomas at May 6, 2005 03:37 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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