Friday, February 16, 2007

Revisiting the enemy

Gene Lyons writes in War is self-defeating Arkansas Democrat-Gazette 02/14/07:

The longer it continues, the more self-defeating and dangerous this misconceived "war on terror" becomes. It’s simply not possible to wage war on an abstract noun. Like a drunk in a barroom brawl, the Bush administration knows it’s getting hit, but not exactly whom to blame. So now it wants to fight everybody in the joint. Judging by the administration’s latest deeply unconvincing propaganda campaign, it’s Iran’s turn. Unnamed “senior U. S. military officials” have made “educated guesses” that the Iranian government smuggles bombs into Iraq to kill American soldiers. Guesses ? You’d almost think the officers peddling this stuff hoped not to be believed. Last week, Iran was allegedly helping Sunni extremists, its mortal enemies. Now the other side. Actually, there are at a minimum four sides in Iraq’s civil war, but I digress.
Lyons is focusing more on the claims of the Cheney-Bush administration about Iranian meddling in Iraq. Or, as he puts it:

So the cunning Persian mullahs are sneaking explosives into Iraq and stamping them "Made in Iran"? People, even George W. Bush ain’t that dumb, although some who work for him definitely are.
But his comment about how the Cheney team "knows it’s getting hit, but not exactly whom to blame" is also a reminder that when we hear about attacks in Iraq, the perpetrators are rarely described as belonging to particular groups. "Sunni" or "Shi'a" is about all we get. And even that is much more specific than what we often got before.

Terrorism expert Steve Simon wrote about the Iraq War recently for the Council on Foreign Relations:
After the Surge: The Case for U.S. Military Disengagement from Iraq Feb 2007. He summarizes the insurgent groupings as follows:

From 2005 onward, the insurgents coalesced around a few groups, including the Islamic Army in Iraq, the Partisans of the Sunna army, the Mujahidin’s army, Muhammad’s army, and Islamic Resistance Movement in Iraq. As their names suggest, the use of violence by the insurgency has been increasingly justified in religious terms. What started as an uprising directed against the U.S. intervention under the banner of Iraqi nationalism has achieved ideological coherence by fusing the powerful appeal of nationalism with an austere Sunni Salafism. The attraction of Salafist doctrine for the insurgents is the strict boundary it draws between those involved in the jihad and those who are not. According to this interpretation of Salafism, those not backing the struggle can be branded as nonbelievers and, as such, executed. The encroachment of Salafism has intensified the inherent bloodthirstiness of the sectarian violence. Shias can be murdered either because they do not follow the "true path of Islam" or because they form the majority of the security forces, or both. The inability of American forces to slow the transformation of the insurgency from liberation movement to sectarian civil war, or to reduce its toxicity, should compound skepticism about their utility in Iraq. (my emphasis)
Salafism is one brand of fundamentalist Islam. Scholars of Islam seem to think that the Al-Qaida-type jihadist groups are better classified as one variety of Salafist, rather than some other commonly used characterizations, like "Wahhabi", which is a distinct theological tradition from Salafism.

Most of the attacks on Americans come from Sunni groups who constitute the "insurgency" portion of the Iraq War. Though the US has also had conflicts with the Shi'a Mahdi Army led by Muqtada al-Sadr, or JAM from its Arabic name, and is at least talking about targeting JAM during the current McCain escalation, the bulk of the fighting that directly involves American soldiers is with Sunni insurgents.

Among the sectarina/factional militias, Simon lists the armed wings of the Kurdish groups Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK); the Badr Brigade, which is the armed wing the Shi'a party SCIRI; and, the Mahdi Army with a number of smaller Shi'a militias. Simon writes:

These militias vary in size, organization, and degree of discipline. At the most local level they can consist of little more than a few thugs with guns who take control of neighborhood streets and pry support and money from people in areas they control in return for the limited protection they can offer. At the other end of the scale is Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army, whose 10,000 fighters make it the largest and most cohesive. Capitalizing on a large charitable network built by his late father before regime change, Sadr has used radical anti-American rhetoric to rally disaffected Iraqis to his organization. Sadr’s popularity has increased as the intervention has failed to deliver significant improvements to people’s lives. The events of April and August 2004 showed that Sadr is able to launch rebellions in the south. Today, he maintains the ability to foster unrest in the key towns of Basra, Amara, Kut, Nassiriya, Najaf, Kufa, Karbala, and Baghdad. Ominously, the geographic spread of these uprisings indicates that smaller militias and armed gangs have used Sadr’s confrontation to assert their own autonomy against the fragile Iraqi state. The decentralized nature of Sadr’s militia continues to cause problems. In spite of Sadr’s repeated calls for calm in the aftermath of the al-Askari shrine bombing in February 2006, units associated with the Mahdi army have been blamed for most of the violence in and around Baghdad. (my emphasis)
Lt. Cmdr. Martin Muckian writing in Structural Vulnerabilities of Networked Insurgencies: Adapting to the New Adversary Parameters Winter 2006-07 identifies the following groups:

In contrast [to "Maoist" insurgencies], the Iraqi insurgency is a constantly shifting network of disparate organizations.9 There are currently three main armed groups: Tandhim al-Qa’ida fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (al Qaeda’s Organization in Mesopotamia), Jaysh Ansar al-Sunna (Partisans of the Sunna Army), and al-Jaysh al-Islami fil-’Iraq (The Islamic Army in Iraq). There are also a number of smaller groups. The International Crisis Group has suggested that each of these is "more a loose network of factions involving a common ‘trademark’ than a fully integrated organization." Each group is composed of many small, compartmented or autonomous cells, some as small as two or three people. Many cells specialize in one particular function, such as mortar attacks, improvised explosive device (IED) attacks, assassinations, surveillance, or kidnappings. These groups’ relationships are very fluid.
I have some reservations about Muckian's views. For instance, he writes, "the Iraqi movement is characterized by a lack of any political program related to the future of the country." As a source for this view, he cites In Their Own Words: Reading the Iraqi Insurgency Middle East Report N°50, International Crisis Group 02/15/06. What it actually says, though, in the Executive Summary is:

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. (emphasis in original)
And that was in a report from a year ago. Muckian makes a general statement but leaves the impression that the insurgent groups basically have no political program but that could be very misleading. He's contrasting them with a discription he gives (that also sounds overdrawn) of a very hierarchical Vietcong (NLF) organization in the Vietnam War doing thorough political education. But for the NLF, national independence was the core of their political program. It's not like they went around convincing villagers to endorse every finding and conclusion from Karl Marx's Capital or Lenin's Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.

Still, I do like to occasionally read about what enemy we're actually fighting in Iraq. Since in March the fifth year of the war will begin, we should at least have an idea who the enemy is.

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