Tuesday, October 05, 2004

A Thicket of Insurgent Groups

Jim Krane of the Associated Press characterizes the structure of antigovernment forces in Iraq as a "thicket of insurgent groups with competing aims and no supreme leader." 

The three dozen or so guerrilla bands agree on little beyond forcing the Americans out of Iraq. In other U.S. wars, the enemy was clear. In Vietnam, a visible leader -- Ho Chi Minh -- led a single army fighting to unify the country under socialism. But in Iraq, the disorganized insurgency has no single commander, no political wing and no dominant group.

This fragmented condition is presented as a strength, an amorphous group against which the US can only "flail", an omnipresent cloud of enemies with no vulnerable center. But US Commanders themselves prosaically divide the insurgents into four groups, three of which consist of Sunnis. Krane reproduces the taxonomy.

The largest insurgent bloc is composed of Iraqi nationalists fighting to reclaim secular power lost when Saddam Hussein (news - web sites) was deposed in April 2003. The second is a growing faction of hardcore fighters aligned with terrorist groups, mainly that led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The U.S. military believes they want to turn Iraq into an anti-Western stronghold that would export Islamic revolution to other countries in the region. A third group consists of conservative Iraqis who want to install an Islamic theocracy, but who stay away from terror tactics like car bombings and the beheading of hostages. The fourth, al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, seeks to make the cleric the nationwide Shiite leader. Ordinary criminals also pitch in on attacks when they are paid. And gangsters who abduct people regularly sell their hostages to terror groups, which have beheaded some.

Krane says that Bruce Hoffman of RAND believes this fragmented insurgency is succeeding, "with death tolls spiraling and a guerrilla-induced climate of fear that has reduced the U.S. led rebuilding effort to a shambles."  Krane dismisses the contention of US officers that "history is replete with insurgencies that failed" by maintaining that "Vietnamese guerrillas ousted the United States in 1973. Afghan militias similarly embarrassed the Soviet Union in 1989". He concludes by saying that:

Bad decisions by the U.S.-led occupation administration are widely blamed for stoking the war. Those cited most often are the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the banning of Saddam's political leaders from public life, both of which are said to have converted potential allies into enemies. Independent analysts say 16 months of escalating warfare by U.S. troops with little practical experience in fighting insurgents have made clear the difficulty of defeating militants who mount attacks while hiding and moving among civilians.

It should be mentioned in passing that it was the North Vietnamese Army, not any guerilla force, which was the main antagonist of the United States in Vietnam. One might recall that it was US troops "with little practical experience in fighting insurgents" that chased out the Afghan militias Krane cites. But these don't bear on his main claim that the insurgency is more formidable for being fragmented and somehow 'spontaneous'. His claim, in essence, is that it needs no leader. But on closer examination, it's spontaneity is largely confined to the Sunnis, who except for Moqtada al-Sadr Mahdi Army, comprise the insurgent groups. The aspirations of those trying to restore the glories Saddam Hussein are unlikely to be shared by the Kurds and the larger Shi'ite population and that fact is underscored by their absence from the ranks of the insurgents. Then there is the mystery of why a spontaneously popular insurgency should rely on murdering civilian Iraqis, even children, to obtain their "cooperation". If the population sympathized with insurgents to begin with then the coercion is the most gratuitous waste of effort in recent military history. A Belmont Club reader, Harscand, believed there was a more natural analogue for the problem. Writing in the comments section of an earlier post he said:

Friday, in a debate on a left-leaning website, I wrote that Iraq was indeed like Vietnam. But in this case, we were playing the role of the Chinese, and the Shiites and Kurds were in the role of the Vietcong. Just as the Vietcong's goal was to throw off the bonds of colonial power, the Shiites and Kurds in Iraq are thrilled to throw off the bonds of the Baathists. So the Baathists have allied themselves with terrorists and other extranational fighters to try to preserve their rule. ... So yes, Iraq is a quagmire, but it is a quagmire for terrorists.

Time alone will tell whether Krane's construction on the facts -- that the insurgency needs no leader -- is correct. The alternative hypothesis is that despite the best efforts of Al Qaeda and secret services of neighboring countries it can find no leader.