Sunday, February 26, 2006

Iraq: Between the Insurgents

The International Crisis Group, based in Brussels and Amman, has issued a fascinating analysis of the Iraqi insurgency, based on the various groups own propaganda. Much of the report runs against the commonplace commentary on the Iraqi rebellion that you hear out of Washington, and of course it is based to some extent on the insurgents’ wishful thinking. But it is very revealing. The full report can be found at In Their Own Words: Reading the Iraqi Insurgency. Middle East Report N°50, 15 February 2006.

But, good as it is, the report’s recommendation tend to underscore a problem which is not addressed: the extent to which the American presence itself has become the problem in Iraq. U.S. troops are in the unvenviable position of a cop who shows up at a domestic dispute. The husband and wife might be murdering each other, but they both see the police as the enemy, frustrating their impassioned desire for retribution and revenge. Now imagine if the cop doesn’t even speak the same language …

Bill Buckley, who is not usually cited by, made its mailing list this week by making precisely that point: “Our mission has failed because Iraqi animosities have proved uncontainable by an invading army of 130,000 Americans. The great human reserves that call for civil life haven't proved strong enough. No doubt they are latently there, but they have not been able to contend against the ice men who move about in the shadows with bombs and grenades and pistols.”

What follows is part of the executive summary of the ICG report:

The insurgency increasingly is dominated by a few large groups with sophisticated communications. It no longer is a scattered, erratic, chaotic phenomenon. Groups are well organised, produce regular publications, react rapidly to political developments and appear surprisingly centralised.

There has been gradual convergence around more unified practices and discourse, and predominantly Sunni Arab identity. A year ago groups appeared divided over practices and ideology but most debates have been settled through convergence around Sunni Islamic jurisprudence and Sunni Arab grievances. For now virtually all adhere publicly to a blend of Salafism and patriotism, diluting distinctions between foreign jihadis and Iraqi combatants – though that unity is unlikely to outlast the occupation.

Despite recurring contrary reports, there is little sign of willingness by any significant insurgent element to join the political process or negotiate with the U.S. While covert talks cannot be excluded, the publicly accessible discourse remains uniformly and relentlessly hostile to the occupation and its “collaborators”.

The groups appear acutely aware of public opinion and increasingly mindful of their image. Fearful of a backlash, they systematically and promptly respond to accusations of moral corruption or blind violence, reject accusations of a sectarian campaign and publicise efforts to protect civilians or compensate their losses. Some gruesome and locally controversial practices – beheading hostages, attacking people going to the polls – have been abandoned. The groups underscore the enemy’s brutality and paint the U.S. and its Iraqi allies in the worst possible light: waging dirty war in coordination with sectarian militias, engaging in torture, fostering the country’s division and being impervious to civilian losses.

The insurgents have yet to put forward a clear political program or long-term vision for Iraq. Focused on operations, they acknowledge this would be premature and potentially divisive. That said, developments have compelled the largest groups to articulate a more coherent position on elections, and the prospect of an earlier U.S. withdrawal than anticipated is gradually leading them to address other political issues.
The insurgency is increasingly optimistic about victory. Such self-confidence was not there when the war was conceived as an open-ended jihad against an occupier they believed was determined to stay. Optimism stems from a conviction the legitimacy of jihad is now beyond doubt, institutions established under the occupation are fragile and irreparably illegitimate, and the war of attrition against U.S. forces is succeeding.
The emergence of a more confident, better organised, coordinated, information-savvy insurgency, increasingly susceptible to Sunni Arab opinion, carries profound implications for policy-makers. That it has survived, even thrived, despite being vastly outnumbered and outgunned, suggests the limitations of the current counter-insurgency campaign. Its discourse may be dismissed as rhetoric, but, notwithstanding credible reports of internal tensions, it appears to have been effective at maintaining agreement on core operational matters, generating new recruits, and mobilising a measure of popular sympathy among its target audience.

Countering the insurgency requires taking its discourse seriously, reducing its legitimacy and increasing that of the Iraqi government. The harm from excessive use of force, torture, tactics that inflict widespread civilian injury and reliance on sectarian militias outweighs any military gain. It is essential for the U.S. to hold the new government accountable and make clear that long-term relations, economic aid and military cooperation depend on disbanding militias, halting political killings and respecting human rights. U.S. Ambassador Khalilzad has recently struck a candid tone, which should be followed with proactive measures. The U.S. and its allies are unable to establish a monopoly over the use of force but they can and should do so over the legitimate use of force, which means establishing the legitimacy both of the means being deployed and of the state on whose behalf force is being exercised.


To the United States and its Coalition and Iraqi Allies:

1. Closely monitor, control and, if necessary, punish the behaviour of security forces.

2. Halt recourse to the most questionable types of practices, including torture and extraordinary methods of interrogation and confinement, collective punishment and extrajudicial killings.

3. End the use of sectarian militias as a complement to, or substitute for, regular armed forces and begin a serious process of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) of militia fighters.

To the United States:

4. Hold the new government accountable and make clear that longer-term relations, economic assistance and future military cooperation will depend on the steps it takes to rein in and ultimately disband militias, halt politically motivated killings, and respect human rights and the rule of law.

5. Make clear its willingness, while it remains in Iraq, to negotiate openly the terms of its presence and its rules of engagement.

6. Make clear repeatedly and at the highest level that it accepts that the oil resources of the country belong to the Iraqi people and no one else, and will withdraw from Iraq as soon as the newly elected government so requests.

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