9 years, 10 months ago
In Splits, Reorganization and Realignments Within the Insurgency in Iraq, I argued that the internecine warfare within the Sunni insurgency was a good thing for coalition troops in the short term, but that sooner or later, one side will win. This side — whichever it happens to be — will then turns its sights again on the so-called “occupiers” (i.e., the U.S.). The insurgency doesn’t end, it merely morphs into something different than it is at the present.
The Middle East Times brings us a fascinating story of U.S. armed forces learning counterinsurgency, adapting and bringing innovation to the battlefield. Things like this simply cannot be taught. They have to be learned by troops at the front. This is a lengthly article, but well worth your time (along with a few comments by me at the end).
May 9, 2007
SAMARRA, Iraq — On a dark street in the restive Iraqi town of Samarra a young man masked with a bandana and a baseball cap looks over his shoulder before pulling out an aerosol can and spray-painting across a wall.
A US Army officer standing behind him squints at the flowing Arabic script, then turns to a reporter traveling with his platoon.
“What does that say?” he asks.
The young vandal is an army translator whom the soldiers call Matthew – publishing his real name would put him in danger.
Matthew is charged with sowing seeds of strife between the town’s two main insurgent groups, Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic Army of Iraq.
While Al Qaeda takes its inspiration from Osama Bin Laden’s international Islamist struggle, the Islamic Army is a coalition of Iraqi Islamists and Baathist supporters of the ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
And while both groups are fighting to oust American forces from Iraq, there are also signs of growing conflict between them – a conflict that the local security forces and their US allies are keen to exploit.
The two groups have clashed on the Internet, with the more nationalist Islamic Army criticizing Al Qaeda for targeting Iraqi civilians and for its attempts to impose a harsh Saudi-inspired version of Islamic law.
Within Samarra, the Islamic Army enjoys wide popularity because of its single-minded focus on attacking US forces, while Al Qaeda intimidates local residents with spectacular bombings and coordinated attacks on police.
“Al Qaeda is based on Islamic extremism, while the others only focus on the occupiers,” said Colonel Jalil Al Dulaimi, who was police chief of the town north of Baghdad until he was killed in a coordinated attack on police headquarters this week. “But from our perspective, anyone who carries weapons is a terrorist. It doesn’t matter what faction they are a part of,” he added.
The commander of the US Army’s 82nd Airborne, 3rd Brigade, Charlie Company, based in Samarra, agrees that both groups pose a threat to security in the town but says that there are important differences.
The Islamic Army “is against coalition forces and ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] that work with the coalition,” says Captain Eugene “Buddy” Ferris. “Al Qaeda will blow up bombs in markets. Al Jaish Al Islami [the Islamic Army] won’t,” Ferris adds. “If reconciliation is ever going to occur then the Islamic Army is a group you could work with.”
Both insurgent groups tag the walls with slogans, threats, and boasts.
Al Qaeda’s street artists write: “The Samarra police are infidels, so we will bring you young men who love martyrdom,” and “We will destroy all those who cooperate with the Americans.”
The Islamic Army scribes write much the same thing, but threaten “the occupiers” instead of the local security forces and collaborators.
Matthew’s job is to redirect the artistic impulses of each group against the other. “It’s a way to destabilize their unification efforts,” says First Lieutenant Charlie Hodges, who leads one of the graffiti patrols.
Abu Tiba, the alleged leader of Al Qaeda in Samarra, is a frequent subject.
Hodges tells Matthew to write something really terrible about Abu Tiba, something that the Islamic Army of Iraq might say about him, something that will start a fight.
Matthew nods. Then in bright red paint he writes “Abu Tiba is a terrorist and those who work with him are terrorists.”
It seems somehow less menacing than the crossed out “USA” daubed next to it on the dusty brown wall.
Hodges does not read Arabic, so he asks a reporter traveling with the platoon to translate. Hodges is clearly disappointed. The black propaganda effort needs a lot more street cred than Matthew is giving him.
They climb back into the Humvees, drive around the corner, and try again.
Hodges sees writing on the wall, but he has to ask to make sure that it is insurgent sloganeering and not something else, such as a sign advertising someone’s vegetable stand.
He asks about one long sentence. Matthew tells him it is a Koranic verse. “Leave that one alone,” Hodges says.
Finally they find a message telling the occupiers to leave. Matthew scribbles over it. Then Hodges tries again. “This time, I want you to write that Al Qaeda has killed many in the Islamic Army,” he says.
“Al Qaeda has killed many from the Islamic Army,” Matthew writes.
Then the local Iraqi police step in, not to handcuff Matthew and charge him with vandalism, but to offer suggestions on how to spice up his prose.
Many of the police are well-practiced themselves, having sprayed messages like “Long live Iraq, Long live the First Battalion,” and “the First Battalion are Heroes” on the blast walls surrounding their bases and compounds.
An argument ensues between Matthew and the police – three men in mismatched uniforms with AK-47 assault rifles slung around their necks.
One cop finally suggests something that is greeted with enthusiasm. Matthew amends the message.
“Al Qaeda has killed many FIGHTERS from the Islamic Army.”
The paint is running out. Hodges tells Matthew that his writing is too large, and orders everyone back to the vehicles.
The heavily armed US soldiers who had fanned out along the darkened street return to the Humvees, the police climb into their pickup trucks, and under the cover of darkness and an all-night curfew they head back to base.
Again, the use of graffiti to incite conflict between competing insurgents is adaptive, innovative, and apparently effective. It is not learned at Quantico or Leavenworth. It is learned in the school of the hard knocks. The U.S. troops are the best in the world, but there are two cautionary comments that are appropriate at this point.
First, troops (most of the time) are given some basic instruction in Arabic as part of the training for deployment. This training is based on the philosophy of phonetics (i.e., sounds, proper pronunciation). With limited time, money and resources, this is the best approach and sure to yield the best possible results in the short term. But proper planning for the long war needs to take the next step. Immersion in Arabic (both spoken and written) needs to be part of the planning for not only officers, but enlisted men as well. A better knowledge of Arabic would cause a remarkable step change in warfighting capabilities in Iraq (and throughout the Middle East) given the nature of COIN.
Second, we must remember that the counterinsurgency will morph upon the potential demise of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). It doesn’t end, and in fact it might become more complicated given the potential support of the broader population if this revised and restructured insurgency no longer engages in acts of brutality towards the population.