Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq

June 6, 2006

Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq by Ahmed Hashim


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs. On behalf of the Carnegie Council, I'd like to thank you all for joining us this morning.

Today we are extremely fortunate to have as our guest speaker Ahmed Hashim, who will be discussing his book, Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq. This book is reported by The Economist to be the most detailed analysis yet of the insurgency and America's efforts to squash it.

In March 2003, very few in the American military expected that either the Iraqi armed forces or the Republican Guards would put up much of a fight against the Coalition forces. On this issue, they were right. Yet the euphoria of victory was short-lived, for, only three months later, in early June 2003, it was becoming quite apparent that, although Operation Iraqi Freedom was a tremendous military success, the various mistakes, missteps, and miscalculations made earlier were beginning to take their toll. As we now know, underestimating the number of forces needed to secure, stabilize, and reconstruct Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein has proven to be catastrophic. The honeymoon period of universal welcome for Coalition forces lasted only a few weeks before the anger, alienation, and frustration set in. Coalition planners overestimated the ability of Iraqis to govern themselves and underestimated the rapid spread of crime and corruption.

But most importantly, U.S. strategists and political leaders underestimated just how long it would take before resentment of the occupation would spark the pervasive violence and insurgency that has become stronger with each passing day—and with it, the increasing difficulty for our troops to separate the insurgents from the local population, with devastating consequences, as we have recently learned about the events that took place in Haditha.

In his book, Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq, Professor Hashim speaks with authoritative and intimate knowledge about Iraq, as he tells the story about the insurgency, the U.S. policy, and the Bush administration's strategy to combat the resistance.

As an American of Turkish-Egyptian origins, and having served three tours advising the U.S. command in Iraq, Professor Hashim was well-placed to study the insurgents and their opponents.

He was an adviser to the American authority following Saddam's fall, and between November 2003 and September 2005, he worked with U.S. troops in Iraq, both in Baghdad and in hotbeds of violence such as Telfair, near the Syrian border. His last tour took him there specifically for the purpose of trying to understand the insurgents, what motivates them, and ultimately to devise a plan to end this quagmire.

Currently, our speaker is an associate professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College and specializes in security policies of the Middle East, Western Europe, South Asia, and the Asia Pacific. He is also a lecturer in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School.

His writings reflect his interest in asymmetric warfare, the revolution of military affairs outside of the United States, terrorism and counterterrorism. Included among his publications are Iran: Dilemmas of Dual Containment and Iraq: Sanctions and Beyond, both written with Anthony Cordesman.

His previous positions include director of the Middle East Regional Security Program at Search for Common Ground in Washington, where he focused on Track II diplomacy. He also was a defense analyst at the Center for Naval Analysis, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and a research analyst at the International Institute for Strategic and International Studies in London.

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to a very special guest, who, at a very busy time for him, has traveled from Rhode Island to address us this morning.

Thank you for coming.


AHMED HASHIM: Thank you, Joanne, for that wonderful introduction. I am very honored to be here.

Before I start, I'd like to mention the fact that the points I am going to make here today are my own and do not represent the views of the government, definitely not the administration, and certainly not the armed forces.

With that, I would like to state that I am going to concentrate on five things here, in the twenty-five minutes that I have to give a summary of my book. I have a tendency to verbosity. I think that comes from being a professor. But I will try to be succinct.

  • First, I am going to discuss the origins and the causes of the insurgency in Iraq, both the material and the nonmaterial causes, why it broke out, and how our policy in Iraq contributed to the onset and perpetuation of the insurgency.
  • Number two, I want to talk about who the insurgents are and what they want. They have a military program. They have had until recently a very disorganized political wing. They have spent a lot of time over the last six to eight months trying to figure out how to create a political and military wing in tandem. In this context, they have actually been reading a lot of stuff about the IRA, the Irish Republican Army, in the 1920s and also the Provisional IRA during what the British euphemistically call "the Troubles."
  • The third point I want to discuss is, what are the operational and tactical methods of the insurgents?
  • Fourth, what is the role of U.S. counter-insurgency in Iraq, and particularly what we have been trying to do to deal with it politically and militarily, within the armed forces.
  • Lastly, I want to, of course, discuss the usual questions that crop up: Where is Iraq headed now? What is it facing? What should the United States do?

In terms of the origins and causes of the insurgency, Iraq realized that it could not fight a conventional war against the United States and win. So they began planning, in the last few months—even then, they planned very ineffectively —for what we call a partisan war during Operation Iraqi Freedom and also in the aftermath. One of the reasons they were not very good at planning either conventional or a nonconventional, irregular, warfare was that Saddam's support among the population was rather attenuated by the fact that he had considerable opposition from the Shia and the Kurds and a significant element of the Sunni population. So a war of national resistance against a foreign invasion was not going to be very effective.

The point was proven by the fact that in the first few months, most of the insurgent activities were rather episodic, badly organized, and ineffective. Most of the former regime's security elements paid a lot of unemployed people to conduct operations against American forces during the summer of 2003. A lot of these people were not well-trained, of course, and they suffered—and I saw it firsthand —what we facetiously referred to as "combat Darwinism." All the stupid ones died trying to face American combat troops in small unit ambushes and so on.

But then, over the course of the summer—how shall I put this?—our policy towards the Sunni community, which was, "We don't really need them because we have the Shia and the Kurds on our side, so basically we're going to dissolve the armed forces and we're going to regard the entire Sunni Arab community as having been tainted by being part of the former regime structure." This approach of the CPA that was adopted from Washington towards the Sunni community contributed immensely to the rise and outbreak of a genuine Sunni-based insurgency around the fall and early winter of 2003.

You also see the change not only in structure, but in tactical ability and operational ability of the Sunni insurgents beginning in the fall, when members of the former armed forces that had been dissolved and members of the security structure began to participate, in ever-greater numbers, in planning and conducting operations. In some areas, like Ramadi and Samara, many of the insurgents were actually former Iraqi army officers, enlistees and NCOs, who were fighting out of uniform. You could see that their tactical ability was considerably better than some of the tribal insurgents or those disgruntled Iraqis who attacked us based on what we had done to their families and so on. We refer to them as POIs, or—excuse my language—"pissed-off Iraqis." This is very different from those who were well structured to conduct operations against us, beginning in the fall of 2003.

I am talking about the origins here. Let me go quickly to the causes.

American organization culture or mindset tends to love metrics. We measure things that are quantifiable. Things that are not quantifiable cause us considerable cognitive dissonance. In terms of the causes of the insurgency, I have divided it into material causes and nonmaterial, or what I call identity issues.

What are the material causes of the insurgency? The material causes of the insurgency are, obviously, the loss of salary, the loss of position in government, loss of economic well-being. These are quantifiable. When you apprehend insurgents and interview them, as I did several, and you ask them, "Why are you fighting?" they would mention the material causes: "I lost my job," "I lost this," "I don't have a salary," and so on.

But that is not the only thing. In fact, as I argue in the book, it's not the major thing. This is where I talk about cognitive dissonance, because when you are interrogating an insurgent or talking to an insurgent, or somebody you suspect to be an insurgent, and he starts talking to you about loss of identity, honor, and pride and humiliation, this becomes very difficult for an American interviewer to measure.

How do you quantify that? How do you deal with all these cultural issues? It's much easier to have an insurgent say, "Well, I'm part of an insurgency because I used to be a former army officer and you deprived me of that. That's why I'm in the insurgency." Then you can say, "Okay, he has a legitimate, quantifiable grievance. Let's see what we can do to get him out of the insurgency and into normal political activity —maybe give him a job in the new army or something like that." But when they start talking about honor and pride and things like that, and the fact of the overthrow of Sunni domination in Iraq, which has persisted for eighty-three years, this is really important.

If you want to go back further, to the rise of Ottoman domination in Iraq in 1515, when the Ottomans basically took over Mesopotamia and prevented Safavi Iran from transforming Mesopotamia into their own satrapy, so to speak, the Ottomans eventually, beginning in 1860, with what we call the reforms, the Tanzimat, brought more and more Sunnis—largely, Sunni Arabs, because they were the majority of the Sunni population, but also Sunni Turkmen and Kurds —into the administrative, bureaucratic, and coercive infrastructure of the Ottoman state in Iraq. For example, Tal Afar, my last deployment area, was one of a string of Ottoman fortresses that had been built to protect Iraq against Iranian attempts at expansion. Of course, it was manned by Turkmen.

So you can actually say that Sunni domination of Iraq has extended longer than eighty-three years. But it's not just the issue of material domination. It's also an identity issue. The Sunni Arabs of Iraq—and, to some extent, the Sunni Turkmen—have basically given Iraq the identity that it has had for the past eighty-three years, beginning with the imposition of a Hashemite monarchy, a Sunni monarchy, by the British in the 1920s. They have identified Iraq as a Sunni Arab nation. Their nationalism was quite exclusive. It did not include the Kurds, who are non-Arab, and it did not include the Shia. And this is the interesting situation here. I am going to relate it to the other issue of the growing ethno-sectarian divide in the country.

The ethno-sectarian divide between Sunni Arab and Shia Arab in Iraq is not really religious; it's political, it's material, and it's a fight over resources and a fight—again, I go back to this nonmaterial issue—over identity: Who imposes the new identity on Iraq?

Traditionally, Sunnis have viewed Shia Arabs as somewhat less Arab for being Shia. This is a remarkable situation. The interesting thing is, the formulators of Arab nationalism have largely, from the 1920s and 1930s onwards, been Christian Arabs. So Arab nationalism was formulated by Sunnis and Christian Arabs. The Shia have been excluded.

If you go back to Iraqi history in the 1920s and 1930s, they have been viewed as what is referred to in Arabic as a tabor hamas [phonetic], a fifth column for Shia Iran. This sentiment of viewing the Shia Arabs as less than Arab, or what we call Ajam Iranians, is somewhat applicable to how the Russians refer to the Germans as nemyets, "those who don't speak clearly," because they do not speak the same language.

The Shia Arabs of Iraq and of the wider Arab world have been "de-Arabized" by the Sunnis. You see this on a daily basis in Iraq among the Sunni Arabs, and particularly in the last three years, since the rise of Shia power in Iraq as a result of their empowerment with the fall of the former regime. It has almost become racist, the division between the two. It's no longer a looking down upon them as country bumpkins, as they used to. It has been transmogrified into a mutual dislike between the two. It was remarkable to me, in the fall of 2000, to see how they referred to one another, in both religious and political terms—an almost ethnic dislike.

So the point about the identity—and I want to wrap up this section on identity —is that sometimes people fight not just for material rewards or to keep what they have already had from disappearing. They often fight to preserve or maintain an image of who they are. It is identity. You fight to maintain your identity against threats to that identity. People are more willing, historically it has been shown, to put up with economic hardship and oppression than threats to their being as who they are.

What has happened to the Sunnis is the complete disintegration of their domination of Iraq, their ethos, their culture, their identity. It was a massive psychological disruption to their being, to their identity. That is one of the reasons why they are fighting, more than the fact that, "I was an army officer or a lieutenant colonel or colonel in the Iraqi army, and now I don't have a salary, so I joined the insurgency." But you can tie the issue of being a colonel in the Iraqi army to the issue of identity. The Iraqi army was formed prior to Saddam Hussein, obviously, on January 6, 1921. It was viewed as the spinal column for forming a new Iraqi nation. Many Iraqi former army officers that I interviewed were more concerned with what we did to the army than what we did to their salaries. This is the issue of identity here. It is not just, "I lost a salary"; it is, "I lost something that was part and parcel of the soul of Iraq." Then they would tell you, "Yes, Saddam totally destroyed the Iraqi army, but it's still the Iraqi army, and you had no business dissolving it."

Who are the insurgents and what do they want? This is an interesting insurgency. It's largely centered in the Sunni Arab and Sunni Turkmen community. It does not include the Kurds. Except for the period in the spring of 2004, when the Shia rose and there was this view that the insurgency could become almost a national insurgency against the Coalition presence, akin to the Iraqi revolt of 1920, a larger insurgency did not occur. What you have here is that the insurgency is concentrated within the Sunni community.

Who does it involve? Yes, it involves Sunni Arab tribes. It involves urban dwellers, intellectuals, rural people, former regime elements. They have had a very important role in the insurgency. Keep in mind that the Baath Party, its very ethos and structure and organizational culture, is that of a conspiratorial party, a Leninist party that has spent many years in the wilderness, in the 1960s, prior to taking power in 1968. They know how to organize politically in power and also how to organize politically when they are out of power.

So when they were kicked out of power in April 2003, they went back to their underground conspiratorial activities that were very prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s. They adapted. They have played a big role in the insurgency.

What is also important in the insurgency is the rise of an Islamist faction. Let me step back here and give you some background on Iraq, this country that was referred to as the most secular country in the Middle East on the eve of the invasion.

Iraqi secularism had disintegrated by the time we went in, in 2003. Iraq was no longer a secular state, as a result of the wars that it had fought, but primarily as a result of the sanctions, which had disintegrated Iraqi society. People, in the time of psychological stress, began to turn more and more towards religion.

Saddam, thinking that he could maintain his power more and more, turned to religion and the tribes. In 1995-96, he began what he called the Hamlah al-Imaniyyah, the "return to faith." What happened was that Iraq, in the 1990s, turned from a totalitarian into a ramshackle authoritarian, paternalist, patrimonial society. In order to maintain power--and here's the paradox—Saddam devolved more and more power to the peripheries; in other words, to religious groups and to the tribes. In return for providing them with patronage, they would maintain their loyalty to him. So basically he allowed a return to religion, thinking that he could control it.

To give you an example of why this was not true: in Tal Afar and in Fallujah, for example, there was a return to religion and the Baath Party maintained close watch on the imams and so on. But what happened was that there was also a rise of, for want of a better phrase, "Salafist jihadist Islamism" among the Sunnis. The tracts of people like Sayyid Qutb and the thinking of Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab began to filter into Iraq in ever-increasing numbers. They gained traction among the youth.

Here's another important aspect which makes Iraq less secular and less likely to be a democratic state: Iraq's youth right now is less educated than their parents and their grandparents. Iraq's educational structure broke down during the sanctions. Parents could no longer afford to have their children go to school, so they sent them out to work.

They also became susceptible to extremist ideologies. We discovered this at length in, say, a town like Tal Afar, where the educational system was never great to begin with, but it had collapsed. The Baathist teachers in Tal Afar had actually started proselytizing Islamist tracts to the youth, rather than Baathist principles.

Why was this not reported back to Baghdad? Because the people who do the reporting back to Baghdad were from the same tribe and kinship structure as those doing the teaching of the youth of the city. You do not report back on your own kinship. With the collapse of the totalitarian enterprise in Iraq, things began to be more tribal. What happened was that there was a growth in Islamism among the youth.

So you see that an important element of the insurgency was Islamic.

Now, this is not the same thing as foreign jihadists coming in. We hear that there were a large number of foreign jihadists. This is part of creating the narrative to say that the insurgency is really foreign-dominated or directed. If you look at the history of countries fighting insurgencies, they have always blamed outsiders, until they realize that there are internal issues at stake and that you have to deal with them. In Vietnam, we blamed Russia and China. In Malaya, the British blamed initially the People's Republic of China. But then there comes a recognition, or a glimmer of understanding, that there are some legitimate problems that need to be dealt with internally.

The foreign element has not been more than 10 percent of the insurgency. Even if there were more, they could not do much without the Iraqis supporting them logistically and materially. This Orientalist view that, "Well, most of the other jihadis are Arabs, so they will fit into Iraq," is nonsense. An Algerian sticks out like a sore thumb in Iraq. So does an Egyptian. So does a Saudi, even if it's a Saudi from the Shammar Arab tribe. The Shammar is a large tribe that extends from Saudi Arabia through Iraq into Syria. They are not the same, through accent, through culture, through a lot of things.

For the foreigners to succeed in doing what they do, which includes a lot of suicide operations, they need Iraqi insurgents to support and maintain the infrastructure for them. Suicide operations require a lot of infrastructure. It's not like some guy wanders in and says, "I want to be a suicide bomber," and he puts on a vest or gets into a car and drives into a Coalition convoy or a group of Iraqi civilians. It takes a lot of planning and reconnaissance, and it is Iraqis who do that for them, because they know the area, they know the neighborhoods. Even if foreigners are an important element, they rely on the Iraqis to participate.

What are their operational and tactical methods? An insurgency cannot meet a counter-insurgent force head-on in conventional force-on-force attacks. There are the small unit ambushes, the IEDs, which have been horrific and have taken a toll on us in Iraq. They tried meeting us force-on-force in the summer of 2003. There are some insurgent units that are almost semi-regular, such as the one I mentioned in the Ramadi and Samarra areas, which are former Iraqi officers. They basically engage U.S. forces force-on-force and then disengage under coordination and tactical capabilities that make you realize these people are former special forces or Republican Guards or military.

Irregular warfare goes back to the onset of warfare, and the terms like "asymmetric," which were used by various people from the mid-1990s on, as if they had discovered something new, are irrelevant. Irregular warfare targets the vulnerabilities of the opponent rather than meeting them force-on-force.

Let me explain this by reference to one of the most brilliant insurgent leaders of the last century, Michael Collins of the IRA. We talk a lot about Mao Zedong and Giap and other Marxist proponents of guerilla warfare, but not about Michael Collins, in 1919 to 1921. A lot of his stuff was read and his tactics were adopted by the Marxists and by Palestinian guerillas and by Menachem Begin and the Irgun and so on.

Michael Collins said, okay, we've had the British in Ireland for 700 years. How do we get rid of them? We cannot fight them conventionally, force-on-force, because we will be wiped out. This is one of the most potent armies of the West that has just come off fighting World War I. It's well-trained. Maybe they are tired and so on, but the fact is, they will basically wipe us out like they've wiped out past Irish rebellions.

What you need to do to a foreign presence in your country is pull the administrative, bureaucratic, and coercive rug from beneath their feet. In other words, you have to destroy all the infrastructure that makes their stay in our country possible.

What are we going to do? We're going to kill Irish collaborators. We're going to kill Irish policemen. We're going to kill British security and intelligence personnel. He set up an assassination squad to do exactly that, basically trying to make the British deaf, dumb, and blind—and destroying the economic infrastructure of domination.

This is what the insurgents have done. The Baath Party, after the downfall of the regime, put out a twenty-seven-page communiqué or operational order that has really not been assessed very effectively. I mention it in my book. They said, what is our strategic program? We realize that we cannot kick out the Coalition by military means. What we are going to do is make sure that they cannot impose themselves in Iraq by establishing a new structure of domination, whether it's based on their presence or Iraqis, irrespective of their ethno-sectarian background, collaborating with them.

If you look at insurgents throughout history, they have always targeted people who maintain collaboration with the foreign presence. In other words, the insurgents have said, "We will kill Iraqis that support the Coalition. We will destroy Iraq's oil infrastructure that the administration hoped would bring about a new Iraq and maintain our presence in Iraq." Remember, the plan was that Iraq would pay for the occupation. Well, the Baath Party said, "No, it won't," in its statement. "We will make sure that it won't."

So you have the nationalist insurgents saying, "We will target the entire administrative, coercive, and bureaucratic infrastructure of domination to make sure that you cannot succeed. You can stay, but it becomes a wasteful effort. You are putting good money after bad, because the outcome for you is not going to be positive. You are welcome to stay until you lose the energy, the will, and the resources, because no matter how rich you are, the expenditure that the United States has had is not sustainable." It really isn't, in terms of will, in terms of resources, in terms of what we are getting out of it. That is what insurgents do.

There is another aspect of the insurgency that is more insidious. It is more related to the Sunni Islamists. They said, "How do we make sure that your stay is not beneficial to you? We're going to promote an ethno-sectarian war." The Baathists may not be fond of the Shia very much, but a lot of the mainstream Islamist Sunni insurgents are not in favor of promoting an ethno-sectarian war. The fact that they target Iraqi security forces that are 80 percent Shia may actually promote that, but they don't put it as part of their ideology.

However, the Salafi jihadists do. People like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, more than Sunni Arab nationalists, view the Shia as beyond the pale, both in religious terms and as a fifth column, not just for Iran, but for what they call the "Zionist-Crusader Alliance." He keeps talking about that. He refers to the Shia as the rafidha, those who have gone out of Islam, or as the "sons of Ibn al-Alkami," the Shia minister who supposedly surrendered the Abbasid Empire to the Mongols.

So there is an element of the insurgency that wants to prevent our stay in Iraq by creating an ethno-sectarian civil right. There is an element that wants to prevent us from staying in Iraq by a scorched-earth policy, making sure that nothing of benefit comes out.

What is the role of counter-insurgency? Let me just try to summarize this, and be really careful how I put this, because this relates to U.S. policy, of course.

The United States has fought counter-insurgency campaigns and insurgencies ever since its inception. In fact, part of America's war of independence was an insurgency against the British, who complained about the non-gentlemanly approach towards warfare that the Americans had. The United States has also fought counter-insurgency campaigns against Native Americans, against the South during the Civil War to some extent. But the first on a large scale was the counter-insurgency campaign in the Philippines, 1899 to 1902.

So the United States has a history of knowing insurgency and counter-insurgency. But has it been successful in waging it? No, it hasn't. Why? Because the organizational culture of the armed forces—the Marines are a little bit of an exception, but then, in light of certain events in the past few months, this has created a major problem for the Marine Corps—the army's organizational culture has been geared towards what we call high-tech, conventional force-on-force warfare. Counter-insurgency is regarded as a distraction.

This is changing, but it takes a while for an army to change.

So in the field, America's ability to conduct counter-insurgency has been more ad hoc than institutionalized counter-insurgency warfare. It is learning by being in the field. Hopefully, what you learn in the field gets institutionalized and becomes part of a structured counter-insurgency doctrine in the future.

The other problem with U.S. counter-insurgency policy relates more to the higher levels. If you adopt a moralistic and ideological tone, like the United States has in Iraq and the French did in Vietnam and Algeria, it's paradoxical, but you are less likely to win in a counter-insurgency. Counter-insurgency, which is defined as "war among the people," requires an incredible amount of flexibility, initiative, tolerance, and an ability to be pragmatic. When you adopt a tone that is faith-based and ideological rather than based on hard, empirical data, you are not going to have a very effective counter-insurgency doctrine.

If you look at in terms of the policy down to the operational and tactical level, the U.S. has a long way to go to have an effective counter-insurgency doctrine. Because the U.S. armed forces and the bureaucracy is such a large behemoth, the ability to be flexible and pragmatic and to change and to instill into people and officers the idea that counter-insurgency is a very, very intricate approach that requires several baskets of measures—military, diplomatic, legal, cultural, ethical, socioeconomic—working in tandem, in parallel, not sequentially— we are not geared for that. Phase IV operations are not regarded, generally, as part of something that the army should do. It requires a capability that is going to be manpower-intensive to implement.

Finally, I just want to discuss where Iraq is headed now. What is Iraq facing? I don't want to sound like a Cassandra, but I'm not particularly optimistic. I could stand here and tell you, yes, the country is headed towards democracy. I don't know how many of you will believe me. You might, if your ideas are based on faith and ideology. But I think that, and I hope I'm wrong, that at some stage, ten years down the road, we will succeed. That's the minimum timeframe I see. Will we have the willpower to stay or the money to stay that long?

Right now, do I see Iraq headed towards democracy? Let me put to you what Iraq is facing right now. It's facing a virulent insurgency of a large element of a community that feels excluded.

They do have legitimate and illegitimate grievances. The illegitimate grievance of the Sunni community is their desire to take power again and exclude the others. That is not legitimate. What is legitimate is that they are being excluded. Our policy has a role in doing that, since 2003.

Iraq is facing ethno-sectarian conflict, or what I call a low-level civil war. Some people would try to parse that and say it really isn't civil war, because it's assassinations and groups of people wandering around killing people. But fifty to sixty people dead a day qualifies as a civil war for me. When the state does not have the monopoly of violence, but there are a large number of death squads and militias, that qualifies as a civil war. When the various communities create exclusivist, racist narratives about one another, through the mosques or through their political elites or their new populist intellectuals, that qualifies as a civil war.

You have organized crime and corruption on a massive scale in Iraq. Organized crime has become part of the insurgency, but it also has its own dynamics. On the eve of the war, Saddam released about 220,000 criminals from the Iraqi jails. Some of them have become part of Iranian crime syndicates. So what has happened is that we have seen Iraq now increasingly awash with drugs from Afghanistan and an increasing number of drug addicts in the society, especially youth.

Which leads me to the other point, the disintegration of Iraqi society. Saddam went a long way towards disintegrating Iraqi society. We have to grant him that as part of his legacy—the nonexistence of a civil society, the utter fear and oppression. But what has happened now is that there is a total lack of security and stability in Iraqi society, and just an oppressive fear among the population about the future of their country, and not just their country, but their own personal future.

I talked to a large number of Iraqis, particularly in the center and in the south. They don't have a sense that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. But rather that there is yet another tunnel to go through.

All of these things are what are existing, in my view, in Iraqi society right now. Elections are an important part of democracy, but they are not the most important. We talk about elections as being democratic, in the same way that people's democracies of Eastern and Central Europe used to talk about elections. Democracy requires more than elections. It requires a civil society. It requires tolerance, which does not exist right now in Iraq, as a result of all that Iraqis have suffered in the past twenty or thirty years. It requires a large middle class, which is disappearing. Iraq's middle class has disappeared as a result of sanctions, as a result of wars, and as a result of increasing immigration.

None of these exist. So where are we going to be?

I am going to stop right here. I can see you inching in an annexationist way. [Laughter]

The Lebanese civil war was a blight on the Middle East, but if you think that was a blight on the Middle East, wait until a full-blown Iraqi civil war occurs, should we leave.

I have also talked about—and people have misinterpreted this—about dividing into three. I suggested a decentralized confederal system, which would, unfortunately, require some population movements, until such time as the country stabilized and then the Iraqis, in several years' time, could figure out what they want to do with their decentralized country. Do they want to stay together or do they want to go separately?

I would like to think that after they have a decentralized system that is stabilized by us and by others in the international community, they would ultimately decide to stick together. But this will require the brutality of the situation to have dissipated.

Thank you very much.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Colonel. I think we were all completely riveted by this amazing analysis. I expect few of us can have not had the reaction, what a pity they didn't listen more to this guy at an earlier stage.

My question is about the first part of your presentation, what you presented as being the prehistory of the insurgency. I work for the United Nations, so I have a particular interest in that period. As you know, we were one of the first victims.

You portray that period as being one when, really, the insurgency was very unorganized and hadn't got its act together. Yet, to us, it looked like a very sophisticated strategy. First, they hit the Jordanian embassy, the Arab country most closely involved with Iraq historically. Second, they hit the United Nations. Third, they hit the International Red Cross. It seemed to me that this was very sophisticated, and what they were doing was making it clear that this occupation could not have any international legitimacy, that anybody, however apparently benign, however much they were, ostensibly, a friend of Iraq, an international organization, a humanitarian organization, if they were trying to make life normal under this occupation, they had no place in Iraq and they would be killed.

While it's true that the insurgency didn't gain the volume that it has now until the following spring, it seems to me that there was probably a brain there that was preparing it in a very sophisticated way. I wonder what your comment on that would be.

AHMED HASHIM: That's a very good comment. There were incidences like the ones you mentioned, the Jordanian Embassy, the United Nations, the International Red Cross, that were well planned, well executed. They were conducted by Baathists. We know that.

But I'm talking about the larger picture, especially in the rural areas, against troops and so on. It was really not very well planned or executed until the former military people began to play a role in it.

The kinds of attacks that you mentioned, which they undertook almost immediately, were part of that Baathist operational approach to making sure that there was no legitimacy to this occupation and to the presence of foreigners in Iraq. You're quite right.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask about what you explained about both the deep sense of Sunni nationalism and this de-secularization process. Should we count these as catastrophic failures of intelligence, that these central facts were not incorporated into our war plans? Were they known? If they were not known, why were they not? If they had been known, would we, in fact, have behaved differently?

AHMED HASHIM: I can see you want to get me in more trouble with the neoconservatives.
I think a large number of these facts were known, but ignored. The administration —and again I'm speaking personally—did not listen to Iraq experts. They listened to sound-bite experts.

I will be humble here. I am not an Iraq expert. I'm more of an Iran expert. I have developed expertise on Iraq. But even then, having been there, still, I think of myself as an amateur in Iraq. It will take a long time to develop the expertise that I would like to see, requiring me to go more and more to Iraq.

But the fact is, the rise of Islam and the fusion of nationalism and Islam in Iraq was there for all of us to see over the course of the 1990s. The collapse of Iraqi secularism and the middle class was there for all of us to see. The idea that the Shia will welcome us effusively was—there was welcoming, there was some effusiveness, but the Shia did not forget that in 1991, we stood there and watched them get slaughtered by Saddam's gunships. Muhammad Bakr al Hakim said, "Do not support but do not hinder the Coalition as it advances." That is not effusive support. People like him, before he was killed, said liberation ended on April 9, 2003, and occupation began after that.

The idea that the Shia were "our Shia"—this tendency for us to personalize things and say, "These are our people," or, "These are moderate people," or whatever, ignores the fact that dynamics may not be under our control. The Shia are not monolithic, for example.

Yes, things were ignored.

QUESTION: As we wind down and look back over this period of time, I'm sure that we will increasingly hear that if we had just put more troops on the ground, it would have made a difference. From all your comments, I take it that that wouldn't have made such a big difference. I wonder what you think about that, because I'm sure we are going to hear more about that as we reevaluate.

AHMED HASHIM: Obviously, it's the counter-factual that is difficult to deal with. But quantity has a quality of its own, and quantity also enables you to maintain and hold a place.

Would it have made it less virulent? There are a lot of factors. But the fact is, when you are fighting a counter-insurgency campaign, you cannot go into a town or a village and say to the people, "We're going to drive out the insurgents," or, "We're going to talk to those who are rational enough to talk with and bring them into the political process, give them jobs, and so on," and then leave. Once you do that, the dynamic reverts back to insurgency. You have to stay, and you have to make the population complicit in your plan to create a new structure. If you do not have enough troops to do that and you just are what we call drive-by counter-insurgents, it's not going to work.

So on a certain level, yes, you can say that, that you would need more troops than we have to conduct effective counter-insurgency.

QUESTION: Several years ago, the American intelligence community went through a transition like the one you described about the military. There was a focus on human intelligence and then it became technical intelligence. About forty-five years ago, the buzzword in the military and the intelligence community was "counter-insurgency." That was during the Kennedy years, having to deal with things in Laos and in Vietnam with the Vietcong. But also the British had been doing it under Sir Robert Thompson in Malaysia, and then the big guy for the Americans at the time was Edward Lansdale.

What has happened in the forty-five years since the focus was on counterintelligence in the military to going into, as you describe, high tech, and now having to learn it all over again? Is there a lesson learned somewhere there? Why was there an inconsistency in the focus on what happened to high tech, and now to go back?

AHMED HASHIM: I have been studying counter-insurgency and insurgency for quite a while, and practicing it for the last three years. During the Kennedy administration, there was an attempt to bring counter-insurgency and insurgency into focus, but there was reluctance on the part of the army. When Westmoreland was asked, "How do you deal with the insurgency in Vietnam," he said, "More firepower." America's defeat, if you will, in Vietnam in the 1970s resulted in people coming back and saying, "We don't want to have anything more to do with this."

If you look at the curriculum of the war colleges in teaching insurgency and counter-insurgency, it almost became zero. It started being revitalized during the Reagan era, with low-intensity conflict and so on and all these new acronyms that we were famous for creating down in D.C. But it's still insurgency and counter-insurgency.

Now there is the mindset against it, which I think might be breaking down, given the realization that most of 21st-century wars are going to be what Sir Rupert Smith, the British general, who wrote a fabulous book, said is "war among the people." If the United States cannot deal with war among the people, there's going to be a problem, because the U.S. military is geared towards high-intensity conventional conflict.

The other thing is that it also requires something that the United States has generally not been very good at, what used to be called in the 19th and 20th centuries, during the era of Anglo-French colonialism, cultural anthropology. But that has a bad aura to it. It's really more cultural, social, and human mapping. In other words, trying to understand the society you are being engaged in, socially, economically, identity-wise, tribal, and all the social networks.

We have a problem with that because we don't emphasize languages or geography. There is a paucity of linguistic training in the United States. This is the world's most globalized country, but as one British interlocutor officer said (and I love the British to bits, but they can be so supercilious), "You're the most globalized country in the world, but you're the most ignorant." This was one British officer in the Green Zone, when we were discussing counter-insurgency and so on.

He said, "The problem with you Americans is, you don't understand counter-insurgency." I said, "And you do?" He said, "Well, yes, Malaya." I said, "I knew you were going to talk about that, but let me mention Northern Ireland, Palestine, Aden, and all these places where you've had failures. You've had successes, but to extrapolate the template of Malaya"—which I got really fed up with—"to Iraq or Vietnam is not very factual; it's ahistorical."

Yes, counter-insurgency is very difficult. It's actually more difficult than conventional war.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much for a very successful morning.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less