September 27, 2005

The Beslanization of Insurgent Tactics

Sabrina Tavernise:

Armed men dressed as police officers burst into a primary school in a town south of Baghdad on Monday, rounded up five Shiite teachers and their driver, marched them to an empty classroom and killed them, a police official said.

Classes had just finished for the day at the Jazeera primary school in Muwelha, a Sunni Arab suburb of Iskandariya, when the gunmen entered the building at 1:15 p.m., forced the six men into the room and shot them dead.

The killings took place while some children were still at the school.

In the past, teachers have rarely if ever been singled out, and this attack raised fears that Iraqi schools, largely unprotected, could become targets. But the killings appeared to have been motivated more by sectarian hatred than any animosity toward the profession, said the official, who identified himself as Capt. Abu al-Hars.

He said the gunmen were disguised Sunni Arab fighters. Shiite civilians of all types have been victims of insurgent attacks in recent weeks...

...The attackers "are only animals - their only culture is of bloodshed," said Abdul Hassan Adaiy, a Shiite teacher at the Sajad primary school in Karbala, south of Muwelha, who said he feared that a precedent might have been set.

Teachers have largely been spared the violence that has struck at other occupations, including doctors, police officers and soldiers. Like members of other professions, they have gained since the American-led invasion, with salaries rising to several hundred dollars a month, up from less than $20 under Mr. Hussein.

There are few things lower than assassinating schoolteachers, particularly in proximity to young children. But these are the tactics of our savage enemy. Of course, such actions certainly won't win any hearts and minds. And with Sistani restraining movement towards wide-scale reprisals, the strategy hasn't succeeded in stoking a civil war yet either. And, yes, we are making progress on train and equip, on some counter-insurgency operations in Anbar. But might it be too little too late? I mean what, really, did the recent campaign in Tal Afar accomplish? Yes, for now, al-Qaeda and allies have been denied a sanctuary in the city (funny how so few feting the offensive advised us it had become one!). There has been some decent intel picked up, and networks have been disrupted (if just for a little while). But so many of the insurgents fled the city (not enough troops to truly cordon the entire area--the manpower problem that has plagued this invasion from the get-go), and while some Iraqi units performed ably, U.S. military leaders on the ground are worried about the deep sectarian fissures such operations reveal. Put differently, are we training an army that will disintegrate in sectarian tension? And how much you wanna bet we'll have to be back in Tal Afar in just a few months regardless?

So, no, victory is not yet assured, and that is not a position the sole superpower should find itself in now nearing three years into a war effort. How did we get here? In large part, because too many of our leaders assumed a "cakewalk." The grim reality is they were abysmally ignorant of the historic dynamics of Iraq, and many of them remain in power and continue to play Pangloss, as do their willing enablers in the media and blogosphere. Of course, a Kerry victory would have meant a speedy withdrawal from Iraq. Anyone who read the tea-leaves, with judiciousness and integrity, well understood that 'phased withdrawal' would have started quite quickly indeed in a Kerry administration, with some 'decent' interval and mostly faux linkage to 'conditionality'.

At least Bush is sticking it out. After all, of course, it would be much easier for him to pull the plug, would it not, in the face of difficult polling numbers? But simply 'staying the course' isn't good enough either--particularly in the face of an insurgency that remains quite resilient and adapts. Why not face these realities full-square, and think about how how, just maybe, all isn't going as swell as some claim in Anbar Province, say, or for that matter, in Baghdad and Mosul? More realistic appraisals of the situation on the ground, rather than perma-spin, would perhaps help lead to new strategies, and might not this be welcome? I took a stab at outlining one a few days back which, while far from perfect and open to all kind of criticism, at least acknowledges that we are much further from our Iraq goals than many of our leaders let on. Why is this some blasphemous crime for so many?

Meantime, the ICG is out with a new report. They share some of B.D.'s previously stated concerns re: the constitution-drafting process:

Instead of healing the growing divisions between Iraq's three principal communities -- Shiites, Kurds and Sunni Arabs -- a rushed constitutional process has deepened rifts and hardened feelings. Without a strong U.S.-led initiative to assuage Sunni Arab concerns, the constitution is likely to fuel rather than dampen the insurgency, encourage ethnic and sectarian violence, and hasten the country's violent break-up.

At the outset of the drafting process in June-July 2005, Sunni Arab inclusion was the litmus test of Iraqi and U.S. ability to defeat the insurgency through a political strategy. When U.S. brokering brought fifteen Sunni Arab political leaders onto the Constitutional Committee, hopes were raised that an all-encompassing compact between the communities might be reached as a starting point for stabilising the country. Regrettably, the Bush administration chose to sacrifice inclusiveness for the sake of an arbitrary deadline, apparently in hopes of preparing the ground for a significant military draw-down in 2006. As a result, the constitution-making process became a new stake in the political battle rather than an instrument to resolve it.

Rushing the constitution produced two casualties. The first was consensus. Sunni Arabs felt increasingly marginalised from negotiations beginning in early August when these were moved from the Constitutional Committee to an informal forum of Shiite and Kurdish leaders, and have refused to sign on to the various drafts they were shown since that time. The text that has now been accepted by the Transitional National Assembly, in their view, threatens their existential interests by implicitly facilitating the country's dissolution, which would leave them landlocked and bereft of resources.

The second casualty was the text itself. Key passages, such as those dealing with decentralisation and with the responsibility for the power of taxation, are both vague and ambiguous and so carry the seeds of future discord. Many vital areas are left for future legislation that will have less standing than the constitution, be more vulnerable to amendment and bear the sectarian imprint of the Shiite community given its likely dominance of future legislatures.

On 15 October 2005, Iraqis will be asked, in an up-or-down referendum, to embrace a weak document that lacks consensus. In what may be the worst possible outcome, it is likely to pass, despite overwhelming Sunni Arab opposition. The Kurdish parties and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have a proven ability to bring out their followers, and the Sunni Arabs are unlikely to clear the threshold of two thirds in three provinces required to defeat it. Such a result would leave Iraq divided, an easy prey to both insurgents and sectarian tensions that have dramatically increased over the past year.

The U.S. has repeatedly stated that it has a strategic interest in Iraq's territorial integrity but today the situation appears to be heading toward de facto partition and full-scale civil war. Options for salvaging the situation gradually are running out. Unfortunately, it is now too late to renegotiate the current document before the 15 October constitutional referendum or to set it aside altogether, postpone the referendum and start the process afresh with a new, more representative parliament following new legislative elections. The best of bad options having evaporated, all that may be left is for the U.S. to embark on a last-ditch, determined effort to broker a true compromise between Shiites, Kurds and Sunni Arabs that addresses core Sunni Arab concerns without crossing Shiite or Kurdish red lines. [emphasis added]

Now, perhaps it wasn't fair of the authors of the ICG report to strongly intimate the constitutional deadline was a function of an American desire to draw-down, come what may, by '06 (see the bolded section above). After all, if we hadn't imposed a deadline, the bickering could go on for months upon months with perhaps no constitutional draft in the offing either. But still, it's certainly worth mulling over. More on this soon.

MORE, from footnote 22 in the ICG report:

U.S. officials were adamant that the drafters should not avail themselves of the six-month extension permitted by the TAL. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, for example, declared at the end of July: "We don't want any delays [in the constitutional process]. They're simply going to have to make the compromises necessary and get on with it". Quoted in Eric Schmitt, "Iraq gets blunt talk from Rumsfeld", International Herald Tribune, 28 July 2005. An independent Kurdish drafter told Crisis Group: "We, the members of the Constitutional Committee, demanded a one-month delay. But Human Hamoudi [the committee chairman] said we had to finish on time. The political leaders all want to get it done on time. They are following American orders. Bush, you see, is waiting on the phone". Crisis Group interview with Mahmoud Othman, Baghdad, 15 August 2005. Another drafter, Raja Habib Khuza'i, said that in mid-July, just after Sunni Arabs had joined the drafting committee, there was a growing call for extending the drafting process, especially from UIA members: "This was the first time that so many people were calling for it". Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 13 July 2005

Look, it was always going to be exceedingly complex to manage the ascension of the Shi'a, with the concomitant reduction of Sunni primacy (in effect for decades if not centuries). Six months more was not some magic panacea, and the strategy of pushing the parties along isn't non-sensical at all. Still, the ICG report is worth reading in its entirety. Again, if you believe that democratization in the Middle East is a major American priority and generational committment--and that civil war in Iraq could deal death blows to this vision--why the big rush?

Posted by Gregory at September 27, 2005 03:13 AM | TrackBack (1)
Comments

Let me get this straight. You're arguing that things are failing because, with US casualties way down, the Iraqi Army taking over more and more operations, and the major Shi'a religious figure explicitly saying that Iraqis shouldn't let outsiders lose them the progress they're making, you figure a radical change is needed because the remnants of the "insurgents" couldn't do anything more strategic than massacre unarmed carpooling schollteachers?

Have you taken your temperature lately?

Posted by: Charlie (Colorado) at September 27, 2005 04:26 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I think Mr. Djerejian is mostly right here. Yes, as others have pointed out, the insurgents are increasingly reduced to small-scale crime; but they are still capable of a sustained campaign of assassination, and it is not clear how to stop them (short of ethnic cleansing). So their weakness is real, but maybe not enough.

I wouldn't be so facile about "media enablers", however. One thing we are seeing is that the portion of the media opposed to the war effort has an utter contempt for depth and context, and has in turn earned the contempt of the administration's decision makers. There's a famous quote from Bill Cosby: "I don't know the secret to success, but the secret to failure is trying to please everybody." Why (politically) should the administration even acknowledge the complaints of media voices that will never be mollified by any change? Why (realistically) should their opinions and programs be weighted over those of the Pentagon, which at least has unbroken reporting lines up from its troops on the ground?

Posted by: sammler at September 27, 2005 09:53 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I'm endlessly amused when clear-thinking conservatives (such as BD) who still feel compelled to insert something like this:

"Of course, a Kerry victory would have meant a speedy withdrawal from Iraq. Anyone who read the tea-leaves, with judiciousness and integrity, well understood that 'phased withdrawal' would have started quite quickly indeed in a Kerry administration, with some 'decent' interval and mostly faux linkage to 'conditionality'. "

No matter how scathing their criticism of the Bush administration, it is still necessary to "read the tea-leaves" and conclude that the situation would inarguably have been worse under Kerry.

My take is that voting for (or endorsing) Mr. Bush and then continuing to witness the incompetence combined with his trampling of conservative ideals causes a disconnect that must be rationalized. Hence, the mantra "Kerry would have been worse. Kerry would have been worse."

Posted by: FortuneTeller at September 27, 2005 03:06 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Amen to that, FortuneTeller!

Just yesterday, I again said goodbye to a friend returning to Iraq after his two weeks on leave. The men under this 19-year Army veteran's command find and defuse IED's. Four have been killed in the past five months. He described insurgent tactics and weapons that are becoming more sophisticated and more lethal not more desperate and mindless.

He summed it up pretty simply: "Give the order and the Army could win this thing in 30 days. Otherwise, what are we doing here?"

I enjoy visiting and reading BD. Being anything but a policy expert, I usually keep my thoughts to myself. However, if progress is measured by fewer soldiers and more teachers being massacred, then we're all running a wicked fever Charlie.

Posted by: Eel Pie at September 27, 2005 03:58 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Kerry repeatedly promised to do worse; should we not have believed him? It would be the rankest wishful thinking to believe that a President Kerry would be anything other than what his public record showed.

Posted by: sammler at September 27, 2005 04:59 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Hi -

The German magazine Spiegel has an interview with Andre Glucksmann that also touches upon Beslan and the role that hate plays in terrorism. I haven't been able to find an English translation, but do cover it in my blog at

http://21stcenturyschizoidman.blogspot.com/2005/09/something-positive-in-der-spiegel.html

where I don't translate it, but do comment on it. I think that he's spot on: we're dealing not so much with terrorists driven alone by hate of the US, but as well a collapse of the traditional societies that ordinarily wouldn't have let such hate as you can see in the incident that is mentioned here develop at all.

John

Posted by: John F. Opie at September 28, 2005 05:22 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

When was the last time we heard the SAME EXACT complaints? Right, in January. "What's the rush?" "Why not put the elections off for just a little while?"

The complaints were wrong then. And the complaints are wrong now. The most important thing is to keep moving forward - the constitution was not going to be perfect no matter how hard we tried or how long was spent on it. No constitution is ever perfect. It can be amended. It can even be replaced. We've got a good-enough constitution for now - let's see if the Iraqis can use it to resolve most problems peacefully. If there is a problem, then we change it. But we've got to keep moving forward.

Posted by: Reggie at September 28, 2005 07:01 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

When was the last time we heard the SAME EXACT complaints? Right, in January. "What's the rush?" "Why not put the elections off for just a little while?"

The complaints were wrong then. And the complaints are wrong now. The most important thing is to keep moving forward - the constitution was not going to be perfect no matter how hard we tried or how long was spent on it. No constitution is ever perfect. It can be amended. It can even be replaced. We've got a good-enough constitution for now - let's see if the Iraqis can use it to resolve most problems peacefully. If there is a problem, then we change it. But we've got to keep moving forward.

Posted by: Reggie at September 28, 2005 07:01 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I find it disqueting that you can refer to Beslan and to this most recent outrage and continue to call these scum "insurgents" rather than terrorists plain and simple

Exactly what are they "insurging" for here?

Is there some reason we have to avoid the T word when speaking about these animals?

Posted by: Pogue Mahone at September 28, 2005 09:26 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

This seems to me to be part of the problem with Iskandariya more than anything nation wide. After all, the last couple of months there have seen an assasinated mayor, this atrocity, and a generally high level of violence. Ditto the western Euphrates valley.

Posted by: Andrew Reeves at September 29, 2005 01:22 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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