OxBlog

Saturday, March 25, 2006

# Posted 11:19 AM by Patrick Porter  

DEFINING THE INSURGENCY: There are several competing definitions of what is happening in Iraq. At the more polemical end lurks the shadow of Vietnam, where commentators argue that the conflict is centered around two poles reminiscent of a Maoist-style insurgency against American occupation.

In this camp, one version popular amongst segments of the antiwar left who are sympathetic with the 'right to resist' (especially activists like Tariq Ali), maintain that it is a nationalist uprising against US-led occupation. Others, like Christopher Hitchens and Victor Hanson, also stress the bipolar nature of the conflict, but present it as a microcosm and site of the global struggle between democracy and civil society against extremist Islamist radicals, assisted by the Baath party trying to make a comeback. This side allows for elements of ethnic conflict, but emphasise that it is being incited deliberately by the jihadists. Ethnic conflict is, in this perspective, symptomatic of the fundamental clash of ideas.

I am still pondering this one.There is little doubt that jihadists are one element of the insurgency. And I have no sympathy for the campaign of deliberate sabotage and murder being carried out by insurgents against Iraqi civilians and vital utilities like pipelines. But neither of the scenarios above seem to explain the situation satisfactorily.

Were it only a struggle of ideology and ideas, you would expect there to be more cooperation and coalition between Iraqis of different ethnicities who shared the same political/religious goals. Instead, the pattern of the conflict repeatedly divides Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. If the foreign jihadists had successfully persuaded the feuding groups that this should be a pan-Islamic holy war against American imperialism, one would expect the different tribes to form alliances. In this regard, Stephen Biddle's recent essay is compelling. Putting it simply, the centre of the conflict is distrust between Iraqis, an actual or potential civil war. This is in contrast to Robb, who stresses cohesion and cooperation between different parts of the insurgency, which he argues is dangerous precisely because it operates without a clear centre of gravity but in a loose network of 'open source' warfare which outpaces efforts to neutralise it, and mutates and adapts like a virus. His prescription is to delegate more power to Shiite and Kurdish forces, using their local knowledge as a rival sophisticated network.

But the difficulty here again is the pattern of who is fighting and killing who. Empirically, it seems, American presence is not uniting insurgents to the extent that they are only targeting Americans. As a British soldier remarked to me, the main challenge is not whether Iraqis trust us, but whether they trust other Iraqis. And there is also the chaos element. As well as seeing the post-Saddam instability as a product of an internal power struggle, there is crime. Mayhem in Iraq is being leveraged by a global criminal market that is strengthening as we speak.

This all reminds me of just how crucial it is to define the problem accurately, and as it changes, in order to devise a sound counter-strategy. But to all the wonks, pundits and participants out there, how do we devise a strategy that deals with the ethnicised dimension of the conflict, as well as the underworld which feeds it? Or, despite the recent escalation in sectarian violence, is the current strategy working outside the areas of concentrated conflict?
(10) opinions -- Add your opinion

Comments:
I object to the new Oxblog conributor's failure to use zeds in accordance with the American stlye.
 
If you really want to define the problem accurately, the first step is to stop using the inaccurate - no, downright false - propaganda term insurgency to describe anything that is going on in Iraq. Insurgency is by definition revolt against a government. There are many diverse sources for the violence in Iraq (the United States occupation forces and their Iraqi proxy forces being the first, the primary, and the greatest perpetrator and direct provocator of violence even now), but there is not now and has not ever been any revolt against any government since the Americans shocked and awed their way into Iraq in March, 2003. Indeed, there cannot possibly have been such a revolt since there has not been even a poor pretense of a government for most of that period, and whether we have even a decent pretense of a government now is very debatable.

In fact, there is no single source or purpose for the violence that has engulfed Iraq as a result of the Bush administration's failed attempt to invade, take control of, and transform Iraq into a compliant client state. Therefore there is not single word, but a number of different ones that can accurately be used to describe it. In any case, insurgency is not one of those words.
 
As for the silly, but very common nonsense that Ba`thists are, in their attempt to "make a comeback" somehow assisting extremist "Islamist" elements - come on! That is not the most absurd alleged alliance (the allegations that the mythical arch anti-Shi`a Zarqawi was working with Iran and/or Muqtada Sadr were downright hilarious!), but it is one of many extremely risible claims made by the so-called "intelligence experts".
 
I thought Biddle's essay was quite interesting, and hasn't been discussed remotely enough in the blogosphere (in fact, practically no where in my view) which is why I linked to an iteration of the entire article, as well as shorter versions, here, rather than a link that's only useful if you have a password or subscription. I'm not clear what use that is, unless you have a subscription, in which case you've probably already read it.
 
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
 
Regarding Biddle's essay, he appears to make the fundamental error believing that the solution to the mess created by the Bush administration in Iraq lies in some action on the part of the Bush administration in Iraq. The Americans irreversibly destroyed a long time ago every shred of credibility they may have had with Iraqis.

So far everything the Bush administration has done in Iraq has resulted in a worsening of the situation. In case after case after case they have created a problem, and then, when they attempted a "solution" to the problem, they hvae only succeeded in creating an even worse problem than the one they were trying to solve. There is one and only one action that the Bush administration can take in Iraq that is not guaranteed to make the situation worse, and that is to simply leave, get out, abandon their hopes for a compliant client Iraqi state filled with U.S. military bases, and a gigantic "embassy", and exit as quickly and unceremoniously as possible. Leave Iraq and its issues and conflicts to the Iraqis to sort out.

The notion, by the way, of age-old sectarian and ethnic conflict flies in the face of historic and sociological reality. The overwhelming majority of Iraqis have never cared, until recently, whether someone is Sunni, Shi`i, Christian, Arab, Kurd, Assyrian, or anything else. The conflicts in Iraq have not been between Sunni, Shi`i and Kurd, but between the regimes and the people. American manipulations and fostering of a politics of identity along with the introduction of opportunists and extremist outsiders are largely responsible for the present growing conflict. Further, much, though not all of what has been perceived and passed off as sectarian violence is even now less sectarian than it is a vying for political power. Tragically, it is gradually turning into a sectarian conflict as a result of the fact that the Americans and others are so successfully selling it as such.
 
The 'insurgency' in Iraq has several roots. There are Ba'athists hoping for some kind of return to power. There are Sunni Arabs who think their clans should have all power (and all the loot). There are criminal gangs who exploit disorder and corruption. (These overlap with the Sunni Arab clans.) All these are allied with and use the jihadis; and no doubt call themselves jihadis. All these elements want to prevent the establishment of a decent civil order in Iraq. The jihadis serve as cannon fodder for the others. However they are out of control and often clash with the interests of the others. Thus the red-on-red incidents that have been observed.
 
Hey Gary,

I've corrected the two links, so those articles should be accessible now.

Patrick
 
The new American solution is, gratifyingly, out of the box -- Americans are becoming the insurgents! Apparently they attacked al Sadr and an interior ministry police force without first informing the, uh, democratically elected government -- although maybe being for democratically elected governments is tres last month for the pro-war crowd. Here's the story in the NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/27/international/middleeast/27iraq.html?hp&ex=1143435600&en=2576108f335c6b89&ei=5094&partner=homepage.

The best strategy is to blow apart the elected government of Iraq and then warn Iran not to interfere with the domestic affairs of Iraq. That would give us both the bald faced aggressor's award (last held by the Soviet's, who invaded Afghanistan to protect it from Afghanistan) and will form the ironic core of Christopher Hitchen's next defense of our comrades in Iraq.
 
Rich,

Thanks, first of all, for placing quotes around the word insurgency. Any time we use that word in connection with Iraq it should be enclosed in quotes, or preceded by "so-called". Better yet, we should not use that word at all since it gives a false impression of the situation in Iraq.

Having said that, I do not know where you got your information, but I must take issue with much of it.

"There are Ba'athists hoping for some kind of return to power."

Certainly there are former Ba`thists among those who are vying for power in The New Iraq™ (irony intended), but I do not think they are as large or as significant a factor as some people would like to believe. In any case, with a few possible exceptions, they are not "Saddam loyalitsts" looking for a Ba`thist comeback so much as they are opportunists acting in what they see as their own self interest. In addition, there are many former Ba`thists working for the Americans, who have found it quite useful to employ them, such as former members of the Mukhabarat, to do some of their dirty work for them.

"There are Sunni Arabs who think their clans should have all power (and all the loot)."

Yes, there are Sunni Arabs, of course, but where do you get your information that they are motivated by the belief that their "clans" should "have all the power and all the 'loot'" (whatever is meant by "loot")? This does not fit with anything I know about Iraq, Iraqi social and tribal structure, Sunni Arabs, or the resistance and other groups operating in Iraq now.

Or is this based on the myth that the once all-powerful and privileged Sunnis are upset because they have lost all the wonderful goodies they had when the Ba`th party (which was a Sunni Arab party) was in power. If so, kindly disabuse yourself of that right away, because not one aspect of it is factual.

"There are criminal gangs who exploit disorder and corruption."

Yes, there are, and the Americans have done nothing about this very serious problem. Their activities include, but are not limited to robbery, extortion, car jacking, kidnapping for profit, and kidnapping and murder for hire.

"(These overlap with the Sunni Arab clans.)"

No disrespect, but there you go with the "Sunni Arab clans" again. It is unfortunate, and not surprising, to see this kind of comment, which serves the unfair and inaccurate propaganda that Sunni Arabs are the source of most if not all of Iraq's current problems. It implies that if only it weren't for the "Sunni Arab clans" everything would be going swimmingly in Iraq. I am not sure what "overlap with the Sunni Arab clans" is supposed to mean exactly, but it is dangerously misleading under any interpretation.

Certainly there are Sunni Arabs involved in these criminal gangs, just as there are Iraqis of every sort and stripe involved in criminal gang activities. Criminal gangs consisting of Kurds, Shi`is, Turkmens, and every possible mixture , not just "Sunni Arab clans" have been operating almost entirely unchecked thanks to the U.S., which created the conditions that allows them freedom to operate at will, and which has done little or nothing to check their activities.

"All these are allied with and use the jihadis; and no doubt call themselves jihadis."

What is your source for this rather astonishing assertion?

"All these elements want to prevent the establishment of a decent civil order in Iraq."

And what is your source for this assertion? It sounds like standard-issue Bush administration propaganda.

"The jihadis serve as cannon fodder for the others."

Another rather astonishing assertion that has no basis that I know of. For starters, the number of so-called "jihadis" is insufficient to serve as "cannon fodder" for anyone. Even by the admission of the U.S. military the number of so-called "jihadis" is miniscule.
 
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