Members of this capital's most selective reading group have been hashing over the story of "Kamal" the tailor without reaching consensus on their protagonist's character and motives. The sooner they do, the better the chances U.S. forces will have of subduing Iraq's violent insurgency.
Kamal -- a pseudonym -- is not a creation of John le Carre or John Grisham, though the three-page treatment of the tailor's life and times circulating here is said to have the crackle of a spy novel in places. No wonder: It was written by spies for other spies and for the most senior policymakers in the Bush administration.
People with stratospheric security clearances have been meeting at the White House to chew over the CIA's depiction of its subject insurgent as a resentful "at-large Iraqi fighter who is motivated to fight because the United States is occupying his country," in the words of an otherwise unidentified "senior intelligence official" who spoke to Walter Pincus of The Post.
Personalizing the Iraqi insurgency through one individual is the agency's imaginative response to a continuing deadlock in the Bush administration over the nature of the Iraq insurgency, which now involves tens of thousands of rebels and has cost nearly 1,000 American lives from hostile fire.
Two broad schools of analysis have competed within the administration since remote-control and suicide bombings erupted about four months after major combat operations ended in April 2003. Hearing the theories argued out again in one of his last White House meetings before he left office, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage groaned: "We can't even agree on who we are fighting."
Armitage's insight touches a vital point. It is impossible to design a strategy to defeat an enemy whom you cannot or will not define with clarity. You will be unable to determine the nature of the Iraqi allies you need to fight the insurgents -- as the Bush administration has repeatedly been unable to do. What if this is an essentially nationalist uprising that feeds almost entirely on the presence and abuses of a foreign military force -- the kind of insurgency that the CIA's depiction of Kamal and his opaque "family grievance" against the occupiers is intended to suggest?
A quick U.S. withdrawal could make such an insurgency go away. This analysis also has the advantage of greatly lessening the agency's responsibility for having failed to predict the uprising to begin with.
The CIA paper was initially disclosed and endorsed by Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in Senate testimony on Feb. 3. The identity of the report's representative insurgent was not disclosed by Myers or by the Feb. 6 Post account.
Others who have read it seem less impressed. They feel the narrative is highly speculative and obscures Kamal's ties to at least one insurgent group that is primarily run by Baathist henchmen of the deposed dictator, Saddam Hussein.
This is more than conflicting lit-crit in top-secret circles. The United States needs a different strategy if it is to overcome a well-organized, well-financed sabotage campaign by Baathists being aided by a small number of foreign Sunni Salafist extremists such as Abu Musab Zarqawi.
That definition of the enemy is closer to a recent analysis of the same subject written by the Pentagon's Central Command headquarters than is the CIA's tale of Kamal. So, I gather, are the five policy changes (four of them political, only one military) that retired Gen. Gary Luck recommended to the National Security Council in a still-secret report after his recent inspection trip to Iraq.
The soldiers may see the reality of postwar Iraq more clearly than the spies, who are deeply dependent on the conflicted, Sunni-run intelligence agencies and regimes of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other nations in the region. In some ways, the analysis built around Kamal the tailor fits like a glove over the CIA's prewar scenarios for co-opting and rewarding Iraq's Sunni Baathist leaders -- despite all that has happened in the interim.
There obviously is no single answer to -- nor single symbol for -- the insurgency, which contains a volatile mix of forces, motives, personalities and readings of history. President Bush will have to call audibles or change registers as he turns real power and sovereignty over to a durable elected Iraqi government.
But he is not well served by surprisingly abstract arguments in policy councils over the dominant nature of an enemy who slaughters Americans, Iraqis and others as a matter of strategy. The president needs to respond with a clear definition and a plan of his own.