Attacking the Enemy’s Strategy in Iraq

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 7 months ago

“Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy.  Next best is to disrupt his alliances.  The next best is to attack his army.”  Sun Tzu, The Art of War, III.4 – III.6

The role of Syria – at least tacitly – in the suicide bombings in Iraq and other foreign terrorist activities is well known.  Yet only recently is the United States diplomatic corps said to have lost patience with Syria.  Despite reports to the contrary, Iran continues to fund, arm, train and supply terrorists in Iraq in an effort to destabilize the country.  The foreign origins of the violence in Iraq could have been (and could be) better addressed than it has been.  The EFP (explosively formed projectile) factories in Iran should have been enemy targets as much as insurgent domiciles, and the Syrian Imams who recruited and supplied suicide bombers into Iraq should have been considered enemy fighters as much as those holding a weapon in Fallujah or Baghdad.  While the U.S. has conducted robust kinetic operations against the foreign fighters in Iraq with huge success, the strategy could still have been completed with so-called black operations against rogue elements in Syria and more visible operations against EFP factories in Iran (or at least diplomatic pressure against Iran, something the State Department seems loath to do).

However, in the area of the indigenous insurgents, the U.S. strategy has been more lucid.  The goal in counterinsurgency is to disrupt the allegiance of the people to the insurgents and then to ameliorate the conditions that led to the insurgency.  Kinetic operations against foreign fighters were necessary because they fight mainly due to religious motivation.  However, for the indigenous fighters, for months we have advocated both settling with the erstwhile insurgents and payment to the concerned citizens as both effective and anthropologically sound.  It has become in vogue, especially among the political left, to level very specific criticisms at this approach.  Kevin Drum gives us the template for this strategy bashing.

I’ve mentioned a few times before that our “bottoms up” strategy of supporting Sunni tribes in the provinces surrounding Baghdad carries a number of risks. The biggest risk, I suppose, is that once the tribes finally feel safe from the threat of al-Qaeda in Iraq, they’ll relaunch their insurgency and start shooting at American soldiers again. The second biggest risk is that the Shiite central government understands perfectly well that “competing armed interest groups” in the provinces are — well, competing armed interest groups.

That phrase comes from Australian Lt. Col. David Kilcullen (here), and a week ago I linked to a quote from a U.S. Army officer who was fairly candid about the effect that arming the tribes is likely to have on the balance of power in Iraq. “The grass-roots level will force change at the top,” he suggested, “because if they do not act on it, they will get overrun.”

Quite so. And does the Maliki government understand this threat? Via Cernig, AP reporter Diaa Hadid makes it clear that they do indeed:

Iraq’s Shiite-led government declared Saturday that after restive areas are calmed it will disband Sunni groups battling Islamic extremists because it does not want them to become a separate military force.

….The statement from Defense Minister Abdul-Qadir al-Obaidi was the government’s most explicit declaration yet of its intent to eventually dismantle the groups backed and funded by the United States as a vital tool for reducing violence.

“We completely, absolutely reject the [Sunni] Awakening becoming a third military organization,” al-Obaidi said at a news conference.

He added that the groups would also not be allowed to have any infrastructure, such as a headquarters building, that would give them long-term legitimacy. “We absolutely reject that,” al-Obaidi said.

The Maliki government has made similar noises in the past, but this is by far the most unequivocal they’ve ever been about it. And needless to say, the Sunni leaders are having none of it. There’s exactly zero chance that they will ever voluntarily disband their “Concerned Local Citizens” groups.

Who knows? Maybe this is posturing more than anything else. Maybe Petraeus and Crocker can work some magic that will defuse all this. But a year from now, if the Iraqi civil war is raging once again, this is where it will have started.

UPDATE: In the New York Times, Alissa Rubin and Damien Cave have a long overview piece on the current status of the Awakening. Money quote: “The Americans are haunted by the possibility that Iraq could go the way of Afghanistan, where Americans initially bought the loyalty of tribal leaders only to have some of them gravitate back to the Taliban when the money stopped.” The whole thing is worth a read.

Surely, with the Sunni leaders warning against sidelining the auxiliary police and concerned citizens, the Maliki administration should listen carefully.  Furthermore, Major General Rick Lynch has been clear on U.S. expectations for the administration.

A top U.S. commander warned that Sunnis who fight al-Qaida in Iraq must be rewarded and recognized as legitimate members of Iraqi society – or else the hard-fought security gains of the past six months could be lost.

Lynch has credited these groups for much of the improvement in security in the region he commands, an area that stretches to the Iranian and Saudi Arabian borders …

The people say security is good now, but we need jobs. It’s all about jobs and we have to create them,» he told The Associated Press as he flew into patrol base Salie, just south of Baghdad – where U.S. troops fund about 150 members of the tribal groups.  We are in a tenuous situation. We need to give jobs to the citizens (groups) or they will go back to fighting.

Lynch, who leads the 3rd Infantry Division, said he had 26,000 members of the groups in the area he controls and that they have given U.S. and Iraqi forces a key advantage in seeking to clear extremist-held pockets. They number about 70,000 countrywide, and are expected to grow by another 45,000 in coming months …

The U.S. military now funds the groups, known as Awakening Councils, Concerned Citizens and other names. But these Sunni groups expect to be rewarded for their efforts with jobs, either in the Iraqi security forces or elsewhere.

Having been militarily defeated by U.S. forces, we consider it to be unlikely that the Sunnis would take up the fight once again with the U.S.  More likely, however, is an escalation in the low intensity civil war that was ongoing for much of the previous two years.  This all makes it critical that political progress take root in the wake of the military successes.  But Kevin Drum’s concluding comment is absurd: ” … a year from now, if the Iraqi civil war is raging once again, this is where it will have started.”

Rather than an observation of the necessity for political progress, this statement follows the template of criticism set out by the left, and it has been followed with religious fervor.  Note carefully what Drum charges.  Rather than the seeds of violence being one thousand years of religious bigotry between Shi’a and Sunni, or recent history under Saddam’s rule, or the temptations of oil revenue in a land that has not ever seen the largesse of its natural resources due to corruption, the cause is said to be the “concerned local citizens” groups, i.e., U.S. strategy.

This outlandish claim betrays the presuppositions behind it – specifically, that it would be somehow better to continue the fighting than to, as they charge, buy peace with money.  But for the hundreds of thousands of disaffected Sunni workers who have no means to support their families, this criticism is impotent and offers no alternative to working for the insurgency to feed their children.  It ignores basic daily needs, and thus is a barren and unworkable view when considering the human condition.

The strategy all along has been one of ground-up counterinsurgency.  The statements by military leadership in Iraq, far from hiding the fact that political progress must follow on the heels of military progress, show not only a knowledge of this fact, but demonstrate that it is this way by design.  The intent from the beginning has been one of providing the window of opportunity for political reconciliation, at least insofar as the provision of basic human needs is concerned.  In this way, command in Iraq has attacked the enemy’s strategy, and has done so with remarkable success.

To the chattering class, success of the preparatory stages (the counterinsurgency proper), doesn’t provide a reason to hail the successes of the campaign.  Rather, it provides a reason to level the a priori charge that we caused a civil war, if in fact one ensues.  To the more sensible thinker, it should remind us of the fact that we are not finished, and more work needs to be done to complete the campaign.

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  1. On December 26, 2007 at 1:38 pm, Mark Eichenlaub said:

    The refusal to deal with the bomb factories in Iran and training in Syria continues to baffle me. For an administration that is said to be “cowboy” and “go it alone” it seems more of a State dept./Internationalist mentality in giving the enemies these safety zones.

  2. On January 2, 2008 at 11:37 am, Brian H said:

    Ah, sense on the CLCs. Nice to see. Calling “bullshit” on the “re-arming insurgents” meme is crucial. It’s all about involvement and investment (including local investment in stability and governance and economic viability).

    Once again, I would like to point out to the baffled pundocracy the striking change in the wealth distribution in Iraq, at least in potential.

    Almost a year ago it was revealed that SH had suppressed seismic data showing ~100 bn bbl reserves in oil fields “spread like a string of pearls across Anbar”. Doing some simple ratio math, it turns out that this makes every Sunni (excluding Kurds, who are a special category) 3X oil-richer than his Shia counterparts (20% of the population has ~45% of the oil, 80% has ~55%, 45/20 is about triple 55/80). So the Sunni are no longer parasitic poor cousins.

    Consider the consequences. Please.

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You are currently reading "Attacking the Enemy’s Strategy in Iraq", entry #852 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Concerned Citizens,Counterinsurgency,Featured,Iraq and was published December 26th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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