Monday, February 25, 2008

What About This?

First, Al-Sadr has extended JAM's cease-fire for another 6 months, approximately. The commanders were right, and these guys were wrong.

The Turks, for their part, have begun a very tightly controlled ground offensive in Iraqi Kurdistan against PKK insurgents, although it's actual duration is still somewhat in question. It doesn't appear that this offensive will threaten Iraq's overall stability at the moment, as it was not directly opposed by the US - the people who are liable if Iraq actually does lose stability.

"Turkey gave the United States and Iraqi authorities advance notice of its incursion, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said."

While the Iraqis are predictably unhappy about it, it's worth the cost of a carefully controlled, limited operation on Turkey's part in order to keep them on our side in this. We've been cooperating with them by sharing intelligence and through diplomacy channels for the same reason; the alternative is crippled US logistics and possible non-cooperation with us on Iran and Syria. So, not really an alternative at all.

The Sadrist reaction to this is interesting, however:

"We demand that the Turkish government withdraw its forces immediately from the Iraqi territory and rely on negotiations to solve this conflict," al-Sadr's influential political committee said in a statement. "We call upon the Muslim neighbor Turkey through its Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and its Muslim people to be an element of peace and security in the region."

They don't actually expect that Turkey will listen to them, but the statement does indicate how Al-Sadr's committee is trying to bill themselves as a nationalist party: obviously any foreign interference has to be opposed, Turkey and the US included. We don't often get the opportunity to hear Sadrist political rhetoric, and this indicates as well that they are earnestly trying to place themselves more and more solidly in the political realm, as opposed to the military one. And the US Military is responding politically as well, in keeping the dialog with the Sadrists open and diplomatic (ABC Article):

"This extension of his August 2007 pledge of honor to halt attacks is an important commitment that can broadly contribute to further improvements in security for all Iraqi citizens," the military said in a statement. "It will also foster a better opportunity for national reconciliation."

Something that seems to be forgotten in all of this is that Al-Sadr's shifting into the political realm - whatever his intentions - does constitute political progress. The figurehead of a previously very violent sectarian faction is moderating himself and his followers to become a political player. He called a cease-fire, then extended it, despite the fact that the US was consistently targeting fringe elements of his militia - because he really has been trying to reign them in. Fanatical followers can ruin a bid for political power just as easily as bad rhetoric can, which is why we've seen changes in both.

Now certainly, Al-Sadr may still be an islamist, and one with a violent history. But frankly the part where that violence is currently history is pivotal in considerations involving JAM and himself. He may be an opportunist, but one can tell an awful lot about what opportunities exist and where they exist by watching him. We've already seen violence become a non-starter for any serious political player in Iraq, and Al-Sadr is maintaining his base through social and political works now instead.

Why this continued movement in both rhetoric and action is not considered political progress is somewhat beyond my understanding.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Rejects Not Rebels

A counterinsurgency is inherently socio-political in nature, and its resolution requires socio-political solutions. But there's something important to bear in mind when we consider AQI's involvement in the Iraqi insurgency, which is that AQI is not part of the insurgency - not a valid one, anyway.

AQI, while some news outlets make the claim that they are regaining their footing, is not actually a valid socio-political group in Iraq. 90% of suicide bombers are recruited and imported from foreign countries. AQI does not have the support of the public at large or even a section of the public large enough to make their political and social position tenable. They are also regarded as the enemy by such true insurgent groups like Ansar al-Sunnah and Jaish al-Mahdi. Moreover, their socio-political aims are preposterous and nearly everyone involved knows it.

AQI, then, is not part of the insurgency; they're merely part of the criminal element. A particularly nasty strain of criminal to be sure (a terrorist strain), but that's really all they are. Terrorists and insurgents are - importantly at this point in the prosecution of the war in Iraq - not the same thing. I realize that I've said otherwise before, but the situation has changed drastically in the last year and it's now important to draw the distinction as important elements of what I once referred to as "terrorists" have mutated into something else. To clarify the point further, there is this article about Al-Sadr and JAM at the Asia Times:

"As a political and military force, Iraq's Shi'ite Sadrist movement has undergone a number of radical transformations since 2003, when its leader Muqtada al-Sadr surprisingly emerged as a leading political figure. Muqtada's recent decision to continue with his seminary studies and graduate as an ayatollah at the conservative seminary school of Najaf underpins a major change in the movement's structure that could have serious repercussions for the future of Iraq."

The article, by Dr. Babak Rahimi, is undoubtedly the most useful thing I've read regarding the Sadrist movement in several months and perhaps ever; it's worth your time to read the whole thing.

An insurgency adapts to the environment around it and is willing to adopt different methods to achieve their social and political ends, and they usually do it with some degree of public support that is not by any means negligible. Al-Sadr and JAM are the perfect example of this, while AQI has only ever had the same handful of methods they use everywhere, and operate through public fear, not support. This tactic is just as extremely limited in winning an insurgency as an American conventional military strategy would be against an insurgency; it is heavy on firepower, and light on politics, and the social aspect barely exists as far as the strategy is concerned.

None of this is intended to suggest for even a second that AQI isn't a threat to US interests and the future of Iraq; they demonstrably are, but they cannot win the war. They don't actually stand a chance of coming to power in Iraq provided the ISF becomes capable of effective internal security. The fact that AQI and various Iraqi insurgent groups happen to be pushing the ball in the same direction with violent activity is little more than a coincidence, probably not a conspiracy. Every element of the Iraqi insurgency must know by now that should they actually come to power, AQI will immediately become their policing problem as opposed to a problem for the ISF and the current IG. Which is why the Sadrists, notably, have adopted an anti-AQI stance; they know they'll have to have it anyway if they win.

And, Unlike AQI, should prosecution of the counterinsurgency by the US and the Iraqi government fail, the Sadrists may actually have a serious shot at a win - but not until after a very nasty and likely protracted civil war with multiple parties in the military arena. They won't be able to do it without those prior failures, however, which makes the US effort that much more important now, because that's the real counterinsurgency.

Stripping Al-Sadr and JAM and other groups like them of social and political relevance is the single most important goal in this war, and that is done by providing whatever it is that they provide to their constituents more effectively than they can. AQI is dangerous to be sure, but the approach toward them is the same as it is towards all irreconcilables: kill them, detain them, or push them out. AQI is the easy part, relatively speaking. And that's because they're not insurgents, they're terrorists.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Scraps From The Blackout

Continuing campaign coverage in the US is creating a dearth of useful information about Iraq, but there are a few things worth taking note of right now.

The first, and arguably the most important, is that the US Army is working on a new combat manual:

"The new guide is seen as a major development that draws on lessons of the wars being fought by US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq."

As soon as it is published, I'll find a PDF copy and link to it in the Required Reading section, after reading it myself. The change in the command atmosphere and personnel that General Petraeus has created is inevitably going to influence it, so it will be interesting to see how it develops as well as being critical to understanding how soldiers are going to be expected to conduct themselves. Much of Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy stands to be augmented by an intelligent manual, as it tends to be very human-oriented in many respects.

Second is a memo written by Manuel Miranda that is very critical of State Department conduct in Iraqi affairs. Read the whole memo, bearing in mind that it is only one opinion but it's a valuable one to have. What I found most interesting was that he restricted his criticism to the State Department, and lauded the Military on it's progress and it's commitment to the commanding general's efforts. If he's right, it would seem that State could learn a thing or two from the Military about execution. Not that this should be a revelation.

Lastly is a remark at the bottom of a non-story at Al-Jazeera. Al-Sadr has responded to internal pressure by reiterating that the current JAM stand-down will not be lifted early, but the interesting comment is this:

"US commanders have said they are confident that al-Sadr, the son of a revered Shia cleric killed under Saddam Hussein, would extend the freeze, although US and Iraqi forces continue to target "rogue" Mahdi Army units."

I wouldn't have expected anyone to be confident of that, but this once again makes me very happy that there are people in charge who know much more than I do. JAM still stands to threaten the peace in Iraq, and if they start rolling again it'll be the ISF that has to take them on, which now includes Basra province. The Iraqi street doesn't like JAM where they've been responsible for violence already, but whether that will stop someone who's fanatical enough to try to be rubber-stamped as an Ayatollah is doubtful.

It comes down to this one consideration: if the freeze is extended, we can keep moving the ball forward. If it gets called off, we may very well be starting again from scratch in the wake of whatever violence JAM is capable of generating. As long as command is confident that particular bull won't be released in the china shop, then our approach doesn't need to change.