August 22, 2003
The Iraqi resistance is a hydra. There is no centralizing ideology other than a fierce and fragmented nationalism. What we are seeing is a long-building pressure towards civil war. The resistance has many centers, not one. And it's going to get worse as factions continue to mobilize resources and build organization.
Anyone grasping for a single convenient handle on the Iraqi resistance is going to have a small piece of a big problem. The resistance movement behind the growing turmoil is a welter of competing and conflicting factions. The only discernible point of unity is a fractured Iraqi nationalism expressed as a hatred of foreign invaders, hatred of the former Baathist regime and hatred of competing factions. If the U.S. were to withdraw immediately (which is not a bad idea, by the way) Iraq would immediately plunge into a civil war at least as savage as the ones we have seen in Lebanon, Yugoslavia and throughout Africa.
Saddam Hussein's tyrannical Baathist regime was more like a giant organized crime family than a government. What we are now seeing is a transnational gang war for the spoils of Iraq.
Saddam may have planned for a resistance before the invasion, but after setting the juggernaut in motion he is now in hiding. As was the case with his sons, Hussein's big problem right now is staying out of sight. The notion that he would expose himself to death or capture by serving as centralized command and control node in a resistance network is the least likely of all possible circumstances.
The Bush administration has created an intelligence vacuum filled by their own exhaust. It spills over into the U.S. media as bogus claims of a centralized and unified resistance. There is no such thing. There are many resistance factions, mostly hostile to each other. There is no unifying ideology behind the resistance. Nor is there a perceptible foreign sponsorship to the resistance. The attempts to find a single hook to hang the resistance on are mostly wishful thinking rooted in deep and long-standing flaws in U.S. counter-terrorism policy.
Take the recent U.N. bombing, for example.
Investigators said yesterday that they were intrigued by the discovery that the explosive device used in the attack consisted of an array of munitions, including mortar shells, hand grenades and a Soviet-made 500-pound bomb.
This tells us several things. First of all, the hodge-podge of explosives mean that the bombers are limited in their source of supply. Secondly, it suggests they are only recently organized in Iraq. So much for the "Saddam did it" theory. Likewise, the FBI investigation is as likely to be as flawed as previous ones. It's important to remember the FBI was searching for Arab terrorists when Timothy McVeigh was already in custody after the Oklahoma City bombing. The Richard Jewel fiasco has far too many similarities to the current brain-wave about the Iraqi security guards at the UN.
The Iraqi resistance is like the fable of the elephant and the blind men. One grabbed the trunk and said the elephant was like a big snake. One grabbed a leg and said the elephant was like a tree. Another grabbed an ear and said the elephant was like a huge leaf. One grabbed the tail and said the elephant was like a rope. And so on.
The desire of the Bush administration to have a clearly defined enemy to defeat says more about the administration's growing desperation than it does about the resistance.
Consider this partial list of known players in the chaos in Iraq:
- Baathist holdouts. They clearly exist, but are unable to exert a centralized control. The systematic sabotage campaign against critical infrastructure (oil, power, telecommunications, water, etc.) appears be operating at a national level. Attacks are not restricted to any particular region, but instead are focused on critical
- Local resistance to U.S. invasion. These seem to be very local and possibly operating at a tribal level in many places. The attacks have been intensified by the now-discontinued U.S. strategy of launching massive counter-insurgency sweeps. These sweeps began in July, just as the U.S. military admitted they were faced with a guerilla resistance. The sweeps have been discontinued. Some of the reasons cited for the abandonment of this strategy were the failure to obtain accurate intelligence, the success of the resistance using the U.S. raids as a rallying point for increased resistance and the demonstrable rise in disorder produced by the raids. In some areas, the U.S. occupation forces have withdrawn and turned control over to local factions.
- Jihadis. There appears to be an increase in activity by non-Iraqi Islamic factions entering Iraq. What is not clear is whether they are being drawn to Iraq as they were drawn to Afghanistan during the Russian invasion, or if they are being pushed out of surrounding countries in response to American efforts at bullying the region.
- Al Qaida. Oddly enough, there is little evidence of Al Qaida having much presence in Iraq. Strange as it may seem, the much-hyped "connection" between Iraq and Al Qaida is another case of the Bush administration breathing so much of their own exhaust as to make fresh air poisonous to them.
- Organized crime. The Baathist regime was not only astoundingly corrupt, but was also intensely reliant on transnational criminal organizations for smuggling oil out and strategic supplies in during the UN embargo. Most of these criminal organizations have been intensely active in things like smuggling arms, scrap metal, and oil. Much of the strategic sabotage against oil and power appears to be a joint operation of saboteurs intent on destroying oil and electric infrastructure and organized criminal groups which then capitalize on the opportunity to steal oil, copper, equipment, etc. Many of the sabotage attacks are not readily explicable as simply sabotage or only looting -- they appear to be the result of coordination between separate groups.
- Competing Kurdish factions. The two main Kurdish factions in the north have spent more time fighting each other in a continuing civil war than they have spent fighting Baathists. Both Iran and Turkey appear to be fueling this fight, possibly with the intention of weakening both factions.
- Radical Shia. For the most part, the Shia are attempting to get on with their lives under the occupation. They suffered greatly from Baathist repression in the wake of the first Gulf War. Many of the Shia elders are committed to a policy of weathering the storm. A few of the more radical minority Shia factions are committed to active opposition to U.S. occupation.
- Anti-Baathist factions. The Baathist regime was incredibly brutal during their reign. Some of the recent incidents, particularly the mortar attack on a prison holding mostly Baathists, are best explained as revenge on the surviving Baathists. The degree of hatred earned by Saddam's thugs should not be underestimated. Similarly, it is absurd to expect the anti-Baathist elements in the resistance to be friendly to the occupation. They, like most of the resistance, are motivated by nationalism.
This list is nowhere near complete or exhaustive. But it does show what a tangled mess we have created in Iraq. Perhaps it would be fitting and just to tell Ahmed Chalabi that it's his baby now, we're leaving. Thanks a lot and hasta la vista, sucker.