A lot of people engage in ethnocentric projection by talking about “The Iraqi Insurgency.” A lot the commentary makes it appear that the insurgents are all part of the same group with the same goals. That is not the case. Like most 3rd-world peoples, the people of Iraq identify weakly with the nation-state in which they live. Their primary loyalties lie with family, clan, ethnic group and religion in that order. The vast majority of insurgents do not fight because they believe it is best for all the people of Iraq, but because they believe it will benefit their own subset of the population. Thinking of the problem in terms of western nationalism or patriotism is a big mistake.

There isn’t one insurgency in Iraq but rather four or five. Each insurgency is attached to a specific ethnic and religious group and each insurgency has its own goals which contradict the goals of the other insurgencies. Only the superficial reporting of the media makes it seem like one big fight. In reality, we have multiple enemies which we can turn against one another.

The first insurgency is composed of foreign Sunnis who come to Iraq to fight the jihad. They are mainly Wahabist fanatics who are by far the most vicious and amoral. They are responsible for most of the bombings directed at civilians. They seek to recreate in Iraq another pre-9/11 Afghanistan: a failed state they can use as a base for their attacks on other countries. They seek domination of the nation by Sunnis but not by the native Sunnis.

The second insurgency is composed of a minority of Shias following Al-Sadr. They come from the poorest of Iraq’s poor. Most come from the slums of Baghdad. It’s as if someone assembled an American insurgency from the young men of the nation’s worst housing projects. They seek a Shia-controlled theocracy like Iran. At present they have lost popular support among the Shias and are a mostly defeated force.

The third insurgency is composed of the Sunni clans who have dominated Iraq for centuries. They view themselves much as upper-class post-Civil War whites did. They seek to maintain their positions of power and privilege against the lesser Sunni clans and the Shias and the Kurds. Most were co-opted or bought off by Saddam but were never part of his trusted clan. They are struggling for a “Saddam lite” solution, where the Coalition gives up and goes away leaving them in charge.

The fourth insurgency is comprised of the former inner members of the Baathist regime and members of Saddam’s extended clan. They seek a return to their glory days. They too would like a “Saddam lite” solution but with a member of their clan in charge.

Apart from a small group of radical communist Kurds no other group even shows up on the radar. Each of the four insurgencies wants a different outcome. Both foreign and native Sunnis hate and fear the Shias and will not cooperate with them. The native Sunnis want an orderly nation-state with them in charge, which puts them at odds with the foreign fighters. The Baathist and Saddamites must struggle against the more traditional Sunni clans.

It is likely that all but the foreign fighters would prefer to see a victory by the Coalition and the provisional government than to see one of the other insurgencies secure overall power. Defeat at the hands of the Coalition means assuming a non-dominating role in a future Iraq. Defeat at the hands of the other insurgents means death and slavery. The various Sunnis had been cooperating somewhat until recently, but cracks have begun to appear. The third insurgency seems to be tiring of having all the fighting happening in their backyard, and they are fearful that they will be excluded from the upcoming elections. The foreign fighters and the Baathists are also terrorizing the other Sunnis almost as much as they terrorize other groups.

To secure Iraq, we don’t need people to love us or trust us. We just need to convince them that we represent the best chance for their particular sub-group to have a good future. The fact that each group in Iraq has greater cause to fear each other than to fear us give us an enormous advantage.

6 thoughts on “Insurgent-cies”

  1. A lot of people engage in ethnocentric projection by talking about “The Iraqi Insurgency.” A lot the commentary makes it appear that the insurgents are all part of the same group with the same goals.

    No enemy is ever a monolithic force, but most people tend to see it that way.

    Btw, the foreign Sunnis are likely not a monolithic force themselves. I can think of a variety of agendas they might have, and I it is unlikely that all of them just follow one of them.

  2. “When you have one problem, you have a problem. When you have several problems, they can end up solving themselves.”

    Amazingly, some of our more superficial, non-military, non-foreign affairs analysts (yes, I’m thinking of Andrew Sullivan) think the multiplicity of groups within terrorism is an insurmountable difficulty for our military. Fortunately, the professionals in our military still understand the axiom “Divide and Conquer”, ignoring the many kibbitzers who’ve never been to Iraq or fought a war. (And isn’t it pleasant when the enemy divides themselves for you.)

    A well done and informative analysis, Shannon.

  3. Newsflash : all those groups – there are way more than four, I’m afraid – also have one target of predilection in common : us. And attacking Americans is a great way to show off with the locals without turning them away. No other target is so universally attractive and popular in Iraq but us westerners. None.

    I don’t think anyone ever believed this was a national resistance (well, except for the Michael Moore club, but I couldn’t care less what they think). There is potential there. But although progress has been made in some instances – Najaf was much better played than we think – things are still extremely fluid and we’re still mostly in reactive mode. The multiplicity of targets to engage is in fact a problem. You never quite know who you’re dealing with.

    Believing that the enemy is dividing itself is a common mistake. It’s not one enemy splitting apart. It’s a bunch of semi-autonomous, local groups dividing the labor. Sometimes there is geographical overlap and it causes friction between them. That doesn’t mean we’re better off as a result beyond the very short term.

    It’s not a question of them not fearing us at all being a good thing. They do not fear us enough and that is the goddamn problem. They did fear Saddam enough to keep their bullshit under a lid. And they know imposing this kind of fear is not an option for us.

  4. Sylvain Galineau,

    The question isn’t whether they hate us or not. Clearly they do. The question is whether they see us as the lesser of two evils. That is the perception we can exploit.

    For the Shia, if it’s a choice between a return to Sunni domination or a Democratic Iraq they will go for democracy.

    For the Sunni, if it’s a choice between a Shia theocracy and democracy they will go for the democracy.

    All insurgent groups have a dual goal. They must evict the Coalition and then win the subsequent internal struggle for power. For all groups, defeating the Coalition but losing the subsequent battle will result in a condition worse than a Coalition victory.

    In other words, we are everybody’s (except the foreign fighters) second choice. Each group fears another group of Iraqi more than they fear us. We can use this fact to convince them to lay down arms.

  5. Whether they see us as a lesser evil is only relevant in the short term. It only buys us a little bit of time.

    I am afraid your assumptions are far too limited, if not prosaic; that both Shia or Sunni will pick democracy as a default is too cute by half. As a minority, why would the Sunni want a democracy any more than a Shia theocracy ? They’d be screwed by majority rule either way. Maybe they want neither and, over time, will decide they want partition and fight for it.

    A westerner would indeed conclude we are the second choice. But there is a huge gap between us believing that from the comfort of rational thinking, and them being convinced that’s the case. They don’t trust us, they don’t believe us and there is ample evidence that a coalition victory is considered the worst possible outcome by those who fight. And since they are the ones we are battling with, this is the assumption we should start from.

    This is not Bosnia. Or Kosovo. Rational triangulation of mutual interests does not apply; or when it does, it is either accidental or a temporary alliance of convenience. Parts of Iraq are more like Lebanon; see the various attempts, by westerners and Israeli alike, to play this kind of game with the Beirut factions and how we all assumed they would eventually prefer our benevolent rule to the harsh alternatives.

    We all packed and went home, eventually. After being played like a fiddle by the locals. Now increase Lebanon by an order of magnitude in size, population and combinations.

    Not that I think it can’t be done. It can. But it’s a hell of a chess game. The kind America has had very limited experience at. The kind the Brits, on the other hand, were very good at in the old days, after they learned the hard way (cue Lex).

  6. Only time for a quickie. The over-arching issue of why imperialism as it was once done doesn’t work any more is too big to take on here. Once upon a time a guy like Lord Cromer could quietly run Egypt from a backoffice in Cairo while the Egyptian governmnent composed of Egyptians went through the motions. That is harder to do now.

    The British got out of the Empire business because it got awfully hard to do it cheaply and successfully. We could learn a lot from their history, tactically, and the books are there to be read. And we could learn the stratetic lesson that trying to run these remote places is bloody damned expensive in lives and treasure and should be undertaken a spirit of utmost seriousness. Another post I’d like to write is about analogies between this Iraq effort and the British effort in the Boer War, where inadequate planning and thinking and placating of other countries led to all kinds of problems. There are many analogies.

    For now, I think we should try to enlist as many groups as possible within Iraq to buy into the regime we are setting up. There will be holdouts, like Sunnis affiliated with the old regime and foreign jihadis, and shiites who follow Sadr. Some combination of bribery and force will have to be applied to these groups. Whether the whole governmental contraption is viable is an open question. I do think the elections will help establish legitimacy. I also think a Bush victory will dishearten some of the resistance.

    Of course, the British ran Iraq for a few decades themselves, sometimes using rather brutal methods. They kept it reasonably quiet for much of the period. An equivalent achievement today would be worth a lot. I’m not sure it is achievable.

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