Steel City Cowboy

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Why the U.S. Cannot Defeat the Insurgency in Iraq

Don't let the title fool you. It's not what you think. Also, blurb about why this is relevant to the Senate legislation in the Postscript below.

The U.S. (it's a coalition, for certain, but we'd be there without help anyway, and they wouldn't be there if we weren't, so I'm going to shorthand it to the U.S.) cannot defeat the Iraqi insurgency simply because there is no Iraqi insurgency. The term "insurgency", used by almost all news outlets and commentators, implies that the combatants our forces encounter are Iraqis who are fighting against us and their own government to effect a change in the political system. That is what insurgencies do; it is how they are defined. But that is not what is going on in Iraq. Granted, at first, there was a significant contingent of Sunni Ba'athists who were actually attempting to alter the emerging political landscape with violence. That was, by definition, an insurgency, but as can be seen from the growing Sunni participation in the peaceful political process, one that has been largely dealt with.

So who are we fighting now? Financing for the current crew of terrorists attacking U.S. and Iraqi forces and civilians is not coming from inside Iraq. Caleb Temple, senior intelligence officer of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), stated in testimony before Congress this summer that the majority of funding comes from former Ba'athist officials who had fled to Syria, Jordan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as corrupt Islamic charities. The U.S. (and other western nations) have been cracking down on such charities that operate within their own borders, so it is not outside of the realms of possibility for a government to curtail such activities. By their inaction, the governments of Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia are complicit in, if not directly responsible for, this type of funding. In the same testimony session, Daniel Glaser, who heads the Office of Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes, stated that the main vector for insurgent funding is "the physical transportation of cash into Iraq, particularly across the Iraqi-Syrian border." You will not be shocked to learn that I think Syria is complicit in these actions.

Just as the funding for these operations does not come from within Iraq, neither do most of the recruits. In the last year, a large proportion of fighters captured have been non-native to Iraq. Many of those captured describe how they were duped, drugged or coerced into joining the war and subsequently participating in what amounts to suicide operations (note: I consider engaging U.S. and Iraqi forces in open gun battles to be suicide operations).

So, if the "insurgency", though begun by Ba'athist holdouts and released hardened criminals, has ultimately been co-opted and sustained by the efforts of foreign financiers and jihadis with the complicit (and most likely active) support of the host governments of Syria and Iran, what does that mean? Well, it means that the U.S. is engaged in a battle, alongside it's newest ally Iraq, against the covert aggression of Iran and Syria. The Iranian/Syrian goal is twofold: prevent the successful establishment of constitutional democracy in Iraq and cause U.S. forces to be removed from the Middle East by a war-weary American public. Achieving the first goal makes the second easier, but both are valuable outcomes for the bad guys, and one could certainly be done without the other.

Interestingly enough, these goals are the direct opposite of current U.S. strategic goals: stabilize a constitutional democracy in Iraq and create a U.S. military presence in the Middle East that is capable of projecting force on demand. Anyone who can read a map can figure out why we went into Iraq first. There were good reasons to go after any one of the gang there that you care to name, but Iraq was right in the middle.

So, why do I say that we cannot defeat the forces arrayed against us in Iraq? Because as long as we remain only in Iraq, we cannot bring the fight to them. In WWII, neither the meat grinder of the Russian front nor the routing of the Imperial Navy caused Germany or Japan to surrender. It was only when their homelands and seats of power were directly under attack (or taken, in the case of Germany) that the war ended. And so it will be in the Middle East. Iraq is simply an ancillary battleground for our war with Iran and Syria. Our troops can intercept money, weapons and jihadis all year. They can run up and down the Euphrates, killing scores of terrorists, capturing nasty folks and building schools. But none of that will prevent Syria, Iran and the private financiers and recruiters from continuing to send in more irregulars. I am not saying that our efforts are futile. Absolutely not. Here's why:

Our final goal is the establishment of stability through democracy and free markets in the Middle East. We would like to do it diplomatically, but without a significant presence of physical power in the region, that is not going to happen. Currently, our power is still tied up in securing it's foothold. Our military in the Middle East is useless for purposes of enhancing our diplomatic capabilities.

So what's the point of being there? Excellent question. We must remain there, attempting to turn back the covert invasion by Iran and Syria, and to take the heat until the Iraqis are able to do it for themselves. Only when our large mass of troops is freed from its obligations in Iraq do we have a chance of stopping the problem at it's source. Now, this doesn't mean that we will be attacking Iran or Syria with our military. Not necessarily. We won't need to. When we have 100,000 American Marines and soldiers sitting in Northern Iraq with little to do but polish their weapons because the Iraqis are dealing with their own security, Syria and Iran will then begin to take our diplomats seriously. Then and only then can we give teeth to our requests that they cut off the flows of money, weapons and people into Iraq. And when their homelands and seats of power are finally threatened directly, they will (hopefully) fold like the Japanese in WWII. Of course, it's possible that they will require substantially more persuasion, as the Germans did, but if the time comes, we will have that capability.

So, to parse the misleading title of this piece a bit differently, as long as we are fighting in Iraq, we will not be able to stop the insurgency. When it gets to the point where U.S. troops don't have to fight any more, we will finally have a chance to stop "the insurgency" at its real source.

Postscript: This also points out how foolish Senate Republicans are being with their current draft legislation calling on Iraqi forces to take the lead in Iraq. Great job guys. You're likely to put the President and the military into the horrible position of having to either weather the slings and arrows of their critics in silence, or to disclose their strategic plans to the world in their own defense. Argh.


  • At 11/15/2005 1:32 PM, Blogger Roland said…

    Comments by folks who obviously have not read the post, or who have nothing add other than the proven fact that I'm an idiot, will be deleted.

    Comments by people who do nothing but fawn over me and praise the very hairs in my nose will, of course, be left alone.

  • At 11/17/2005 2:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    roland - your idea is neoconish!
    Will any of your family be involved in the fighting ? Or do we suck in some more volunteers ? i will bet no one
    in your family ever saw a uniform and if they did , they were in the mess hall .

  • At 11/18/2005 1:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    How many more people have to die for your
    stupid ideas
    If you were to die do you think it would
    change Iraq?

  • At 11/18/2005 2:23 PM, Blogger Roland said…

    Once again with the brave anonymous posters.

    Anonymous #1: good question! Let me ask you another two in return. 1. Are you against people's houses burning down, leaving them homeless? 2. Are you personally willing to join the fire department? Most likely the answer to #1 is yes, and the answer to #2 is no. So, you're willing to let someone else do something very dangerous that you feel is necessary. Are you a coward for not volunteering for something someone else is willing to do?

    Also, you would lose your bet. That's quite an extrapolation you've made. You may want to have a doctor look at that.

    Anonymous #2: The final point isn't changing Iraq. Iraq is one step on the road to providing security for the free world, by eliminating tyranny worldwide. What level of sacrifice is that goal worth? Really, if you, personally, would be magically guaranteed that all tyranny would pass from the Earth if only you pushed a button that caused X individuals to perish, what would be your upper limit for X? Would it be zero? If so, would you not then be responsible for every person thereafter who died due to the tyranny you could have prevented?

    To answer your question directly, of course not. Our soldiers and Marines dying in Iraq does not change the situation. Their living and fighting there does, though. And it is only through the risk of death that they can currently live and fight there. It will not always be the case.

    So, I believe that I could certainly help the changes in Iraq by living and fighting there, but I have already made solemn and binding vows to others that aren't compatible with the oaths you take when you join the military. I take that sort of thing very seriously. My guess would be that that is a foreign concept to you. I've noticed that to a lot of leftists, concepts like loyalty, duty and personal honor are things to be sneered at as the traits of the uneducated. Not saying you don't have those particular traits, but I'm not holding my breath waiting to learn otherwise.

  • At 11/18/2005 2:26 PM, Blogger Roland said…

    Anonymous friends:

    Any criticisms on points, as opposed to just Your a Neocon! and You're Stoopid!?

    Exactly which premise or points of the analysis do you disagree with?

  • At 1/15/2006 1:20 AM, Anonymous Joe Deegan in Philly said…

    The strength of the Greeks under Alexander was that they believed in him and he was right most of the time.
    I have confidence in W, developed by observation over the years, that he is right most of the time because he thinks several moves down the board, and has excellent help,especially VP Cheney, and is a man who does not lie to himself.
    I have given up trying to explain my confidence in each situation to those who do not share it. I believe, I keep my eyes open, but I think it foolish to try to reason out the details of every issue. I voted for him, I have confidence I did so wisely, now let's see what he can do.

  • At 1/18/2006 2:15 PM, Blogger fester said…

    Roland --- you are arguing that the Sunni Arab insurgency does not have a political agenda and therefore does not qualify as an insurgency but as a pawn for Syria and Iran's national interest. You make this claim while ignoring the demands that the Sunni Arab political leadership made prior to the Oct. 15 Constutional referandum (sic) for future amendments on two key issues: the nature of de-Baathification (they want a very mild one --- top 2 or 3 layers and that is it v. a comprehensive --- are you now or ever have been a member of the Ba'ath party; if yes, you'll never work for the government again De-Baathification) and a stronger central state in order to get a decent chunk of the oil revenue flowing into their non-oil producing provinces. Follow that up with a demand for a US withdrawal, and that seems to me to be a reasonable definition of a political agenda with positive and negative goals as well as a roadmap of achieving them. The Sunni Arab participation in the Dec. elections was/is part of a dual track strategy much like the Sinn Fein/IRA dual track that went on for 20+ years in Northern Ireland.

    Secondly, where the hell is your evidence for increased foreign fighters in Iraq. The Center for Strategic International Studies (PDF) estiamtes that foreign fighters make up 4-10% of the active fighters in an insurgency of 30,000 active shooters.

    Right now the US believes there are 700-2000 foreign fighters in Iraq, or 3.5-12% of the total actively shooting insurgency (data pulled from Brooking's Iraq Index for Dec. 2005), This 3.5-12% estimate has been a consistent estimate of the entire foreign contigent for the past two years. If you take a look at this report's P. 18 footnote on the Filkins and Wongs' reporting, they report 311 foreign fighters captured in Iraq from April 2005 to October 2005, during this same time period the US maintained a security detainee population of ~12,000 individuals.

    The Tal Afar clear and hold operation which was supposed to be targeted against foreign fighters did not succeed in that mission as Col. McMaster, CO of the 3rd ACR and Op. Ground Force commander said: vast majority of prisoners were"Iraqis and not foreigners."

    This narrative that you are spinning is inconsistent with the known facts --- so where are you getting your data from?


  • At 1/18/2006 7:28 PM, Blogger Roland said…

    Oh Lord, finally someone who can frame an argument is here! Thank you Fester. Now, I'll try to see if I can answer the response you obviously carefully thought out and researched...

    First, I'm actually not claiming that disaffected Sunni Arabs do not count as an insurgency at all. In fact, they are the only ones in my book who can validly lay claim to the term. I do note, though, that that insurgency is being effectively dealt with. Your comparison to Sinn Fein/IRA is a good one, but I'm thinking and hoping that we've learned some leassons from that. In fact, as a reference, you can look to one of the articles that you cited at

    In it, the second sweep of Tal Afar is said to have co-opted the population of the city, Sunni, Shia and Kurd, in order to oust the terrorists and foreign elements:

    'Casey explained that local sheiks signed statements saying basically: "We've had enough. We ask for the military to come in and clean the terrorists and foreign fighters out of Tal Afar."'

    Again, it could turn out exactly as you say, with the Sunnis using the political version of good cop/bad cop for years to come.

    Respecting the numbers from the Filkins and Wongs' reporting, I'm not sure that it's valid to use the figures of foreign fighters captured in a seven month period to the total security detainee population. A better comparison would be non-foreign fighters captured during that time period.

    Of course, I was unable to find any real information (or at least anything within my limited abilities to analyze) regarding fighters captured or killed after direct or indirect confrontations with coalition and Iraqi forces. I know that you put the shooting strength of the insurgency at 30,000, but I have had a hard time finding what metric was used to determine who is a "shooting member" and who just hates the U.S. and has a gun, and it seems to me the difference is material.

    A great stat to see would be the one I mentioned above, and would be educational for all parties: tallies of fighters captured or killed after action is taken against coalition forces. Some enterprising person could mine all of the public After Action Reports and try to correlate them with other sources, but I'm thinking that data at that level is just not available to us.

    Unfortunately, the link you provided to the CSIS document was bad, and I was unable to find the one you had mentioned. As for the Brookings document, and I don't say this to denigrate the numbers, but checking the footnotes on the foreign fighter strength chart on page 15 indicate that those numbers are "Author's Estimate" without any further attribution or sourcing.

    Granting those numbers, though, I believe that my point still stands. My conclusion wasn't that, from the standpoint of raw numbers, there are numerically more foreign fighters in Iraq than homegrown people who wish the U.S. ill. My conclusion was that Sunnis can be brought to the table -- and we're trying to make that happen -- and that the remaining elements that fight both U.S. forces and the Iraqi government are there with the assistance of the Syrian and Iranian governments.

    It's not an immediately provable hypothesis, and we're not likely to know the real story for years. If it is the case, and part of our master strategy involves picking of our enemies one at time instead of en masse or using alternatives to direct military action, it would be an extreme detriment for our government to openly accuse Iran, Syria or Saudi Arabia of what they're doing. So, if it's not happening, we wouldn't hear about it. And if it was happening, we likewise wouldn't hear about it.

    Thank you for the excellent comment, and for the references you provided which I plan to go through in greater depth.

  • At 1/19/2006 8:38 AM, Blogger fester said…

    You are claiming that the Sunni Arab insurgency is being effectively dealt with; I am assuming that you are referring to the political/constitutional process. If this assumption is correct, I disagree with you here, for if a political process is to be successful, all participants must believe that agreements are credible and that they can protect their vital interests better in politics than through other means.

    The constitution did not fail in sufficiently large margins in the three major Sunni Arab provinces partially because of the last second deal which I alluded to earlier. The content of the deal was fundamentally "Vote Yes, and we'll re-open the discussion in January on oil, federalism and de-Baathification". The Sunni Arabs still overwhelmingly thought that they were getting screwed, but participated in the Oct. and Dec. elections thinking that they could reinfluence the implementation of the constitutional system.

    Well three things are going on here that argue against success. First, Hakim, head of SCIRI, one of the dominant Shi'ite parties in the government and UIA, has said that the constitution will not be changed, thus breaking the October agreement. Secondly, despite having 3 times the seats this time around than last time, the Sunni Arabs are being offered a demotion on the Cabinet post level. Participation has resulted in a screwing of Sunni Arab interests is how this can/will be interpreted. These two actions (among others) illustrate to the Sunni Arab community that the political process is designed against them (it is)and that despite max surge efforts to participate as a uninamous bloc (the constitution as a NO vote) their vital interests can not be protected politically.

    Finally, there is the very simple problem that the Sunni Arab population thinks that it is a whole lot bigger (proportionally) than they really are. The best guesstimates have the Sunni Arabs at roughly 20-25% of the population instead of the 40-50% that they think that they are, therefore when they win 51 seats out of 275 or 19% of the seats, they think that they are getting screwed even when they are not. Perceptions matter way more than reality on this ground, in my opinion.

    On Tal-Afar, what happened there from my memory was that Kurdish and Shi'ite sheiks overwhelmingly went to the Coalition with a request for action against Sunni Arabs and Sunni Turks and came back with heavy firepower. In a city of a couple hundred thousand it is not that hard to find a non-representative but large group wanting to hit back against another group.

    I will immediately concede the stock v. flow problem that you identified, but everything that I am reading is suggesting that foreign fighters have been a consistent 5-10% of the insurgency manpower pool; where is your evidence for increased foreign participation?

  • At 1/20/2006 12:02 AM, Blogger Roland said…

    I completely agree that the current state of affairs vis a vis the Sunni incorporation into the political process may fail, and may not even be working right now. (I think it is working, but only time will tell).

    I do have to disagree with your definition of a successful policitical process, especially in the context of Iraq. It's my opinion that you set the bar a bit too high. All that we need is for enough people to think that violence costly enough that they give the political process a shot. After that, if they can get anything out of it at all, their own self-interest should prevail. They don't have to believe in the process in order to try it, just like a little kid doesn't have to think he'll like broccoli when he's forced to try it for the first time.

    Regarding the perception by the Sunnis that they are getting screwed, I agree that it is a serious problem, and one to which there may be no simple solution. But are the Sunnis really being screwed by anyone but themselves? It may not matter. I have a hard time seeing it any other way tough, as my bias against a bunch of folks who got fat off an apartheid system may have my thoughts on this a little skewed here. Had they participated politically fully from the start, they would be in much better position right now. Your contention will no doubt be that the fact that they have no one to blame but themselves will not prevent them from finding someone else to blame, and such a contention would not be incorrect.

    But do they want more Fallujahs? They may not be getting the deal of the century here, but the alternative is pretty terrible, and they've already seen it.

    On the numbers of foreign fighters: you're right, and I will have to concede that I can find no hard evidence for increased foreign participation. It was a sense I had taken from different readings of direct accounts, yet I stated it as though it were gleaned from statistical information, which was incorrect.

    The train of thought that lead me to make that statement was: Falling Numbers of Shooting Sunnis -> Steady Number of Foreign Fighters -> Higher Proportion of Active Insurgents are Foreign.

    I still would like to see breakdowns of which groups are killing coalition forces. It's one thing to say that we have 30,000 insurgents, 2,000 of whom are foreign jihadis. It's another thing to find out (hypothetical, here) that even though foreigners represent only 6% of anti-coaltion forces, they account for 80% of coalition casualties. Until we have access to that kind of data, my argument remains speculation.


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