The State of the Insurgency

How is the insurgency faring as a political entity, and what are their chances at defeating the democratically elected government and driving the Americans from Iraqi soil? Last weekend the New York Times published an article by James Bennett titled “The Mystery of the Insurgency” which asserts the Iraqi insurgency has no real political base and is making a grave mistake by dispensing violence alone. The entire article can be summarized in the second paragraph:

The insurgents in Iraq are showing little interest in winning hearts and minds among the majority of Iraqis, in building international legitimacy, or in articulating a governing program or even a unified ideology or cause beyond expelling the Americans. They have put forward no single charismatic leader, developed no alternative government or political wing, displayed no intention of amassing territory to govern now.

Mr. Bennett also looks at the various disparate groups fighting in Iraq, whose varied goals are often in conflict:

But insurgents in Iraq appear to be fighting for varying causes: Baath Party members are fighting for some sort of restoration of the old regime; Sunni Muslims are presumably fighting to prevent domination by the Shiite majority; nationalists are fighting to drive out the Americans; and foreign fighters want to turn Iraq into a battlefield of a global religious struggle. Some men are said to fight for money; organized crime may play a role.

I had considered writing about this article but begged off as I did not believe it added to anything stated here or elsewhere about the chaotic nature of the insurgency and how their lack of a unified political message bodes ill for their chance at attaining the goals of thwarting democracy and driving the US out of Iraq (my friend Chester can attest to this, we discussed this earlier in the week). A read through The Fourth Rail’s Iraq category will reveal numerous documentation on the brutality of al Qaeda against the local Iraqi population, how the insurgency has failed to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, the affects the election has had on the morale of the Baathist and indigenous elements of the insurgency, the fracturing of the insurgency amongst the various local and foreign fighters (al Qaeda), the will of the Iraqi people to fight back, the importance of Iraq shouldering its own security and how Iraqis continue to flock to join the fight against the insurgency, the successful operations carried out by Coalition forces, how Iraq is crucial to the War on Terror geographically and geopolitically, how the war in Iraq has drawn in al Qaeda and forced them to fight America on their own soil, and how al Qaeda is failing.

Last December I discussed how the insurgency somewhat resembled Che Guevara’ foco insurgency. At the end of April, Donald Sensing looked at the insurgency and asked if they were taking a page from the Cuban guidebook called Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla, written by Carlos Marighella, which I followed up in a post titled An Empty Insurgency. There is no such thing as perfect historical analogy but there are marked similarities between the Che/Marighella models of insurgency and what is occurring in Iraq.

Joe Katzman reminds me that I should indeed have addressed Mr. Bennett’s article, and provides roundup of the blogosphere’s reaction:

During and after Operation Matador in northern Iraq, Bill Roggio and I have been joking lately about “al Qaeda’s ‘hearts and minds’ strategy.” Whatever you may think of Allied abilities in this area, it’s becoming very clear that our enemies’ gift for pissing off the Iraqi population is extraordinary. Megan McArdle of Asymetrical Information has an interesting post chronicling just how extraordinary – their tactics are the exact opposite of conventional guerilla warfare’s requirements.

Heretical Librarian adds some relevant links, then offers a thought: “the terrorists feel betrayed.” Marginal Revolution chimes in with some thoughts on what the insurgency might be trying to do, drawing on game theory et. al… Dave Schuler of The Glittering Eye recommends it highly. His take on which of those goals fit the insurgency? “All of the above.”

Each of the posts Joe links to are well worth the read. Again, the lack of support for the terrorist’s tactics, and not car bomb attacks, are the real story in Iraq. This is a story the media cannot seem to grasp, except at the margins.

Another story that is marginalized by the media is the abject cruelty of al Qaeda in exploiting the weak. Strategy Page (May 19 update) reports that at least three suicide bombers had Down’s Syndrome (I posted about an incident during the election in Iraq):

Autopsies of suicide bombers has revealed that three of them had Downs Syndrome (a genetic disorder that results in mental retardation). Islamic countries tend to keep the mentally ill at home, living in extended families. Those who are able to get about, can come and go as they please, and some have apparently come to Iraq to die for Islam. This apparently explains the suicide car bombs that have been set off by remote control, even though a suicide bomber was at the wheel.

Window on the Arab World, and More! documents further evidence that the Iraqi people are not the only ones disillusioned with the methods of the terrorists (read the entire post, including kirk’s spot on conclusions). Some of the wide eyed foreign recruits pouring into Iraq are becoming jaded as well. Two Saudis wished to participate in armed resistance, only to be told that suicide bombers, and not fighters are needed. This is the height of desperation, a tacit admission the insurgency cannot be won via military means. Note the young Saudi’s reaction:

After a few days, the boys were received by the ‘leader’ of the fighters and they requested of him that he send them to Falluja. But he rejected this, excusing this by saying that the way was difficult and full of dangers  ‘At that point the leader of the group suddenly showed them the truth regarding which the young men felt the strongest bitterness. So then he said: We have a group of automobiles ready to perform suicide operations. The young men almost lost consciousness from the terror of the shock. And they said to him: how our coming to Iraq has come to this end in a suicide operation with such ease! He answered them indifferently: this is what we have now, and if you want you may look elsewhere! At that moment they decided to return to their country, and completely changed their minds about participating in what they thought was resistance in Iraq.’

We saw a similar reaction from Pakistanis eager to fight in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. Many Pakistanis were encouraged by their clerics to cross the border and fight the American infidels during the invasion of Afghanistan. They were provided poor leadership, arms and training, and were butchered when faced with superior American firepower. Those who survived were aghast at the loss of life and the utter disregard the Taliban and al Qaeda had for them.

Al Qaeda has a knack for poisoning the hearts and minds of those disillusioned enough to support them, and this is clearly exposed on the battlefields of Iraq as it was in Afghanistan.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • lgude says:

    I’ve read the Bennett piece a couple of times now and several commentaries on it including Norm Geras’, Chris Hitchens’, Powerline’s. I got a so what reaction at first too because of what I’ve been reading on your blog, Belmont Club and strategy page primarily. I’m beginning to see the Bennett piece as an indication that the NYT is repositioning itself because it thinks the insurgency is in deep trouble. I think that the ‘Mystery’ of the insurgency’s ineffectiveness is a pretense and behind that pretense is the notion that if only the insurgents had acted competently they would have seen the US military off

  • Brien O'Toole says:

    The requirements of a hearts & minds strategy are irrelevent to the insurgency. Its disparate elements see their path to power as making Iraq ungovernable by a democracy, followed by the institution of authoritarian rule the exact nature of which they’ll devise later. It won’t be hard: to the worldly money, etc., to the fundamentalists social control.
    This model worked in Afghanistan for fundamentalists until the host state fell. In Iraq, the opportunity is richer given its significantly greater resource base and potential military/technological power. To win Baathist, tribal/criminal, and fanatics need to demoralize/intimidate the US and domestic democratic forces unto despair.
    Therefore the only msg the insurgency wants received by Iraqis is that their real choice isn’t btwn democracy/modernity on the one hand or theocracy/primitivism on the other but btwn endless death, terror, and misery or submission.
    So we’ve a tough job. It’s a lot of country, defined by porous borders, hampered by weak national institutions, and still not totally persuaded ideologically that tolerant, representative government is the ideal, facing an enemy for whom death isn’t so much a cost of war as a divine instrument exhilarating to wield. Strategically, our enemy looks at an undefendable target set that democracy’s legitimacy depends on protecting. It is imperative therefore that we’re in a sustained pursuit mode until there’s nothing left to pursue.

  • GK says:

    One thing – Muslims tend to be people of incredible double-standards. There have been massive examples of Muslims killing each other in the last 50 years, but the perpetrators get little flak for it. It is only non-Muslims who are condemned for killing Muslims.
    Iran-Iraq War 1980-88 – 2 million dead
    Pakistan/Bangladesh Genocide 1971 – 300K to 1 million dead
    Iraq invasion of Kuwait – 1990
    Saddam gassing Kurds
    Taliban in Afghanistan (killing and persecution of women).
    Turks killing Armenians (not sure if they are Muslim), 1915-23 (1 million)
    Who has killed more Muslims than anyone else in the last 50 years (possibly ever)? Saddam Hussein. But if a poll was taken across all Muslims in the world of who they hate more, Saddam or the US, sadly, I think the US would be more hated.
    Same here – while they may grow weary of Al-Qaeda, they may still not see us as the lesser evil for a long time. Their thought processes are very different from ours..

  • Bill Roggio says:

    You mirrored my reaction. I tried to be a bit kinder in the post, as is my style.
    Brien O’Toole,
    You are describing the foco/Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla insurgency models, which have never succeeded.
    Afghanistan was a clan war, not the result of one group pounding the legitimate government until it failed. Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal was never a stable state but a grouping of different warlords that never really agreed with each other. The Taliban merely capitalized on this.
    The Iraqi people are chosing between democracy and the nihilism of the insurgency. See the rise in volunteers to fight, the reaction of the local in Qaim, purple fingers after 60% plus voted….
    Yes, there is a long road ahead but we and the Iraqi people are moving forward.
    I disagree for the reasons I mentioned to Brien O’Toole, particularly the willingness of the Iraqi people to fight al Qaeda.

  • TCO says:

    1. What Brien O’toole said.
    2. If the US left right now, would you be confident (>90%) that Iraq would not devolve into statelessness, civil war/partition, invasion by outsiders, or rule by a strong man? While the suicide bombs may not be deterring recruits or US soldiers, they are having an impact on Us popular support for the occupation.
    3. The insurgency can piss off the Iraqi people so long as they acheive their objective. Note that this may not be “absolute control” of the country. It might be as simple as driving the US out and destroying the current “occupationalists” so that Al Queda can claim to have “won”.
    4. I don’t have an insurgency database, but I wonder if there are some anologies to consider in Africa, where very brutal insurgencies were able to succeed in shattering shaky establishments despite lack of heart/mind.

  • GK says:

    Of course, I hope you are right. However, I wonder how much of it is because fighting rag-tag Al-Qaeda mercenaries is easier. Fighting the US military is futile, as Muqtaqa al-Sadr gave up his revolt for only that reason, not a change in his opinion.
    In a more macro sense, Saddam Hussein killed more Muslims than anyone else in the world, that too for his own personal gain. Yet, a poll of Muslims worldwide would certainly indicate that the US is more hated than Saddam (or the Taliban, or the Saudi Royan Family, or the Iranian Mullahs).
    Therein lies the hypocrisy of Muslims.

  • ricksamerican says:

    It seems to me that a lot of commentary on the jihad (aka insurgency) overcomplicates a relatively simple phenomenon (although it may be me that’s oversimplifying it. I’m sure you all will let me know).
    Granted there are Sunnis who would like to regain ascendency in Iraq, the principle engine running this jihad–assuming reports from Matador were reliable–are Z and his minions, mostly foreigners. This seems to be supported by reports of the recent strategy meeting in Syria. Unless Bernard Lewis and I are wrong, Z-UBL-Al Qaida are operating on the assumption that Allah wills the ascendency of Islam and the death of the infidel-crusader-crossworshiper. Democracy is not Sharia; so democracy is anathema and not willed by Allah. So, the goal is not to capture the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. If they are true Muslims, their hearts and minds are already at the service of Allah and Al Qaida, and if not then they are apostates and deserve to die along with the infidels. Because Allah wills the success of the true-believers and Al Qaida are the true-believers, then all that is necessary for success is for Al Qaida to continue to throw bodies into the grinder for as long as it takes–until the Caliphate is restored and the Jews, Christians, and pagans are brought under the heel of Islam.
    The trump card, of course, as Lewis also points out, is that, in the main, ordinary Muslims want what ordinary people all over the world want. Peace, stability, enought to eat, a decent place to live, a better life for their children. They are not on Al Qaida’s side, and I don’t think they ever will be. Al Qaida is on the wrong side of history, and, I believe, the wrong side of the transcendant issues too. Their God is not my God.

  • The Iraqi Insurgency’s “Hearts and Minds” Approach

    Bill Roggio and I have been joking lately about “al-Qaeda’s ‘hearts and minds strategy’ in Iraq; you may not think much of U.S. tactics in that regard (then again, you may), but the insurgency’s approach has been a disaster and may get worse. What’s go…

  • I agree with ricksamerican. Al Qaeda’s ideology effectively forbids them from trying to win hearts and minds, because if you see everyone else in the world as an apostate or infidel then they are by definition unworthy of any consideration. If you believe that you are doing God’s will then to limit your actions out of concern for how other people will perceive you is an act of rebellion against God. To try and win hearts and minds is against the whole nature of Al Qaeda, and if they were ever forced to attempt it they would see it as a terrible defeat. To look for any explanation of their actions in terms of rational military strategy is a mistake.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    I fully agree that al Qaeda is not rational by our standards, but if you read their statement sand such, there is a (perverted) logic to it. But either way you lok at it, it is poor military strategy and an even worse political plan.
    The problem is that regardless of whether they are rational or not, or trying to win hearts and minds or not, they are poisoning any potential support they have, making their objective of ejecting th eUS from Iraq and restoring a Caliphate all the less likely.
    How is al Qaeda going to come close to succeeding when two Saudis who wanted to fight the Great Satan left because of the mess in Iraq? Are they likely to sign on again?
    Finally, I fully agree with Mr. Lewis that the majority of the people in the Middle East just want to be left alone. Al Qaeda is disrupting this inclination, and making far more enemies than they had prior to 9-11 or Iraq.

  • PeterUK says:

    One consideration that has to be taken into account is that Zarqawi at least is a psychopath and serial murderer with the perfect excuse,he was told to go on his killing spree by Allah in a dream.The ritual beheadings fit the profile of such a madman.

  • Marlin says:

    Interesting article now up that according to Iraqi officials Zarqawi was wounded during the al Qaim operation.

  • Ray says:

    It’s mildly surprising how much blogging this NYT article has generated. I think it is very telling however, to the lack of influence that the Times has over the general reading public as opposed to the general perception of their influence.
    My bete noire has been the use of the term ‘insurgent’ itself. As various MSM sources have used the term, they have been attempting to portray the ongoing violence in Iraq as a grass roots effort by the local citizens. As we know, the violence is mostly directed by and carried out by foreigners and as such, the idea of an insurgency that is designed to merely defeat the “occupation” and reinstall a local government is false.
    Thus the “mystery” is created by the media itself as they’ve built the entire premise of this “insurgency” on false pretenses.

  • Brien O'Toole says:

    Does the “insurgent” strategy really mirror foco/Minimanual of Urban Guerilla Insurgency? I ask while conceding a good deal of ignorance beyond what I got from skimming the posted links. Nonetheless it seems to me the romance of Latin American insurgency aimed to catalyze a popular movement by provoking an intolerable state response that in turn revealed the “true” nature of that state.
    In Afghanistan the state was very weak and in Iraq it is struggling to its feet. The “insurgency’s” core strategic objective may be better seen as the submission of the populace rather than its uprising; instead of swimming among the people, they seek to poison the waters; the state’s a hapless jellyfish not an evil leviathan.
    If this is right or partly right, there are implications for our own strategy. Most importantly, time is not altogether on our side unless we are clearly diminishing the ability the “insurgents” to immiserate Iraqis. It may take “years” to fully quell the armed opposition, but it can’t take that long to move them from being a omnipresent threat to an occasional nuissance.
    Second, Falluja and Qaim feel overly episodic. We gear up for a major offensive which while a reasonable success as a battle falls short of being strategically devastating because of the exfiltration of large numbers of fighters before the end of the battle. Maybe our intelligence still isn’t able to tell us where fighters are pooling after these battles, but if it is, we should be pressing on, and if that means going into Syria in hot pursuit, it does. I think rther than “pre-emption” the most important tenent of the post 9-11 Bush doctrine is that you keep all the priviledges and immunities of soveignity to the extent you are not a base of threatening operations to America and our interests.
    Congratulations on the move to Winds of Change.

  • Jim's blog says:

    The Fragility of Nations

    The terrorist strategy is sound, rational, based on a keen and accurate reading of modern and ancient history, and may well work. They are doing what the Koran tells them worked a bit over a thousand years ago, and what the twentieth century showed wo…

  • On Killing Terrorist Leaders

    This is a frequent topic of discussion, so I thought I'd log this for future reference. Daniel Byman in the LA Times. Byman is Director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown…


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