John Robb offers a viewpoint on progress in Iraq and lessons to be learned.
When the Askariya shrine was bombed in February 2006, it fractured Iraqi social systems along religious lines. In the fighting that followed, Sunni guerrilla groups underwent a transformation from small and loosely connected to large and bureaucratic. This change was driven by three factors:
Shiite militias, operating without much government interference, were able to field large military formations in their attacks on Sunni targets.
Sunni neighborhoods needed a permanent militia to defend them against attacks.
US forces were relatively ineffective against Sunni guerrillas up until that point and offered no meaningful counter. The guerrillas were flush with cash and confident the US posed little threat. The combination of organic group growth and formal cross group affiliation led to the formation of the bureaucratic structures necessary to maintain groups larger than 150 people (read: “The Optimal Size of a Terrorist Network” for more). Here’s an example from Amit Paley’s WP interview with a recently captured “al Qaeda” insurgent in Mosul:
The 28-year-old said he was responsible for running the bureaucracy and arranging payments to the 500 or so fighters for the group in the city, who he said try to carry out as many as 30 attacks a day. This expansion in group size led to a radical increase in violence against almost every potential target. It also changed the underlying dynamic of the insurgency. The process of increasing group size and a movement towards local protection forced the following:
As groups formally affiliated to form larger organizations, a schism developed between homegrown guerrillas and those operating under “al Qaeda’s” banner.
Tighter ties to local communities for protection against Shiite militias led to jihadi control over neighborhoods. This in turn led to jihadi overreach and a local counter-reaction.
The increase in group size finally made al Qaeda accessible to US counter-pressure. It now had a center of gravity to attack. This is yet another level of complication that should muddy the “lesson” of “the Anbar tribal revolt.” The US should military think long and hard before it squanders tens of millions (soon hundreds of millions) of dollars on Pakistan’s Frontier Corps.
This sort of discussion goes on other blogs familiar with the topic. Levels of complication as we talk about success or failure is a useful approach, while political memes of ‘less violence’ is not.