All Writings
May 23, 2005

Iraq’s Insurgents: No Military Solution

Notwithstanding the fact that the insurgents do not have a unified strategy, they share many common interests that allow them to operate purposefully and with deadly efficiency. They are embedded in sympathetic Sunni communities that strongly support their activities. They are highly motivated because they operate from a deep conviction that the conditions created by the Iraq war and the American occupation itself are unacceptable and must eventually be brought to an end. The difficulties in responding effectively to the insurgency's challenge are that the Bush administration continues to apply western logic and rationale to their behavior and motivation. Try as they may, the American military, with or without the Iraqi forces, will not be able to defeat the insurgency because there is no military solution.

Whether the insurgents intention is simply to drive the Americans out, or undermine the Iraqi government which they consider an American puppet, kill collaborators or create a chaotic situation to instigate public unrest, realizing the dream of establishing a new caliphate or restore Sunni domination, they operate from a different set of convictions and timeframe. The insurgents do not measure success or failure by the number of Americans or Iraqis they kill or by how many of their men are killed or captured, they measure their success by their ability to endure and persevere while keeping the Americans guessing and on their toes. Unlike westerners, the Arabs do not measure time in weeks, months or even years, they measure it in decades and generations. In that sense, time is on their side because they can outlast American staying power. Although strategically the insurgents seek to throw the American yoke out of Iraq, tactically, they want to prolong the occupation, bleed the Americans by inflicting steady casualties, gradually erode the military morale and eventually make the occupation simply unsustainable. In the process, they increasingly alienate the Sunnis from the Shiites promoting sectarian conflict, while alienating both with the American occupation as we have seen from recent demonstrations by the followers of the Shiite cleric Muktadah Sadr. Although we hear some talk to the effect that some Sunnis want to enter the political process, that is not an option for most of the insurgents, especially the Jihadis, whose choice is between winning the struggle against the American or dying.

For many of the Iraqi insurgents what has befallen the Sunni community is a historic aberration of time and circumstances. For the first time in Arab history a Shiite Government is in control of a major Arab country and not just any Arab country. Iraq is the cradle of Arab civilization, it symbolizes Arab glory, cultural riches and historic pride. Many insurgents, especially foreign fighters from other Arab states, view the war as a war for Arab pride and salvation. They are fearful of what they view as the inevitable influence by Shiite Iran as evidenced by the recent arrival of Iran's foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi who pledged his country's support for Iraq's reconstruction. The Sunnis are alarmed by the prospect that Iran will seize the opportunity to consolidate Shiite domination over a huge land mass with nearly 100 million Shiites in control of more than 30 percent of the world's known oil reserves. Borrowing a chapter from Arab history, however, the insurgents absolutely believe that they can, and will, overturn this tragic development and in the end prevail against all odds.

Although many of the insurgents are not Islamic extremists, including former Ba'athists or nationalists, Islam plays a critical role as it serves as a unifying factor against a common enemy. Regardless of the heavy losses they sustain, the insurgents use Islam to renew and replenish their material resources and recruit newcomers who happily join what they consider to be a "crusade" against the Americans and their Shiite allies. Indeed, the strong religious component raises the threshold for fatalities and material losses considerably higher. In fact the greater the losses in human lives, the greater the readiness to sacrifice even more. The American incursions into Faluja, Ramadi and more recently into the Anbar region, the bastion of Iraqi nationalism along the Syrian border, though inflicting heavy damage and casualties, have also embolden the insurgents. As long as they fight in the name of Allah, they accept the consequences regardless of the cost. They will readily die for the cause they ardently believe in and leave it to the next generation and the one that follows, should they fail, to carry on the battle until it is won. Therefore, irrespective of the depth of religious conviction, dying for what they consider to be a holy war against the infidels and their allies becomes a virtue and a great deed, and for many it is martyrdom to be celebrated.

In dealing with the Iraqi insurgency, the Bush administration should have learned a lesson or two from the British occupation of Iraq following World War II and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. The British were forced to leave Iraq and, 57 years after its independence, Israel still battles Palestinian terrorism. It is foolhardy to assume that continuing the use of brutal force will compel the insurgents to give up. And as attested by the American commanders in Iraq, there is no hope that the Iraqi military and police forces will be ready any time soon to effectively deal with the insurgents and maintain internal security. In fact, they expect the continued presence of considerable number of American troops in Iraq for years to come.

Co-opting some Sunni figures to join the Jaabari government is not the answer. At a minimum, the Sunnis must be given the hope that the new constitution will restore some modicum of a Sunni self-government, a la the Kurdish current self-rule through confederated arrangements. In addition, the Bush administration must engage Iran and Syria directly to stem the flow of foreign fighters and help stabilize not only Iraq but the regional stability as well. Otherwise, there is no hope that the insurgency will ever end. Iraqis and American troops and civilians will continue to die for years after President Bush has left the White House.