Iraqi Insurgency: Expert's Take
Emerging from the vapors we have counterinsurgency expert Steven Metz, Chairman of the Regional Strategy and Planning Department and Research Professor of National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College. In today's edition of L'Orient-LeJour (Beirut), Metz looks at the current options.
By the way, it's possible that the notorious military-industrial Carlyle group likely draws its name, though not its spelling, from the US Army War College at the Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.
The "New" Iraqi Insurgency
Sun Tsu, the great Chinese philosopher of warfare, once wrote: If you know your enemy and if you know yourself, then you need not fear the outcome of a thousand battles. The absence of this knowledge brings with it problems and often even disasters. This is certainly the case of the ongoing conflict which we see today in Iraq, where it is both essential and difficult to understand the insurgents.
Up to a certain point the Iraqi sedition reflects the characteristics of its historical precedents. The conflict is an armed theater were the protagonists are engaged in a struggle with one another and where they sent messages to a growing audience, especially the Iraqi people. Like any sedition, its fate will be determined by the support which the populace will decide to give or to withhold.
Moreover, it is very likely that this will become a performance that will be held over. History teaches us that once the sedition reaches “critical mass”, it will take ten years or more to eradicate it. As in prior insurrections, the Iraqi conflict is one in which the insurgents commit horrible acts to intimidate the public, to expose the weakness of the government and to push it towards overreaction, which may cause it to lose the support of the populace.
However, the Iraqi insurrection differs from precedent in many aspects. Its cultural context is different from the insurrections of the 20th century, in particular in the use of a radical ideology stemming from religion. In contrast, the insurrections of the 20th century were typically secular, resulting from class struggle and based on sectarian differences or other, deeper political cleavages. The combination of religious passion and political extremism make the Iraqi insurrection especially dangerous and difficult to quell. The strategic context of the Iraqi sedition is also new. In the 20th century, the superpowers backed insurrections and counter-guerrillas in proxy battles in foreign lands. In contrast, the Iraqi insurgency is part of the first worldwide insurrection; a constellation of individual conflicts inspired by Islamist extremism, most of which are linked in one way or another to al-Qaeda and the global War on Terrorism. For the first time in history, terrorism affords the insurgents the capacity to directly strike the foreign allies of their enemies.
Moreover, the organization and the methods of the Iraqi insurgents, while somewhat unique, differ from those which we saw develop during the 20th century. Multiple insurrections coexist in the same time and space, each with different tactics and objectives.
One of the ingredients are the Jihadists: some are foreign, others are drawn from the local population. They all possess direct links with al-Qaeda or at least sympathize with its vision for the world. The Jihadists seem to want an Iraq under a Taliban-style regime, which can serve as a bastion for a wider global Islamist sedition. Another ingredient appears to take the form of Ba’athists seeking to return to power. With access to large sums of money, this group seems to subcontract most of its operations to organized crime or opportunistic rebels more interested in the salary than the ideology.
The third ingredient is what is sometimes called “Sunni nationalism” but that is a misnomer. Members of this group are less worried about Iraq as a nation than they are about Sunni domination in post-Saddam Iraq. They respond to what is happening to them as if it were injustice or abuse committed against their person. This group relies heavily on tribal structures, clan ties, and other local affiliations.
While some successful 20th century seditions developed a hierarchy and a political wing, the Iraqi insurrection is difficult to grasp, like a formless network. The different components and their internal subdivisions do not seem to directed from a central command. Some may collaborate while others do not.
Overall, the sedition remains nihilist and centered on the destruction of the new Iraqi government and the emerging political and economic system rather than constituting a coherent substitute. In many ways, the Iraqi insurrection is analogous to urban street gangs: each group shares some similarities in behavior and organization, but pursues its own overweening ambition and undertakes autonomous operations within its territory rather than developing a program or a strategy.
The good news for those who desire stability and democracy in Iraq is that the amorphous insurrection, disorganized and nihilist, cannot “win” in the traditional sense and replace the government or build a new régime. The bad news is that this amorphous, disorganized and nihilist insurrection may eventually evolve into a coherent, efficient and resolute insurrection.
This obviously poses a far more serious threat, because even if the insurrection is amorphous, disorganized and nihilist, it could survive and bar the way to stability, democratization and prosperity for decades. To return to our analogy, urban street gangs cannot seize political power but they can certainly turn their neighborhood into a dangerous, retrograde and sinister place.
So Iraq faces three options: evolution towards a more serious insurrection, continuing violence at current levels or the resolution of the insurrection. At least three factors will determine the path which this wounded nation will choose.
The first is none other than the will on the part of the new government. Successful insurrectional movements triumph because the will of the government collapses. It is not clear today how to measure the determination that the democratic Iraqi leadership actually possesses.
The second important factor is the moderation of the Shi’ite community. Certain worrisome signs show that the relative indulgence of this group is reaching its end. If that were to happen the insurrection will be replaced by far more dangerous civil sectarian conflict. The third factor is the will of external groups, states or non-governmental groups, to prolong the difficulties caused by the Iraqis who support the insurrection, openly or by inaction. As long as states such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and others do not forcefully stem the flow of people and capital supporting the insurrection, Iraq will never know stability, democracy and prosperity. -end-
Read more Metz here if you enjoy this sort of analysis (pdf).