Friday, February 17, 2006

Topic: Iraq: Three Spheres

The sooner we realize how resilient the insurgency in Iraq is, the sooner we will beat it. The United States military has a single engagement with the insurgents in Iraq, however, in an insurgency, fighting on the battlefield is only one the many arenas in which we must excel to win. The war in Iraq started as a pseudo-third generation warfare (3GW) affair (pseudo, because in the information age, a pure 3GW is almost impossible to wage) and now, of course we are facing a 4th generation warfare opponent.

The Iraqi insurgency operates as a network. Networks are resilient organizations. Why is this network so robust, yet flexible?

The Iraqi insurgency operates within the most active Islamist theater of operation

The jihadists operate a worldwide network that, much like our own U.S. military regional combatant commands (CENTCOM, EUCOM, PACOM, SOUTHCOM, etc), is divided into theaters of operation. There are Islamist groups operating in the Americas, Western Europe and North Africa, however, the most active theater for the jihad is the Greater Middle East. Iraq is located in a central position (geographically and politically) within this theater.

Iraq's geographic position - borders with Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran - allows the relatively easy flow of people (recruits, supporters, etc), materiel, money, doctrine and techniques. Bombings, suicide attacks, kidnappings, beheadings and other terrorist activities are common activities in this theater. Al Qa'eda (a predominantly Sunni organization) has regional partnerships in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Kurdistan with a presence in Jordan and in mostly Shiite Iran. Affiliation with Al Qaeda does not imply direct sponsorship or control from a core Al Qaeda leadership (who is mostly on the run anyway); Al Qaeda (as a movement, not an organization proper) provides influence, not direction.

If the Sunnis operate under the umbrella of Al Qaeda, the Shiites have their own (though interconnected) associations and blueprints for the region, particularly Hizbullah, an organization capable of conducting operations throughout the entire theater. Basically, the Middle East, more than any other theater, provides an optimal environment in which a Islamic insurgency can operate.

Iraq is literally in the middle of that optimal environment for insurgency and our troops have to operate inside that environment. The optimal environment for insurgency is compounded by the fact that Iraq is a very weak state. Saddam Hussein's rule crippled Iraq's economic growth since the early years of the Iran-Iraq war. The fall of Saddam's regime also exposed deep fracture lines in the impoverished country. The insurgency operates in an environment or ecosystem that contains multiple spheres.

The Religious/Ideological Sphere. According to CENTCOM, in terms of manpower, 90 percent of the members of insurgent and terrorist groups in Iraq are Sunni and native Iraqis. At the most, 10 percent of the insurgents are foreigners. While small, the foreign element is mostly Sunni. The foreign element of the resistance is predominantly violent and composed of Islamic fundamentalist that go to Iraq to wage jihad. In addition to personnel, the foreign element offers financial and material support to the insurgency.

This majority Sunni in the insurgency (whether native or foreign) share common ideological roots based on the precepts of Neo-Salafism. So, even though the Sunni insurgents are organized under dozens of groups, most of them share the same ideology: broadly Salafi in orientation. Since Salafism and Wahhabism (both movements advocate a "purist" and authoritarian outlook of Islam) originated and has flourished in the Middle East, logically there a more Salafist per-capita in the region than in any other part of the world.

Throw an "Infidel Army" into this Salafi-rich environment and you have a recipe for discord. I am not saying that all Iraqis or Arabs are Salafists or Wahhabist, but certainly, the ideas advanced by both of these variants of Islam have a more fertile ground to grow in the Middle East than in any other region. Our involvement in Iraq demonstrates that the native, civilizational, tribal, religious, and political issues present in such ideological war have to be fought out mainly by our Iraqi allies on the ground and other Islamic states. Iraqi leadership is paramount in this war.

The problem is one of different interpretation of the same events. We see our troops as liberators, the Iraqis initially saw them as liberators who removed Saddam, but then the troops were seen by many as an unwelcome foreign element, as invaders. According to an ABC News poll results released in December of 2005, half of Iraqis, when asked, said it was wrong for U.S.-led forces to invade in spring 2003, up from 39 percent in 2004.

The Cultural Sphere. Our troops in Iraq operate inside an Islamic and mostly Arabic cultural sphere. There are problems inherent with a Western armed force operating inside an Islamic country. Jihadist groups inside of Iraq share the Islamic faith with most of the population while our troops, infidels in the eyes of many Iraqis have to work inside a population that often identifies them as "invaders" and "crusaders".

The insurgents and the Iraqi population also share Arabic as a common language. One of our weaknesses is our lack of troops proficient in foreign languages, specifically Arabic. Small wars tend to be less net-centric and more human-centric. Small wars usually not won or lost on the battlefield, they are won on the political and cultural realms. Small wars are face-to-face affairs were our formidable military technology takes a backseat to personal relationships.

Iraq is a semi-industrialized country with a relatively decent road infrastructure. This allows insurgent groups from remote parts of the country to communicate effectively, and sometimes train together. The fact that it is relatively easy for the insurgents to share information contributes to shared consciousness. The insurgents also share a common Arabic and Islamic civilizational overlay with the Iraqi population in which they reside.

To wage a war in the cultural sphere interoperability is key, and by interoperability I mean the seamless integration of all the agencies (US military, Iraq security forces, intelligence services, civilian government, etc.) into a combined plan of reconstruction, that while national in scope is managed at the local level. Each region, each town in Iraq is unique and our approaches need to account for those differences.

As Westerners, we take for granted our ability to evaluate credible information-we consider sources and always keep a healthy dose of skepticism; this is a product of living in a democratic society and exposed for years to a number of media outlets and information sources. The Iraqis are just now experiencing the possibility of information being disseminated without the approval of a totalitarian regime. For many Iraqis, what we in the US would call urban legend, they perceive as fact. Conspiracy theories concerning the American presence abound. The battlespace in Iraq is as much in the streets and roads as it is in the minds of Iraqis.

The Personal/Human/Psychological Sphere. We discussed the big picture that is the Islamic civilization; then we moved to the medium size picture that represents the Iraqi culture; now we move to the personal, the human or psychological sphere in this conflict.

To survive in an totalitarian regime, the majority of the population is stripped of personal power. The way to gain power is through a patron and not though personal accomplishments, merits, or talent. Once you have a patron you can improve your life a little bit, provided you are passive and don't rock the boat, and demonstrate devotion to your patron. The Iraqis had to live under this conditions for decades. The liberation of the Iraqi mind is still ongoing.

More than physical effects the insurgents rely on psychological effects to achieve their goals. The insurgents know that it is impossible to physically destroy or even put a significant dent in the U.S. armed forces in Iraq, but they want to mentally wear down who they consider to be occupiers. The attacks also aim to create alienation between the so-called occupiers and the general population who blames the US and Iraqi government forces for not providing security and, in the case of the US forces, for perpetuating the dangerous situation by overstaying their welcome.

In Iraq, chaos erupted when we removed the crucial piece that was ruthlessly keeping it all together: Saddam Hussein. Crime spread like wild fire after the removal of the regime. We all remember the images of widespread looting across the country. The perception was that nobody was in charge. The Iraqis were simply unable to govern themselves. And we just were not ready to quickly fill in the vacuum.

A Western force in an Islamic country will inevitably cause a civilizational conflict. Our knowledge of Iraq culture and language is sketchy at best. Psychologically, as Americans, we tend to misunderstand other cultures by virtue of our tendency to mirror image every body else. Assuming that Iraqis perceive, understand and act in a way that would seem "logical" to an American is counterproductive to winning the psychological battle.

The way I see it, Samuel Huntington's clash of civilization is alive and well in Iraq. We are facing a opponent that calls for a jihad against all infidels (basically those outside Islamic civilization), and justifies the murder of innocent civilians based on religious decrees. An enemy that engages in ritualistic violence, like the beheading of captives in front of a large audience. The Iraqi insurgency is a very unique modern phenomenon. It has some elements that reflect the 20th century guerrilla wars waged in China, Vietnam, Latin American and Africa, but with a uniquely 21st century flavor: a mixture of religion and ideological factors mixed in with elements of classic tribal warfare a la 19th century British colonial wars all under an Information Age context. A clash indeed.

Great post, it's in, thanks!

absurd thought -
God of the Universe wants
brutal tribal warfare...
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