Saturday, March 03, 2007

Iraqi Insurgency in a Nutshell - Or Why We're Up the Proverbial Creek

Kevin Berger of, recently interviewed Evan Kohlmann, founder of, "a clearinghouse of virtually every communiqué -- video, audio, Internet, printed -- issued by insurgent groups in Iraq." The Iraqi Insurgency for Beginners

Kohlmann has ... emerged with a clear-eyed view of who is fighting whom in Iraq and why. Given his insights, Kohlmann has been put to work as a consultant by the U.S. Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the FBI and the CIA.

Some highlights:
You have to be careful when you say "insurgency." You have to distinguish between the Shiite militias and the actual insurgency, which is the Sunni groups. Most of the Shiite militia activity is not directed at the U.S., it's directed at the Sunnis. The Sunni insurgency, meanwhile, is directed at everyone -- the U.S., the Iraqi government, the militias.

The best way to divide it up is into three camps. You have Sunni nationalists, initially a large portion of the insurgency; the moderate Sunni Islamists, who use Islamic terminology and talk about establishing a government based on Sharia law; and you have the Salafists, like the group Al-Qaida in Iraq. To them, the fight is not about preserving the borders of Iraq, it's about revolution, about rebuilding something completely new on the basis of some kind of idyllic Muslim empire.
Kohlmann describes the evolution of the Iraqi insurgency from nationalist groups seeking to expel the invader from their midst to increasingly radicalized elements who feel they have no choice but to join forces with Al-Qaida.
Has the U.S. invasion, in fact, strengthened al-Qaida?

Definitely ... The hardcore true believers of al-Qaida at one time were probably 10 percent of the insurgent groups. Now they're 50 percent. Al-Qaida is growing in places it shouldn't. You have groups ... that have transitioned from being traditional insurgents to extremist ones. Or take a popular insurgent group called the 1920 Revolution Brigades. The very name of the group has a nationalist, not Islamist meaning. And yet ... people from the 1920 Revolution Brigade [are] now fighting alongside al-Qaida. The U.S. is failing miserably at containing the spread of al-Qaida.

Why are the more moderate Muslim groups siding with al-Qaida?

They have no choice. There's a group called the Iraqi Islamic Resistance Front ... They ... were also the subject of a flier that was being posted around in Ramadi. The flier was signed by al-Qaida and said the Front was working with the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Iraqi government, and so is no longer a legitimate group. The Front ... issued a statement saying, "We're not working with the government, we're with you guys ..." So there's a lot of pressure to work with al-Qaida or be targeted by it.
Kohlmann notes that those who work for the Iraqi government or for U.S. forces in Iraq are targeted by Al-Qaida and if those who work for anyone else are targeted by the Shiites.
Would al-Qaida have blown up the mosque if the U.S. wasn't in Iraq?

There wouldn't be an al-Qaida in Iraq if the U.S. wasn't there. The story of al-Qaida in Iraq begins in 2003. We handed al-Qaida exactly what it was looking for, a real war in the Middle East where it could lead the way. Al-Qaida is like a virus. It goes for weak victims and it uses conflicts to breed. Iraq gives al-Qaida a training ground, a place to put recruits in combat. If they come back from battle, you have people who have fought together, trained together, you have a military unit. As Richard Clarke has said, it was almost like Osama bin Laden was trying to vibe into George Bush the idea: "Invade Iraq, invade Iraq." This was an opportunity they seized with amazing alacrity. As brutal and terrifying as what they've done is, you have to acknowledge they capitalized on an opportunity that we handed them. (Emphasis added)
And as for democracy:
What happened to the U.S. message of democracy?

It totally failed. The idea of Western-style democracy in Iraq doesn't appeal to anyone. It was our own myth. We thought that if we get rid of Saddam Hussein, people would come together and celebrate and democracy would reign throughout the Middle East. The people who thought that up are people who think Iraq is like Texas ... To Iraqis, tribal affiliations, religion and family mean a lot more than saying, "I'm from Iraq." You know we're doing a bad job of communicating our own message when we're losing the propaganda war to people who cut other people's heads off on camera. Think about it: People in one of the most Westernized countries in the Middle East would rather trust al-Qaida than the United States. That's a terrible sign of things to come.
Of course, now the U.S. is fighting people on all sides of the partisan divide in Iraq.
The U.S. is fighting both the insurgency and Shiite militias, right?

Right. But the Shiites aren't a simple group either. They have divided themselves into two factions: the pro-Arab Shiites who are Iraqi nationalists and the pro-Iranian Shiites. There have been some incidences involving the Shiite Mahdi Army and the U.S. and British military. But the scope of activity between the Mahdi Army and the U.S. military is minute. The militias pose less of a day-to-day insurgent problem and more of a problem in the way they have infiltrated the Iraqi police force and other Iraqi government services, particularly the Interior Ministry, and how they arranging the murder of Sunnis through those agencies. They are creating instability, and that's the main reason we're going after them. It's also the No. 1 reason why Sunnis fight and are upset: The Shiite militias have essentially taken over the law enforcement and are using it to murder Sunnis.

We invaded Iraq to rectify crimes by Saddam Hussein against the Shiites, right? We wanted to bring him to justice. What the Sunni groups are saying is, "How come there's no justice to people who are drilling holes in people heads right now? Never mind 20 years ago." ... So the Sunnis are saying to the U.S. "... we're going to take matters into our own hands." And the Shiites are saying the same thing. They're saying, "You can't protect us from al-Qaida's suicide bombers. Your idea of strengthening security is to crack down on the Mahdi Army, who are the only ones preventing suicide bombers from coming into Sadr City. Why should we trust you? We should rely on ourselves. You can't trust anyone but your own people."
Kohlmann dismisses the Administration's ratcheting up of hostilities toward Iran for its alleged complicity in the deaths of 170 American servicemen while Saudi Arabia is not even criticized for its support of the insurgents
Money and weapons and personnel have been coming across the Saudi and Syrian borders for four years and have been directly aiding Sunni insurgents, who are responsible for the lion's share of U.S. casualties. It's the height of hypocrisy to attack Iran and not criticize Saudi Arabia ... if you want to know who is responsible for the fact that al-Qaida is succeeding in Iraq, it's Saudi Arabia. The most common nationality of foreign insurgents in Iraq has been Saudis. Where do you think all the money comes from to pay for these operations? It's from Saudi donors. I'm not blaming this necessarily on the Saudi government. But they have made some very provocative statements about the idea that if the U.S. withdraws from Iraq, they're going to actively aid Sunnis in their war against Shiites. If we're going to put pressure on Iraq's neighbors, let's put pressure on all of Iraq neighbors to stop contributing to the violence.

Kohlmann is opposed to withdrawal from Iraq due to his fear that it may become a situation akin to Rwanda, and he describes the Iraqi government as a "joke".
So what's the solution?

We have to give people a reason to stop supporting al-Qaida. And the only way to do that is to punish the people who are harming them. We have to show that democratic forces can also hold up justice. Right now, democracy for Iraqis amounts to Shiites in control of the police force and running everything. The things that might convince Sunnis to move back in the other direction would be a real step at trying to reform the Iraqi police force, the Interior Ministry, and try and bring some of the individuals in those places, which have committed gross crimes, including crimes on the scale of Saddam Hussein, to justice.

Does the Bush administration have the smarts to figure that out?

I'm not sure they do. I thought perhaps, in invading Iraq, they had some long-term view that nobody else could see. But that hope faded very quickly. The Bush administration didn't reach out to anyone credible when they were asking about, for instance, the connections between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. Anybody with any real knowledge of the region would have told them there are no connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. The only people who believed that nonsense were lunatics.

Kohlmann's bleak assessment concludes that the "best solution is not to have invaded at all." There are no good options in Iraq, just some options which may be worse than others, and each with its own disadvantages. General Odom is on record as saying that we should leave Iraq because it would remove us as the irritant driving the Iraqi nationalists and perhaps force the warring parties to step back and decide whether they want to continue their downward spiral into mass murder or come to some agreement with each other.

Any solution here would have to include the countries in the region which are using Iraq as their proxy for political jockeying, and even more clear is that the surge will not work. This problem cannot be solved by military force but by diplomatic pressure on neighboring countries and direct pressure on the corrupt and Shiite dominated Iraqi government, police, and Interior Ministry.

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