Iraq's Insurgency: A Shadowy Foe

Sunday, May 7, 2006

Who are we fighting in Iraq? Ahmed S. Hashim attempts to answer that question in his excellent Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq (Cornell Univ., $29.95). The result is probably the be st book to appear so far on the U.S. occupation -- a genuine insider's account arguing that the U.S. mission is failing and is likely doomed. In exploring the Iraqi insurgency, Hashim, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College who has done two tours advising the military in Iraq, goes a long way toward explaining why Iraq is drifting toward civil war.

"U.S. intelligence . . . is remarkable for the consistency with which it has been wrong" about the insurgency, writes Hashim, who speaks Arabic and is steeped in U.S. intelligence reports. Contrary to the official U.S. view that the insurgency is built largely around foreign jihadists and Baathist "dead-enders" keen to restore the old dictatorship, Hashim argues that the rebellion is broadly based in Iraq's Sunni Arab community and draws considerable strength from the tribal structure of Iraqi society. For example, he notes, the Dulaim tribe, which lives primarily in the turbulent city of Ramadi, repeatedly fought Saddam Hussein's regime in the 1990s. "Yet the Dulaimis have been among the most consistent supporters of the insurgency," Hashim writes. "Surely this is not because they are regime dead-enders."

Nor does Hashim find much evidence that foreigners have played a major role in the insurgency. Of 8,000 suspected insurgents detained in 2004, he reports, "only 127 held foreign passports."

His argument, presented surprisingly clearly for an academic work, is that the old structure of Iraqi society, in which Sunnis played a dominant role, was created by outsiders: the Ottomans and the British. That order has now been replaced by an emerging new structure in which Shiites dominate, but this arrangement was also created by foreigners: the Americans. "There is no democracy" in Iraq today, Hashim concludes, just a new "ethnocracy." That leaves the formerly dominant Sunnis to take over the age-old role of the Kurds as the country's permanent rebels.

If the U.S. government simply "stays the course," as President Bush has vowed to do, Hashim predicts more of the same, but worse. That is a striking conclusion, especially coming from someone who had a front-row seat at the best performance by a U.S. unit in Iraq in recent times: the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment's retaking of the northwestern city of Tall Afar from insurgents in the fall of 2005. Strikingly, the regiment adopted such tactics as interviewing all detainees upon release about how they were treated while in custody. (This innovative program, which the unit dubbed "Ask the Customer," hasn't been imitated by other U.S. units in Iraq.) Despite having seen the U.S. military at its most effective in Iraq, Hashim has come to believe that the United States -- with limited intelligence capabilities that hamper its ability to maneuver and moralizing tendencies that cloud its understanding of the nature of the conflict -- is "congenitally incapable of waging effective counter- insurgency."

Only two choices now remain for the United States in Iraq, he warns. Neither is particularly palatable: Either let the country's drift toward civil war continue and watch ethnic militias fight mercilessly "over the rotting carcass of the Iraqi state" -- or get ahead of that trend by managing a partition of the country along ethnic and sectarian lines. ยท

Reviewed by Thomas E. Ricks, The Post's senior military correspondent and the author of the forthcoming "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq."

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