Yeah, I’ll Say It: Witness the Death Throes of the Sunni Insurgency
The average Sunni insurgent today feels demoralized, disillusioned, defeated, and hunted. The more cynical insurgents are focusing on turning a quick buck to ‘retire’ to a calmer life outside of Iraq.
Don’t take my word for it; here’s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad reporting the situation on the ground in yesterday’s Guardian:
"Its not a good time to be a Sunni in Baghdad," Abu Omar told me in a low voice. He had been on the Americans' wanted list for three years but I had never seen him so anxious; he had trimmed his beard in the close-cropped Shia style and kept looking towards the door. His brother had been kidnapped a few days before, he told me, and he believed he was next on a Shia militia's list. He had fled his home in the north of the city and was staying with relatives in a Sunni stronghold in west Baghdad.
He was more despondent than angry. "We Sunni are to blame," he said. "In my area some ignorant al-Qaida guys have been kidnapping poor Shia farmers, killing them and throwing their bodies in the river. I told them: 'This is not jihad. You can't kill all the Shia! This is wrong! The Shia militias are like rabid dogs - why provoke them?' "
Then he said: "I am trying to talk to the Americans. I want to give them assurances that no one will attack them in our area if they stop the Shia militias from coming."
This man who had spent the last three years fighting the Americans was now willing to talk to them, not because he wanted to make peace but because he saw the Americans as the lesser of two evils. He was wrestling with the same dilemma as many Sunni insurgent leaders, beginning to doubt the wisdom of their alliance with al-Qaida extremists.
Another insurgent commander told me: "At the beginning al-Qaida had the money and the organisation, and we had nothing." But this alliance soon dragged the insurgents and then the whole Sunni community into confrontation with the Shia militias as al-Qaida and other extremists massacred thousands of Shia civilians. Insurgent commanders such as Abu Omar soon found themselves outnumbered and outgunned, fighting organised militias backed by the Shia-dominated security forces.
He looked nervously at them: suggestions of talking to the Americans could easily have him labelled as traitor. "Where is the jihad and the mujahideen?" he continued. "Baghdad has become a Shia town. Our brothers are being slaughtered every day! Where are these al-Qaida heroes? One neighbourhood after another will be lost if we don't work on a strategy."
The taxi driver commander, who sat cross-legged on a sofa, joined in: "If the Americans leave we will be slaughtered." A big-bellied man waved his hands dismissively: "We will massacre the Shia and show them who are the Sunnis! They couldn't have done anything without the Americans' support."
When the meeting was over the taxi driver went out to check the road, then the rest followed. "Don't look up, we could be monitored, Shia spies are everywhere," said the big man. The next day the taxi driver was arrested.
By December Abu Omar's worst fears were being realised. The Sunnis had become squeezed into a corner fighting two sides at the same time. But by then he had disappeared; his body was never found.
[The full text of the Guardian story is posted in the comments section]
Despite coming at the height of political and bureaucratic mismanagement, the situation in Iraq has turned around—and that for the better—on its own, and it did that because of the sense of fatigue and aimlessness that has set in among most of the Sunni insurgents, and because the Iraqi state took the worst of the storm and is still standing.
Staying the course actually brought forth dividends: all the vectors for an eventual victory look good.
Sending 21,500 fresh troops to Baghdad and Ramadi is more or less superfluous, yet it will catalyze these vectors for the better, but make no mistake: the ‘surge’ did not turn matters around since they’ve already turned already. The new batch; Gates, Petraeus, and Crocker will get all the kudos from the commentators who’ve staked their name on the ‘Iraq-is-Over’ storyline. These folks will call the ‘turnaround’ a miracle, and they will sing the praises of the aforementioned trio—possibly even paving the way for a likely presidential bid (2012, 2016?) for that ultra-ambitious chap, Petraeus; a consummate showman.
McCain also stands to reap some fruits for 2008.
The commentators will begrudge Bush and his team—especially those ‘nefarious’ neoconservatives—any credit in getting it right; those who have been so thoroughly maligned will await that scrupulous revisionist historian who’ll put together the story of this war after all the shrillness had subsided.
I began to write about this sense of fatigue creeping into the insurgency back in October:
The insurgency, in all its jihadist, Ba’athist and Sunni strands, has a “brain” or rather a “brain trust.” This “brain” resides in Amman, which has become a sort of Davos-like resort where the insurgent “elite” can brainstorm and ponder their future strategies. This is where they figure out their finances and decide whether to ratchet-up the scope of the insurgency.
Here is latest stuff I’ve been hearing from this “brain”:
-“We can’t maintain the momentum over an extended period of time.” The insurgency can only sustain itself in Iraq by projecting a sense of victory. It needs to do that because the losses that it is sustaining in terms of expertise, personnel and treasure are becoming harder and harder to replenish. The Americans and the Iraqi state are getting better at shoving back, and this is acutely showcased by improvements in intelligence gathering, as well as the increasing boldness of the Iraqi police and army in standing-up to the aggressors. The insurgency had previously maintained the rhythm of consecutive victories by carrying the fight from the rural periphery right up to the gates of Baghdad’s Green Zone. The next step would have been to storm the last bastion of the Americans and Iraqi state. But in the last 12 weeks (since the start of the “Battle of Baghdad” operations) the insurgents were pushed back and away. This has created a sense of frustration among the rank and file. The comments made yesterday by Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell about the relative slow-down in Operation Forward Together are very surprising to me. Many parts of Baghdad where the Sunni insurgency had gone unchallenged over the last few months had significantly quieted down and reverted back to government control. Contrary to Caldwell’s assessment, things are going moderately well.
-“We need to make one last push before bringing the Americans to the negotiating table.” Hence the “Tet Offensive”-Lite now featuring in most major Sunni towns. Instead of storming the Green Zone gates, the insurgents plan to knock politely and ask for admittance. There isn’t a unified command giving marching orders. Rather, there is a generally accepted timetable by all the forces carrying arms in synchronizing their assaults. The “brain” is very much aware of the November elections coming up in the United States, as well as the report to be subsequently submitted by the congressionally-mandated Baker-Hamilton Commission on alternative policy options for Iraq. However, the “brain”’s intention for this particular offensive was to hold down territory in Ramadi, Baghdad, Mosul and some chunks of Diyala Province. Under such conditions, the Americans would surely cry “Uncle!”—the insurgents reasoned. But the latter were badly beaten back in Mosul, and failed to make a serious bid to control territory anywhere else.
-“Once we are ready to negotiate, we will have to break our alliance with the Saddamist-Ba’athists and with Al-Qaeda.” The Saddamist-Ba’athists would like to erase all that has happened since April 9, 2003 by re-instating the ancien regime, as is. Al-Qaeda harbors plans for launching the state of the caliphate from Iraq. Both these agendas are seen as unrealistic by the bulk of the “insurgent brain,” who would rather achieve a disproportionate measure of Sunni authority over Iraq’s other components and themselves replacing the Shi'as and the Kurds as America’s long-term allies. They include ideological Ba’athists, deeply sectarian Sunnis, and “moderate” Islamists. To do this, they need to purge the hardcore radicals from their midst. The Saddamists have sensed this impending outcome and so has Al-Qaeda. The Saddamists are reaffirming their “presence” through publicity stunts such as the recent demonstrations in Haweija calling for Saddam to be reinstated, while Al-Qaeda has hastily declared “The Islamic State of Iraq.” In the past few days, there have been press reports claiming that this “brain” is currently holding talks with the Americans in Amman, under the auspices of Jordan’s CIA-trained mukhaberat, the Jordanian Intelligence Directorate. I don’t think these negotiations will go very far: the American public will not stomach a peace treaty with those who have American blood on their hands.
I also wrote a related column under the title, Iraq is Succeeding, followed by Something is Changing.
I also realized that Saddam’s hanging would knock the wind out of the Ba’athist sails. That horrible party had become so fixated in its Saddam worship to the point that life and purpose after Saddam were beyond contemplation. I was taken back when I first observed this phenomenon in November, and wrote about it then. The aftermath of the tyrant’s hanging showed that all those clenched fists of rage punching the air did not materialize into a spike of violence. If anything, the violence seems to be damping down.
And the Ba’athists will not find another ‘real’ leader: c’mon Izzet al-Douri? Are you kidding? The only person with leadership potential is Muhammad Younis al-Ahmad, but a source tells me that he’s been expelled from the Ba’ath command, and is sulking somewhere in Syria.
The remaining Ba’athist insurgents will dissolve into Al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq. Al-Qaeda has been putting out its own ‘tough love’ brand of expansion lately; they’re ‘bitch-slapping’ the likes of the 1920 Revolution Brigades into submission. For the most part, this expansion is working because of the pervading sense of aimlessness among the other insurgent strands, whereas Al-Qaeda enjoys the clarity of zealotry and fantasy. But Al-Qaeda is really taking a beating as the events on Haifa Street, Baladruz and others are showing. The Americans and the Iraqis are getting better at counterinsurgency.
It should also be noted that Saddam was hung on the first day of 'Eid, while the last day of 'Eid was supposed to mark the end of a massive Al-Qaeda offensive, declared by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, against the Americans and the Iraqi state. So the anger over Saddam’s hanging, and the Al-Qaeda offensive, overlapped by a few days, and yet there really wasn’t an upsurge of mayhem. That’s something to ponder.
The other interesting story is that the insurgency became about communal survival for the Sunnis, rather than communal revival. Suddenly, the Sunnis became victims on the run, and not the ones fighting to recapture power. Sunni sectarian attacks provoked the Shi'a who turned to their most brazen militias—the ones who would not heed Sistani’s call for calm—and unleashed reprisals against Sunnis. It turned out that the insurgents could not keep their communities safe, and they began to cede more and more ground in the all-important turf war for Baghdad.
After tasting the bitter appetizer of what a Shi'a militia backlash would be like, I can bet that most Sunnis do not want to fight a civil war: they know that they will lose, and lose badly, and that comes through very clearly in the Guardian report.
All this added pressure and the resultant hardship of living outside the benevolence of the state, as well as the leadership vacuum that resulted from Saddam’s hanging, has opened up an opportunity for new, more moderate Sunni leaders to emerge. I discussed in a comment I posted here on December 6, 2006:
Let me answer this with a fresh piece of information from a top Ministry of Education official: “40 percent of schools in Baghdad are deserted. Almost all of them are in the Sunni bastions.”
The insurgents are denying Sunni children an education. The insurgents—as the Ansar al-Sunna leaflets that were distributed in Hai al-Jami’a and 14 Ramadhan Street over the last couple of days indicate—want to protect Sunnis from abduction at the hand of death squads. But death squads (and most government bodies including the police) wouldn’t dare enter into the side-streets of a place like Hai al-Jam’ia in the first place.
The insurgent agenda is to paralyze Iraq, but in effect they are only succeeding in paralyzing Sunni areas. Shops in Kadhimiya, Karrada and Sadr City stay open until late at night. Shops in mixed neighborhoods like Mansour close around 5 pm. Shops in Sunni bastions hardly open.
At one point, lay Sunnis are going to realize that they are being held behind by the same people who are claiming to defend them. This is an opportune movement for the elected Sunni leaders from Tawafuq and the rest to rise to the occasion: they will use their influence within the state to bring normalcy back to Sunni neighborhoods while at the same time keeping the death squads in check.
Saddam is to be out of the picture soon, and someone like Harith al-Dhari is already being deflated by the Iraqi government. The Sunnis are going to suffer from an acute leadership vacuum.
I think that these plans can win over the vast majority of Sunnis who are fed up with the heavy price they must pay, and who have begun to see that the insurgency is a dead-end. The Baker report tells them that America’s withdrawal is not imminent and that the Americans will try to improve their counterinsurgency skills, while other press reports suggest that the Americans may even turn against the Sunnis as a whole despite regional Arab support for them. All this adds up to a sense that the insurgency may not be going anywhere and that it is time to accept a new Iraq.
Al-Dulaimi, Hashemi and Mutlaq will continue railing against the issues that Sunnis dislike such as de-Ba’athification, arresting al-Dhari and the such, but they will facilitate the procedures I’ve been describing. Their own lives are physically threatened by the insurgents, and they have the most to gain from defeating the Ba’athists and jihadists and thus removing them from the Sunni leadership. I sense an opportunity coming up.
Moreover, the Iraqi middle class, those ‘refugees’ who took their savings and fled for the safety of Amman, Damascus, and Cairo, are returning to Baghdad as their money runs out and as the authorities in the host countries increase their harassment. Those returnees do not harbor any more escape fantasies: they are trapped in Iraq, their home and the locale of their livelihood, and they need to make a go of it. These pseudo-desperadoes will put up more of a fight when militias and insurgents try to impose their jungle law upon them; they will be the most loyal foot soldiers of a nascent state.
So yeah, I’ll say it loud and clear: enjoy the show; the bad guys are losing. This thing is winnable, and it is being won.