September 29, 2005

Mono-Narratives on Iraq

Go read this blogger for a glass half-full chronicling of the real pressure al-Qaeda and affiliates have faced in Iraq of late. We can commend and appreciate his dutiful blogging on this score, but one can't help wonder, is he serving up something of a mono-narrative? To wit:

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's network of al Qaeda-linked insurgents is emerging as a self-sustaining force, despite repeated blows by U.S. forces and the reported death of his second-in-command, U.S. intelligence officials and other experts say.

The Zarqawi network, responsible for some of the Iraqi insurgency's bloodiest attacks, has grown into a loose confederation of mainly native Iraqis trained by former Baath Party regime officers in explosives, small arms, rockets and surface-to-air missiles.

Since U.S. counter-insurgency assaults forced many of its operatives to exit Iraq's cities, counterterrorism officials say al Qaeda has been trying to set up a safe haven for training and command operations in western Anbar province.

"The suggestion is that this has shifted from being a terrorist network to a guerrilla army," said Vali Nasr, a national security affairs expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

"If this were not checked, the insurgents would become not only militarily more powerful, but politically more powerful. We're definitely trying to deny that milestone to Zarqawi."

U.S. military officials on Tuesday said they had killed Zarqawi's No. 2 in Iraq, an operative identified as Abu Azzam. Al Qaeda did not verify the U.S. claim.

But intelligence officials said the death of Zarqawi himself would not mean al Qaeda's defeat in Iraq, partly because he has ceded authority over day-to-day operations to regional commanders and tribal leaders who operate according to his strategic guidelines.

"If he died in the cause, that's huge. That's what everybody wants. Then he's a giant figurehead and everybody can do something in his name," one intelligence official said.

"He has enough force in place to sustain operations," the official added. "Al Qaeda in Iraq ... regenerates very quickly. You knock off a guy who's in charge in a certain area, another person steps into the gap."

Zarqawi's network, believed to consist of 2,000 to 5,000 hardcore fighters and an equal number of active supporters, represents 10-15 percent of the Iraq insurgency in numbers of fighters, officials say.

Defense and counterterrorism officials said Zarqawi's insurgents have recently been joined by elements of Jaish Mohammad, a 4,000-member insurgent group loyal to Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime. The addition gives Zaraqwi new tactical skills inside Baghdad, a defense official said.[emphasis added]

Some quick takes. Does the blogger address the possibility that al-Qaeda in Iraq, particularly through its tactical alliances with outfits like Jaish Mohammad, may be more self-sustaining that he appears to let on with his alluring charts of myriad ensnared leadership cadres? As for the reporting in the linked Reuters piece stating that al-Qaeda may be trying to reconstitute itself in western Anbar in more of a guerrilla guise, I do espy some good news on this score despite the article's more negative spin. al-Qaeda and friends do appear to be under more pressure in places like Tal Afar and Mosul, and thus are needing to find safe havens further removed from such key strategic locales. Nor, with threats of beheadings in these remote hamlets, do I think they are winning much by way of hearts and minds in far western Anbar. This said, there is something to the argument that Zarqawi's network is increasingly local Iraqi rather than foreign jihadist, and might be able to make a play in certain areas for more 'guerrilla' type standing (of which more later). Also, I strongly suspect the operational defeats that have been reportedly dealt them in places like Baghdad, Mosul, Ramadi, Samarra (click through for a story on this last town) have been quite over-stated by some. For instance, the blogger I linked above writes: "Today, Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit and other towns along the eastern branch of the Euphrates River are under Coalition control [with the exception of Haditha, whose status is unclear]." Sorry, but that's just not true (or perhaps it depends on what the meaning of "control" is?), as this Army Times story makes clear. I could go on, but you get my point, no? People are busily constructing the narratives they want to believe in, often conveniently glossing over ugly realities. It's the POTUS bubble exported out to gullible blogospheric readers, many of whom are evidently all excited that WWIV is afoot and they can drop comments in cool blogs full of sexy, jingo-talk about operational tempo and insurgent kill ratios and such (and no, I'm not talking about Roggio's site here, which is more credible than many)--but it's certainly not contributing to educating policymakers about the situation on the ground in any serious fashion.

Meantime, many have gotten all in a tizzy about the latest Zarqawi right-hand man to get nabbed, an Abdullah Abu Azzam. Look, doubtless this guy was a ruthless killer responsible for significant carnage. But this wasn't Zarqawi's right hand man consiglieri-for-life etc. I mean, if this guy was such a big swinging dick, why the hell did we only have a 50K price on his head (compare that to 25MM for Zarqawi!)? Let's cool down, yes? The U.S. Army is performing noble work (apart from the odious minority of troops abusing prisoners and sending around jpegs of dead prisoners to porn sites, that is) hunting down these nihilistic thugs. Azzam was a middle to large-sized fish, and it's good we got him (better if we'd gotten him alive, of course).

But let's keep a lid on the hype, as if we're desparate for good news of something, and stay sober. In this vein, where are the big boys? Where is Bin Laden? Seriously. I live 6 blocks north of Ground Zero and think about that almost every day. Ditto Zawahiri. And, yes, Zarqawi too. Where are the king-pins? Why is our President reduced to hyping the capture of one of the many lieutenants of a Jordanian born terrorist scum? As Isikoff and Hosenball [ed. note: You still angry at me Mark?] report:

...veteran counterterrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann said today there are ample reasons to question whether Abu Azzam was really the No. 2 figure in the Iraqi insurgency. He noted that U.S. officials have made similar claims about a string of purportedly high-ranking terrorist operatives who had been captured or killed in the past, even though these alleged successes made no discernible dent in the intensity of the insurgency.

“If I had a nickel for every No. 2 and No. 3 they’ve arrested or killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’d be a millionaire,” says Kohlmann, a New York-based analyst who tracks the Iraq insurgency and who first expressed skepticism about the Azzam claims in a posting on The Counterterrorism Blog. While agreeing that Azzam—also known as Abdullah Najim Abdullah Mohamed al-Jawari—may have been an important figure, “this guy was not the deputy commander of Al Qaeda,” says Kohlmann.

Three U.S. counterterrorism officials, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, also told NEWSWEEK today that U.S. agencies did not really consider Abu Azzam to be Zarqawi’s “deputy” even if he did play a relatively high-ranking role in the insurgency.

The characterization of Abu Azzam as No. 2 to Zarqawi is “not quite accurate,” said one of the officials. According to this official, it would be more correct to describe Abu Azzam as a “top lieutenant” to Zarqawi who was involved in “running” terrorist operations in Baghdad—not all of Iraq. Other top lieutenants operate in other parts of the country, the official indicated.

Two other officials agreed that Abu Azzam was a senior figure, perhaps the emir (leader), of Al Qaeda operations in Baghdad, and that he was of critical importance in moving funds to insurgent operatives in the Iraqi capital area. “He’s a money guy,” one official said. “He is significant but not No. 2 [to Zarqawi],” said another official.

Look, check this list out. Again, we were offering 50 grand, a pittance, for his capture. And now it's like we've caught UBL himself or something. Forgive me if I have to call BS. TCR, keep that 'trusted lieutenant' watch goin'....looks like you're gonna be busy for a while..

UPDATE: According to the Fourth Rail this town is under "coalition control." Again, sorry to be a party-pooper, but it just doesn't appear so...

Posted by Gregory at September 29, 2005 02:46 AM | TrackBack (17)

I haven't come to this site in a year, but it's nice to see that Greg has changed so much from being a knee jerk cheerleader of Bush's historically and politically illiterate policies in Iraq to a man who's trying to extricate himself from the rapidly spiralling situation over there without looking like he's completely recanting everything.

Reality bites, I guess. Or just rats abandoning ship?

Am I wrong, or is the hush I sense from your readers also a sign that most of them have given up on playing at being intellectuals or chickenhawks and gone back to their depressing lives? I suppose it's nice that the war distracted them from their depressions and the mediocrity, for a while at least.

Till this time next year.

Posted by: John at September 29, 2005 04:15 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"People are busily constructing the narratives they want to believe in, often conveniently glossing over ugly realities."

I believe this applies equally well to you as to any other blogger, Greg. I dropped back on a whim to see if you had changed. But you haven't. It's still just knock everyone else. Does knocking everyone give you a sense of superiority?

At least Bill Roggio refers to press releases and newspaper articles and tries to make sense of them for his readers. Your intent in this blog seems to be to tell us just how smart you are (and we aren't).

Posted by: Marlin at September 29, 2005 05:23 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

What, you get taking cheap shots at Wretchard so now you're moving on to Roggio while the usual suspects in the comments yuk-yuk it up?

Recognizing that al-Qaeda in Iraq doesn't care to publish their membership statistics and group rosters, determining one's exact position in their hierarchy is more than a little murky. If you go back to all the press reports around the time of Zarqawi's alleged injuries, however, you'll find note of Abu Azzam being mentioned as a potential successor to Zarqawi and media reports claiming that he was responsible for the death of 1,000+ Iraqis. That makes it a Very Good Thing that he's taking a dirt nap now.

As for the ramifications of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Baathist Jaish Mohammed hook-up, people like Bill, Wretchard, and myself have been arguing for upwards of a year now that Zarqawi was actively in cahoots with the Baathists and a lot of their old cadres had folded into his. Our views were widely rejected by many media reports and academic experts like the MESA president-elect at the time (as were our circa 2003 assessment that Zarqawi rather than Saddam and Co. were Public Enemy No. 1 as far as the insurgency was concerned) but appear to be gaining currency more and more these days, which is a good thing since in order to defeat an enemy you first have to understand who them. Still, we were arguing all those points for about 2 years now, just like we were arguing that Basayev's Chechens were in cahoots with bin Laden, that the Pakistani jihadi camps were a threat, ad infinitum. And yet when evidence to support these views airs it's somehow supposed to be proof that we aren't viewing the situation accurately.

As for where bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are, you know my public opinion on that as a neocon disinfo disseminator. Zarqawi, at last report, was somewhere in the Euphrates river valley. And if you think that Z-Man's worth 25 million, maybe you might want to keep tabs on his bosses, like Saif al-Adel, Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, Amer Azizi, et al, for whom far higher sums are being offered. But then how many of the realists even know who these people are without Googling?

So you'll forgive me for not accepting your characterization of the situation.

Posted by: Dan Darling at September 29, 2005 05:39 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Apologies, that first line should read "you get done taking cheap shots at Wretchard so now you're moving on to Roggio while the usual suspects in the comments yuk-yuk it up?"

Posted by: Dan Darling at September 29, 2005 05:40 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

dan you have no idea whether i am aware of Saif al-Adel, Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, Amer Azizi etc, and your constant reference to me as a 'realist' is becoming a parody. i suggest you calm down. i've been quite polite with bill roggio in this piece, and fail to see how it's a cheap shot ("commend and appreciate his dutiful blogging", "more credible than many"). ask bill if you think i've been rude. i doubt he does. but there are nettlesome facts. Bill, in his post, says Ramadi is under "coalition control." But it isn't, at least not convincing control as I see it (click thru the Army Times link above). My goal in this blog is to try to describe, as accurately as possible, how I view the situation in Iraq. Right now, I believe we are doing somewhat better than 2-3 months ago, but I still think we are roughly in a stalemate. By sketching out why I think so, I hope to have people think about strategic shifts that might enhance our chances of ultimate success. Contra this, when people suger-coat and describe things overly swimmingly, it leads to expectations of a quick pull out and such (most memorably, 'last throes') But we're not in the last throes Dan, and as much as Bill's blogging in indeed commendable, there are inaccuracies in it born of over-optimism (as there might be here born out of over-pessimism). But you have been increasingly aggressive with me, mischaracterized my position on Iran (it would be risible to push for a 'grand bargain' at this juncture) and frankly I'm not that interested in continuing the conversation.

As for your friend Wretchard, it's true I once linked Larry de rita's bio in a sarcastic reference to a Pentagon talking points post from Wretchard sounding government mouth-piecy, but I also spent considerable time rebutting him substantively on the merits (it was linked by Real Clear Politics, Sully, others). I've made my position clear, which is that Wretchard is in spin mode and simply isn't shooting straight in my view. In this medium, one sometimes makes broadsides and throws epingles in certain directions to make a point. i'm very sorry you find that so offensive, but it's not like you're paying for my rent by coming around, and that goes for all the other readers that have become so disgruntled. again, if you are unhappy here and dislike my style and my persona and my M.O.--well, don't come around.

look, no one wants to lose readers. and i like to be polite and constructive. have i been snarky to many? sure. do i regret some of it and have i apologized (most notably to yglesias)? yes. but life goes on, and the simple reality is that we haven't won the Iraq war (as Wretchard declared). Someone needs to respond to such claptrap, and the way i have tried to seems to have rubbed you the wrong way. I really sorry, but there it is.

Posted by: greg at September 29, 2005 06:14 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


The "realist" moniker is a parody, I thought that was clear from the get-go ...

Sorry if I'm more than a little snarky on this one Greg, but it looks to me like you're arguing (as you have on several occasions) that anyone who advances the position that things are going better in Iraq than you believe as living in what you have termed on several of these occasions as living in an over-optimistic bubble. That's certainly your right, but the line of argumentation that I draw from that (and one which I'm certain is going to echoed far less tactfully by your commenters) is that we're more or less divorced from reality because we disagree with your take on the situation there. One of the examples cited as proof of that was the lack of commentary on the al-Qaeda in Iraq/Jaish Mohammed hook-up, which really annoyed me given all the hard work that myself, Bill, and Wretchard have done on the inter-connections between the Baathists and al-Qaeda in the insurgency over the last year or so. So when one of the proofs of the bubble situation that's cited is something that we've done a lot of work on, here again you'll pardon me if I start seeing red.

As far as mischaracterizing your position on Iran goes, I immediately corrected that when it was pointed out to me and I believe the post is still up over RC if you're interested in looking at it.

As to the issue of me leaving, I appreciate you showing me the door and all but I think you'll also forgive me for not walking through it, especially since I find your take on detainee abuse to be far more tolerable than say, Sullivan's.

Posted by: Dan Darling at September 29, 2005 06:29 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Interesting back and forth above. I think one of the half full/half empty disputes you are trying to address is what is the definition of "control." I would argue (as I meant to the other day when you smacked down Hinderaker for putting quotes around the term "insurgents") that the important distinction is between an organized, goal directed group and what in an earlier day would have been termed brigands. Yes there are war lords, turf battles, kidnappings, vast amounts of money changing hands, etc.; but I do not see a coherent goal or plausible alternative to the govt that is getting stronger by the week. That's why I thought the Kevin Drum/Ignatius piece recently was so interesting. The killers are making life very uncomfortable, but they are not succeeding in fomenting civil war or overthrowing the elected authorities. In that sense the government is increasing it's "control" over these areas.

Posted by: wayne at September 29, 2005 01:29 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


You make much of the fact that Azzam had only a $50K pittance on his head while the big fish have so much more, ergo, he couldn't have been that important after all. Isn't the real story here that tips came in for this pittance, and maybe we have learned our lesson about the efficacy of throwing out bales of cash?

Posted by: wayne at September 29, 2005 01:35 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

We keep hearing carping that despite claims of successes, the US has "made no discernible dent in the intensity of the insurgency". This complaint is demonstrably false. The number of terrorist attacks has steadily declined over the past 12 months, the complexity of the attacks has decreaded, & the areas in which attacks occur has decreased. Is that not a discernible dent? I suppose it isn't discernible if you refuse to look at it.

Furthermore, the average age of the insurgents is dropping, & their experience in fighting is declining. Young fighters are being "promoted" to replace recently killed mid-level commanders, & then are quickly killed or captured themselves. Local tribal leaders are turning against the insurgents and provide intel to the US & Iraqis. Is that a sign of growing guerrilla force? No, it is not.

Speaking of mon-narratives, the recent Cordesman report on the insurgency concluded that some 5 % to 10% of the ENTIRE insurgecy is composed of foreign fighters. But the fact is, there are several insurgencies. The Shiite militias are almost entirely composed of Iraqis, with a few Iranian advisors. Similarily, the Ansar al Islam group is composed of Kurdish Islamists. This means the percentage of foreigners in the Zarqawi allied faction is greater than the average. The data the authors used came from the Saudi Intelligence service, so one should be suspect of the claim that Saudis comprise a much smaller percentage than previously asserted. Also, the data goes back to the beginning of the insurgency, so it does not indicate the CURRENT state of the insurgent forces. The commander of US forces in Tal Afar claimed the majority of insurgents captured or killed in recent operations there were foreigners.

It is quite true people will construct narratives that conform with predetermined views. To look at the real data & events from Iraq and to conclude that Zarqawi's forces are not weakened, but are in fact "morphing" into a stronger guerrilla force is to engage in a mono-narrative unsupported by any evidence.

Posted by: Kenneth at September 29, 2005 03:20 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Do you really disagree with this?:

"This does not mean that al Qaeda and the insurgency cannot conduct attacks within Baghdad and other major cities. They continue to do so, and will be a deadly foe for some time. But these attacks do not forward the goals of al Qaeda and the insurgency - driving the Americans from Iraq and destabilizing the Iraqi government. With without control of territory and safe havens within Iraq, conducting an effective insurgency becomes increasingly difficult, particularly for al Qaeda, whose brutality has been rejected by large swaths of the native insurgency. "

Posted by: liberalhawk at September 29, 2005 06:50 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The NYT article on Balad documents several bomb attacks in that city. Does that mean Balad is not under coalition control? If so, is Baghdad under coalition control? IIUC, being under coalition control does not mean that the terrorists/insurgents cant strike and do major damage.

Maybe the problem is the binary sense of "control" there are several possible states an a place can be in during an insurgency from secure govt control at one end, to secure insurgent control at the other. In between would be substantial govt control with insurgent activity, substantial insurgent control with govt activity, and evenly contested control.

It seems clear that Balad is substantially controlled by the govt with insurgent activity - is there evidence to the contrary.

and that was the point that Roggio was making - that several towns that recently had been under substantial insurgent control have shifted to substantial govt control.

Now clearly moving them to SECURE govt control will depend on more IRaqi troops, and on political progress.

While Roggio definitely gives a positive spin, i fail to see whats gained by calling his a metanarrative. But its your blog and you are of course free to call anything whatever you want. Just letting you know youre being a tad less than persuasive. (as is Roggio at times)

Posted by: liberalhawk at September 29, 2005 06:59 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

liberalhawk: the article i linked talks about 5 dead American soldiers in RAMADI today, not Balad. Roggio said Ramadi is under "coalition control". IT's not.

Posted by: greg at September 29, 2005 07:37 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg - the NYT article headlines the death of 40 plus Iraqis, which occured in Balad. It then goes on to discuss the deaths in Ramadi.

It does look like Ramadi is contested, though not under insurgent control. The sense on gets is that coalition troops can restore govt control at any point (and have been able to do so since the December 2004) but dont have the troops to do so everywhere simultaneously. In recent months, with the addition of Iraqi troops, they have the ability to control more places at once than they did in say, December, but they still have too few troops.

Now ive argued with Roggio on WOC about the proper metrics for the situation in Iraq, and the weakness of ones that focus on battles and body counts, which IMO are INPUTs, and which neglect the desired output, the establishment of security in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq. But given the general impression in the media (And the detailed articles in the WaPo, for ex, and its sister pub Newsweek are an honorable exception) and on the street here, which is simply "quagmire" Roggio and other 'glass half full" blogs are a useful balance.

It seems clear to me that, holding the political situation in Iraq constant, and assuming we "stay the course" we will win eventually. The situation on the ground is just a little better now than it was a few months ago, and that was a little better than December 04, etc - all up from the bottom in april 04. And yes, the growth of T&E Iraqi forces IS a hopeful sign (even if theres only one level 1 battalion, not 3) even if there arent YET as many sunni arab junior officers and NCOs as one would like. As for the political situation, well discussed in "constitutional wrangles" that presents both downside and an upside potential.

I guess some of the question is which you are more worried about - the admin withdrawing early and justifying it on polyannish optimism, or a peace movement forcing withdrawl out of cassandrish pessimism. My sense is that even if the admin talks polyanism, the real motive for withdrawl is the domestic politics, and theres pressure from there BECAUSE of the pessimism. Since I assume that the admin doesnt read blogs, but the broader public (or at least elements of it) do, I would suggest that pessimism is more of a risk than optimism.

Posted by: liberalhawk at September 29, 2005 10:02 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Note - Roggio has just put up a more detailed discussion of the situation in Ramadi - it acknowledges the contested situation, and is rather informative.

Posted by: liberalhawk at September 29, 2005 10:25 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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