There has been a flurry of press reports recently about insurgents battling American and Iraqi security forces on Haifa Street in Baghdad, and around the rural town of Buhruz in Diyala Province. These same insurgents also claimed to have shot down a Black Hawk helicopter near Buhruz. At the same time, the Americans and Iraqis are declaring a major victory as evidenced by the increased number of dead or captured militants, and the uncovering of massive weapons caches. So, what is going on?
What needs to be understood is the central role that Al Qaeda — or more accurately its successor organization, a group called the Islamic State of Iraq — is playing on these fronts and the diminishing role of all the other insurgent groups.
The wider Sunni insurgency — the groups beyond Al Qaeda — is being slowly, and surely, defeated. The average insurgent today feels demoralized, disillusioned, and hunted. Those who have not been captured yet are opting for a quieter life outside of Iraq. Al Qaeda continues to grow for the time being as it cannibalizes the other insurgent groups and absorbs their most radical and hardcore fringes into its fold. The Baathists, who had been critical in spurring the initial insurgency, are becoming less and less relevant, and are drifting without a clear purpose following the hanging of their idol, Saddam Hussein. Rounding out this changing landscape is that Al Qaeda itself is getting a serious beating as the Americans improve in intelligence gathering and partner with more reliable Iraqi forces.
In other words, battling the insurgency now essentially means battling Al Qaeda. This is a major accomplishment.
Last October, my sources began telling me about rumblings among the insurgent strategists suggesting that their murderous endeavor was about to run out of steam. This sense of fatigue began registering among mid-level insurgent commanders in late December, and it has devolved to the rank and file since then. The insurgents have begun to feel that the tide has turned against them.
In many ways, the timing of this turnaround was inadvertent, coming at the height of political and bureaucratic mismanagement in Washington and Baghdad. A number of factors contributed to this turnaround, but most important was sustained, stay-the-course counterinsurgency pressure. At the end of the day, more insurgents were ending up dead or behind bars, which generated among them a sense of despair and a feeling that the insurgency was a dead end.
The Washington-initiated "surge" will speed-up the ongoing process of defeating the insurgency. But one should not consider the surge responsible for the turnaround. The lesson to be learned is to keep killing the killers until they realize their fate.
General David Petraeus, whom President Bush has tasked to quell the insurgency, spent the last year and a half updating the U.S. Army and Marine Corps's field manual for counterinsurgency. There's plenty of fancy theory there, as well as case studies from Iraq. I don't know how much of the new manual is informed by General Petraeus' two notable failures in Iraq: building a brittle edifice of government in Mosul that collapsed at the first challenging puff, and the inadequate training and equipping of the Iraqi army due to corruption and mismanagement.
General Petraeus walked away from those failures unscathed and hence unaccountable. He re-enters the picture with major expectations. Most commentators, especially those who begrudge attributing any success to Mr. Bush, will lionize the general as he takes credit for this turnaround and speeds it up. Let's hope that he has enough sense to allow what works to keep working and to improve on it, rather than trying to put his own stamp on things and test out the theories he's developed.
The best way to use the extra troops would be to protect the Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad from Shiite death squads. This will give an added incentive for Sunnis to turn against the militants operating in their midst. For most Sunnis, the insurgency has come to be about communal survival, rather than communal revival. They no longer harbor fantasies of recapturing power. They are on the run and are losing the turf war with the Shiites for Baghdad.
Sunni sectarian attacks, usually conducted by jihadists, finally provoked the Shiites to turn to their most brazen militias — the ones who would not heed Ayatollah Sistani's call for pacifism — to conduct painful reprisals against Sunnis, usually while wearing official military fatigues and carrying government issued weapons. The Sunnis came to realize that they were no longer facing ragtag fighters, but rather they were confronting a state with resources and with a monopoly on lethal force. The Sunnis realized that by harboring insurgents they were inviting retaliation that they could do little to defend against.
Sadly, it took many thousands of young Sunnis getting abducted by death squads for the Sunnis to understand that in a full-fledged civil war, they would likely lose badly and be evicted from Baghdad. I believe that the Sunnis and insurgents are now war weary, and that this is a turnaround point in the campaign to stabilize Iraq.
Still, major bombings will continue for many years, for Al Qaeda will remain oblivious to all evidence of the insurgency's eventual defeat. The Baathists, and jihadist groups like Ansar al-Sunna, the Islamic Army of Iraq, and the 1920 Revolution Brigades, may be collapsing due to aimlessness and despair, but Al Qaeda still enjoys the clarity of zealotry and fantasy. Right now, they are arm-twisting other jihadist groups to submit to them and are also taking credit for the large-scale fighting that continues in Iraq.
Al Qaeda will continue the fight long after the Iraqi battlefield becomes inhospitable to their cause, and they will only realize the futility of their endeavor after they are defeated on the wider Middle East battlefield and elsewhere in the world.
As the wider insurgency recedes, the Iraqi state will gain some breathing space to implement the rule of law and dissolve the death squads. A society that sets about rebuilding itself can endure the type of attacks mounted by Al Qaeda, although they are painful.
Counterinsurgency strategists will argue about the precise moment when this turnabout occurred and will try to replicate the victory elsewhere. Pundits will argue about who or what policy was responsible for it, a matter eventually to be settled by historians. Victory has a way of making everyone associated with it golden, and many will claim right of place. Defeat has a way of turning everyone associated with it to ash, and many will disclaim responsibility for it.
Let me state the lesson of this turnabout clearly lest it be obscured amidst the euphoria: Never mind who takes credit, kill or capture more of the killers to ensure victory.
Mr. Kazimi can be reached at [email protected]