Four years on in Iraq, the White House still portrays the war as a life and death struggle between the forces of good, the US led Multi-national forces, and the forces of evil, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
With the advent of the new "surge" strategy, the media ledes have been triumphing the numerous coalition "anti-Al Qaeda" operations in Anbar province including the areas of Karmah, Baqubah and the Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad. These operations have the intent to secure Baghdad and other major urban areas from insurgent terrorism. The strategy writ simple is to deny the insurgents an urban sanctuary and killing ground as well as to secure the Iraqi population from their sectarian attacks through a series of wide-area operations. But are we fighting the right enemy?
A better question is whom are we fighting? The response heard most often is that we are fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq. In May 2007 the President declared "Al Qaeda is public enemy number one in Iraq." The consensus opinion, from the Pentagon to the PFC, is that America is waging a desperate fight against Al Qaeda both in and out of Iraq and it will directly determine the national security on the streets of Europe and America. Additionally, for four years Abu Mussab Zarqawi, AQI's first leader, was portrayed as the commander of the insurgency. It was an easily consumable media narrative so effective that even the Iraqis believed it until his death.
There is no question that Al Qaeda is a real threat but are they the main threat? Has AQI has been catapulted to the top of the insurgency by virtue of the fact that they carry out the most dramatic and sectarian attacks or hard intelligence? In fact, listening to Washington one would think that the coalition forces are pretty much fighting "All AQI. All the Time." As with most things in Mesopotamia, this is not nearly so clear cut. The answer may or may not surprise you.
When I completed my most recent book "The Terrorists of Iraq: Inside the Strategy and Tactics of the Iraq Insurgency" many of my warfighting peers, both in and out of Iraq, insisted AQI was commanding the insurgency. When asked what gave them this impression they insisted that AQI was by far the smartest, most capable of the insurgent groups due to their car bomb (SVBIED) attacks. They argued that AQI had fostered a virulent, militant form of Islam among the formerly secular Sunni Iraqis. Some also point out that the formation of the Islamic State (Emirate) of Iraq and attempts to enforce Islamic law (Shari'a) on the population was the strategic error that pushed the Iraqi tribes of Anbar province into the arms of the coalition. In short: AQI was bad. Very bad. Having survived an AQI suicide bombing, I knew this to be true but does stopping the spectacular nature of their tactical weapons selection override the strategic mission to secure Iraq from all insurgents. In some minds, it had.
On the other hand, many advocates of immediate withdrawal, weary of the bloodletting, bank on the hope that the other groups of the insurgency will dispose of AQI as soon as the US forces withdraw and leave the battlefield. AQI is often described by administration opponents as a convenient smokescreen and boogeyman for the White House to use to keep American troops in Iraq. Knowing the particulars of AQI's strategy, who wants to take a chance on the insurgents doing our job once we leave?
Both sides of the argument have points but some of them are extreme and require a bit of myth-busting before any salient discussion of counterinsurgency strategy can occur.
We Really Don't Know Our Enemy That Well - It is well documented that the Sunni insurgency is composed of three wings of insurgents. It is composed of the nationalist Former Regime Loyalists (FRLs) and their former military elements (FREs). This force may be upwards to 29,000 active combatants carrying out over 100 unconventional attacks per day using improvised explosive devices, rockets and automatic weapons ambushes. The FRL-originated Jaysh al-Mujahideen is composed of former Saddam Fedayeen, Special Republican Guard intelligence officers, former-Ba'athists, Sunni volunteers and their families. The second wing is the nationalist Iraqi Religious Extremists (IREs). These are forces including the Islamic Army of Iraq, Ansar al-Sunnah and other smaller groups, which may total approximately 5,000 fighters, sprinkled throughout western, central and northern Iraq. On occasion come into the conversation when one of their attacks is particularly daring or when the coalition claims it is negotiating their departure from the battlefront. Inevitably these "lesser" insurgent groups are portrayed as bit players on the sidelines of the epic.
Finally, the foreign fighters of the Al Qaeda in Iraq and its umbrella group the Islamic Emirate of Iraq (aka Islamic State of Iraq) may be as few as 1,500 fighters and supporters and may also have direct links to the two other tiers.
Overwhelming evidence exists that that the FRLs have been waging the lion's share of the insurgency. Until 2004 they were considered a separate part of the insurgency but recently they have been called 'Al Qaeda-associated' because AQI was operating in their area of operations ... by 2007 it wasn't hard for Washington to make a semantic and rhetorical leap to refer to all insurgency forces as "Al Qaeda."
This is an error worth remembering. For over four years the FRLs (especially the paramilitary Saddam Fedayeen and Special Republican Guard) almost exclusively carries out IED, indirect fire (IDF), sniping, aircraft shoot downs and ambush attacks with conventional weapons with alarming regularity which account for the lion share of the US forces' 3,500 KIAs. The smaller IREs did the same type of attacks but occasionally peppered their missions with Suicide bombings. AQI almost exclusively perform carries out suicide car bombings and suicide vest bombings (SVBIED/SPBIED). They occasionally perform IED, rocket, MANPAD and even a few impressive massed infantry attacks on Iraqi Police and government buildings (such as the symbolic assault on Abu Ghraieb prison in 2005). In fact, AQI's impact on US forces is actually quite small in comparison to the FRLs and IREs.
When the first SVBIEDs of the post-war were launched against the Jordanian embassy, the UN's Canal Road HQ and Sheik Hakim in Najaf the mindset of our commanders was to associate all insurgent related terrorism events to Zarqawi and Al Qaeda. This group-think about the foreign fighters went on right up until Zarqawi was killed in 2006. Faced with an increase in IED and SVBIED attacks after his death, and because some minor groups were joining forces in resistance councils it became convenient to call everyone Al Qaeda in Iraq.
AQI Does Not Command the Insurgency - In November 2005 at a speech at the US Naval Academy the President once accurately described AQI as "the smallest, but the most lethal" insurgent force. Many claim that their size, intelligence, and history put them at the top tier of the resistance. To claim AQI leads the insurgency would have to allow that AQI has a more politically savvy guerilla military and political operation on the ground than the entirety of the former regime and the present Government of Iraq. This is giving them too much credit.
AQI is a microscopic paramilitary terror force that selects very specific weapons for very specific targets to meet strategic goals of their cultish reading of Islam. However, AQI itself has been subject to a significant degradation since January 2005. I believe that since mid-2003 AQI coordinated their SVBIED campaigns in 2004 and 2005 with the support of the FRLs networks. It hard to believe that foreign fighters can enter the Iraqi Sunni community, anywhere, without first kissing the ring of the local FRL or Iraqi religious extremist insurgents.
The AQI SVBIED is used almost exclusively as the basis of Zarqawis' anti-Shiite sectarian war strategy (to punish the Shiite community and encourage the Sunnis to fight together) and kills relatively few coalition soldiers compared to other weapons. Without question the number one killer in Iraq is the roadside IED, followed closely by automatic weapons fire - this is the tactical situation on the ground and it is an unambiguous indicator that a much larger force than AQI is performing these attacks. It is obvious that the FRL backed insurgent groups, with their massive all-Sunni pre-war intelligence and paramilitary apparatus remain intact in carrying out the traditional anti-coalition ambush operations they put into motion in 2003. Granted, in the dynamic and fluid terror-dome that is Iraq, our soldiers could be fighting AQI in the morning, FRLs in the evening and IREs all night but the most likely terror cells our soldiers will encounter in Iraq are the FRL's IEDs on the roads.
Still some classify any Iraqi insurgent support of AQI objectives, active or passive, is often pointed to as a reason to classify all insurgent groups as Al Qaeda. This reading of the enemy does not take into account the diverse strategies, goals, personalities and political linkages of the other insurgents. It lumps them all into one pot and uses the same hammer to try to smash them. Hammering this particular insurgency is like smashing a ball of mercury with your palm. You may get a little of it under your control (and the toxins that come with it) but the rest will disperse, roll away and reform as they please.
AQI has reached its tactical goals in a very limited sense, as they are on the ground fighting the Americans --this makes great video propaganda but beyond the attacks, there is nothing there but air. On the other hand, AQI has never been within sight of their stated political goal - to establish a base and safehaven for the spread of their Salafist variant of Islam into the heart of the Middle East.
On occasion, AQI has made feeble attempts to operate in the political sphere through armed force. Sunni Iraqis are Moslems but even they don't want to be told how to live their religious and social lives by foreign extremists. Each attempt, no matter how small, to radicalize and dictate to the Sunni community in Iraq failed miserably. Examples of these failures include the heavy losses in the Iraq-wide mini-Jihad of July 2004 where AQI forces rose up in several cities and tried to impose Islamic law in them; several attempts to impose Shari'a in Ramadi, sections of Mosul and Tel Afar, the 2005 Haifa street uprising in Baghdad and the multiple attempts to seize the Baqubah city government.
Their failures are why AQI manufactures its own reality. TV transmitted SVBIED attacks and Internet based AQI videos makes the insurgency appear wildly successful. This information operation has been far more successful than the attainment of any stated political goals. That is because they have managed to use their net-centric strategic information operation in such as way that they have credibility to their target audience. This has led to a thin but steady stream of manpower and money. Apart from that and the inspirational aspects of their news operation. AQI has not achieved any tangible support from the Iraqi people ... except those that need them to take the heat of coalition operations off of them.
On the other hand, the FRLs have a history of cold, calculated manipulation of the Iraqi people and events using selective intelligence collection, assassination and intimidation and propaganda. It must be remembered that Zarqawi's original AQ backed group Tawheed Wal Jihad came into Iraq just days before the invasion and set up in Fallujah under control of the Saddam Fedayeen. The Iraqi Baath party grew from a covert political organization and its current adherents still operate as "neo-Ba'athists" in Damascus and Latakia, Syria; Cairo, Egypt and even the UAE. The FRLs are operating as a covert intelligence and Fedayeen driven terrorist force, just as they were in the 1950 and 60s before they overthrew the government of Abd al-Karim Qasim and took power. Having had decades of experience researching the lives of the population, they are even more dangerous as their knowledge of the political and personal dynamics in Iraq runs deep. When necessary they have AQI, organized criminals and other forces to assist them.
AQI Did Not Bring the SVBIED, the SPBIED, the IED and Beheading to Iraq -- Many supporters of the 'All AQI. All the time.' meme have limited knowledge of Iraq before the war. The former regime intelligence and paramilitary forces were active for years prior to the war perfecting numerous types of unconventional weapons, which are used extensively throughout the insurgency. In each instance, these systems were first developed and deploy by the FRLs in both the invasion and post-war insurgency. Take beheading for example. Largely attributed to AQI and Zarqawi there was in fact an extensive use of it in 2000 and 2001 by the Saddam Fedayeen. They were tasked to carryout an "anti-prostitution" campaign that targeted against political opponents. They publicly beheaded over 200 wives and women family members of Saddam's enemies. Videos of the brutal beheadings could be found on the streets of Baghdad for less than .25 cents a full year before AQI carried out their first beheading.
The menu of post-war IEDs were found to have been developed by the regime's intelligence agencies under the title "The Ghafiqi project" and "Challenge project" months before the start of the war.
The first SVBIED and SPBIED attacks in Iraq were carried out during the invasion the war by an Army Sergeant and two women. Numerous other SVBIEDs greeted the 3rd Infantry Division during their Thunder Run into Baghdad. Not to mention that a large sophisticated Iraqi intelligence service-built VBIED was part of the plot to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush in Kuwait in 1993.
Is Iran Supporting AQI? -- Iran has created real friction with its involvement with the Shiite militias. In fact, the rise of the Jaysh al Mahdi/Mahdi Militia could be a regional threat unto itself that could eclipse Al Qaeda in the next few years (I will address in another blog). Yet there is little to no evidence that Iran is playing both sides of the fence. Although some advanced weapons such as EFPs, RPGs and mortars have undoubtedly found their way into the hands of the Sunni insurgents through black market arms sales and seizures of Shiite militia arms caches, the Iranians have little to gain for a Sunni insurgency to flourish with AQI at its helm. They have but to watch and let the Sunni insurgency play the game for them. This theme has taken residence in the minds of many who want to see Iran brought into the conflict as a way to take pressure off of Iraq. It's just not credible at this time.
The bottom line is that for US decision makers and commanders to win in Iraq they must to clarify exactly whom we are fighting and deal with them accordingly. There may be misgivings about switching gears from AQI to the FRLs at such a late date because that would openly require an acknowledgement that the strategy of "All AQI. All the time." was flawed from the beginning. Additionally any ceasefire with the former regime insurgents would require a broad political framework involving a regional approach that would have to include Syria, Saudi Arabia and the FRLs themselves. Many in Washington find this politically abhorrent.
In the end, mistaking the FRLs for AQI or AQI for the IREs or a mix of one or the other means that the strategies needed to defeat one specific group will be lost to the singular mindset of 'military destruction of AQI at all costs.' This myopia has lead the effort in Iraq for nigh four years now. Many have become so entrenched that the American people believe they are fighting no one else.
Defeating, disarming or buying out key insurgent groups could yield greater results and a lessening of combat losses through targeted military operations, negotiation, reconstruction, civil affairs projects and cash. From down here at the deck plates level this seems like common sense but it has yet to filter up to the policy makers.
If General Petraeus and his excellent counterinsurgency advisor David Kilcullen are to succeed then the hard reality of enunciating to the American public requires that the terms we use to label the opposition have to be changed. If this is part of an aggressive information operation, as some have suggested, to turn the Iraqi people against the Iraqi Insurgents by giving them all a bad name (AQI), then it's a desperate gambit as most Sunnis know who the real insurgents are in their neighborhood. This rhetoric has already had a negative operational effect by making our own soldiers believe that all of the Sunni insurgents and community supporters are Al Qaeda. This may have led to several instances of battlefield murder, torture and abuses of prisoners.
If the Petraeus strategy is to neutralize AQI first, he may eventually succeed, but he may also secure a rested, rearmed, refueled, retrained insurgency that are not AQI. The FRLs appear smart enough to let Petraeus do just this and may even cooperate a little all the while winking and supporting AQI suicide operations ... only time will tell who is the more clever bargainer at the camel bazaar.