Extended Thoughts on Zarqawi, Iraq and moving forward

As I stated earlier this week, I am very glad that Zarqawi was killed, along with several members of Al-Quaida in Iraq/Ansar al Islam’s leadership cadre. As TigerHawk points out, there is a great deal of value in killing, capturing and or discouraging senior leadership of a terrorist or criminal group from returning to action. It is an iterative process where hopefully the counter-insurgent force can force less and less qualified people to rise more quickly to lower levels of their own incompetence. This is how the FBI routinely takes down Mafia families and drug rings.

However, I do not think that this takedown of a significant portion of Al-Quaida in Iraq will have significant long term effects for a couple of reasons. The most important reason is that the Iraqi insurgency has always had the vast majority of its manpower and fighting power provided by native Iraqis. Foreign jihadis have been very good cannon fodder and suicide car bomb drivers, as well as money men and propagandists, but they are not and never have been the majority of fighters that actually shutting down the Iraqi oil sector and inflicting a steady drip of casualties against US and UK forces.

Secondly, Zarqawi et al were removed from operational control of Al-Quaida in Iraq operations in January. Other Sunni Arab insurgent groups thought that his tactics of mass civilian slaughter were counter-productive and I think that they are right. The Sunni Arab nationalist insurgents believe that their anti-US nationalism is shared by many Shi’ite Arabs (Sadrists most notably) but any operational alliances or tacit agreements to be mutual Sargeant Schultz’s for each other were overridden by Zarqawi’s desire for sectarian war, which he successfully seeded.

There is also quite a bit of evidence that the impact of Zarqawi and his followers were overinflated by all interested parties. The US motivation is the typical motivation of American thinking of needing a villian instead of examining systemic problems (see the same pronouncement for the capture of Hussein), the Sunni nationalist insurgent motivation to overcredit the foreign Al-Quaeda elements is that it allowed them to get extremely nasty while publicly blaming the foreigners, and the Shi’ite motivation to not blow the lid on this overselling was to allow for a communal focus against an extremist instead of against their neighbors.

So killing Zarqawi and rolling up a decent chunk of his network is a good thing, but I do not think that the US will see any significant drop in the surge of violence that is Iraq right now. The insurgency is too wide spread, and has too many different groups with varying motivations ranging from ideological (Al-Quaeda in Iraq) to nationalistic and primary loyalty inspired pride to revanchistic to basic economic crime or smuggling. Most groups intermix and mingle their motives for violence.

The Boston Globe reported on May 31, 2006, that the Pentagon reports that insurgent attacks against US, coalition and government forces have been increasing, and during the three months from Feb 11 to May 12, attacks averaged 600/week, an increase from roughly 400/week at the third magical transition point of transferring sovereignity to the interim Iraqi government in the summer of 2004. During this time frame, US casualties as a whole have gone down, but fatalities have stabilized or increased as shown in this graph:

So this information is showing an insurgency that is getting deadlier to US forces and far deadlier against Iraqi government forces despite seeing a flood of quasi-competent Iraqi government units entering the battlespace. As of last week, the US’s action of sending deployment orders to the 2cd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division to get ready for Iraq after that brigade had been told it may be put on hold, is an indicator that the situation in Iraq is not improving. The Army had wanted to hold this brigade back and keep the brigade from the 1st Armored Division in Kuwait in order to buy some breathing space in their rotation schedules if possible. Despite this additional committment of a brigade for the next deployment cylce, we are soon approaching the point of peak anti-insurgent combat effectiveness equivilancy as the Iraqi Army is almost entirely in the field, and the US is running out of units that it can commit to Iraq without destroying the rest and reconstitution schedules.

The foreign component of the insurgency has never been attributed by serious analysts to be more than 10% of the total attacks and manpower, albiet more spectacular attacks. So even if one is to assume that 10% of all attacks are conducted by foreigners, and all foreigners are aligned with Zarqawi’s Al-Quaeda in Iraq and that AQI will soon be a hollow and ineffective shell that can not tie its own shoes or steal candy from a baby due to it being successfully rolled up in an operation that started two weeks ago and continues forward for the next couple of weeks, we’ll see, all else being equal, 550 or so attacks per week. This is a level that is more than sufficient to cause the effective shut down of modern society in central and western Iraq, while depriving the government of a monopoly on violence. The only hope is the StratFor scenario in which Zarqawi et al were tossed aside by the Sunni Arabs as part of a comprehensive political settlement.

If this successful rolling up of AQI by the US via the Sunni Arab nationalist component of the insurgency selling him and his followers our is actually the case, and it is part of a comprehensive political settlement, then this will be one hell of a good thing. However, I do not think that this is the case, as the Sunni Arab nationalist insurgency has only increased in strength and they can read US force cycle and reconstitution timeframes better than I can — time still favors them, so delaying a deal is to their advantage.

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