Friday, August 8, 2003

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Thoughts on the Iraqi resistance

My all-time favorite Simpsons line comes at the end of an episode when Marge repeatedly tries to offer what the moral of the story was. At which point the following exchange takes place:

Marge: Well... Then I guess the moral is the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Lisa: Perhaps there is no moral to this story.
Homer: Exactly! Just a bunch of stuff that happened.

I bring this up in the wake of recent attacks, bombings, and assorted mayhem in Baghdad. Military spokesman, pundits, journalists, and yes, bloggers, are trying to fashion a coherent narrative to events on the ground (e.g., "Islamic terrorism is on the rise")when there may not be one, for two reasons:

1) There are disparate narratives across the country. One can acknowledge the chaos in Baghdad while still pointing out that market forces and first-hand accounts suggest that resistance is fading in other parts of the country.

2) There are disparate actors involved in the violent resistance. It seems increasing clear that Mickey Kaus and Hassam Fattah are correct in pointing out that there exist multiple forms of organized and disorganized resistance. There are a couple of sources for attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq -- Baathists, foreign terrorists, radical Shiites, tribal chiefs, Al Qaeda infiltrators, etc. Juan Cole provides a list of possible suspects, including Ahmed Chalabi, which seems like a hell of a stretch to me.

Another wrinkle in this mix is that areas like the Sunni Triangle -- in which U.S. forces exercise precarious control -- are more likely to experience violence. Stathis Kayvas' work on this subject is particularly illuminating. One summary of his research contains this point:

violence is likely to be motivated more
by petty everyday personal and local disputes than by grand impersonal hatreds; few people engage in acts of direct violence (e.g. killings) but many people engage in acts of indirect violence (e.g. denunciations); and people tend to willingly engage in indirectly violent behavior during civil wars because they tend to be strongly disinclined to engage in directly violent behavior in general.

My point? A lot of stuff is happening, and I doubt any single narrative will be able to explain it.


UPDATE: Josh Marshall has some similar thoughts on this issue.

posted by Dan on 08.08.03 at 11:04 AM


It took about 3 months for the administration to even admit there is organized guerrilla resistance. Now we're slowly waking up to the fact that it isn't just Ba'athists and "dead enders" as we were so sure was the case. At issue is that the surprises keep coming. It's A! No! It's B! Oh wait a minute, we may have a slew of B's, C's and maybe some E's to deal with. No D's sighted so far. Add to that the change in tactics "Maybe the iron fist was the wrong strategy" and I just have to wonder what surprises in store for us over the next few months.

posted by: John on 08.08.03 at 11:04 AM [permalink]

I think the tiny string that puts these things together is that there may be small groups of resistance who have no influence but are building a foundation for larger resistance. I always thought we might lose Iraq, because of counterattacks like the Russians in Chechnya. A better argument may be that these small groups may be aided by a decline in quality of life issues, water, electricity (much like the capuciano revolution in Serbia)that leads to wider rejection of American forces. Having said all that I could agree that there may be no final story since the Shiites enjoyed no real benefits under Saddam and would be happy to put down a small Sunni rebellion for us. But how long can people last without services?

posted by: Kombiz on 08.08.03 at 11:04 AM [permalink]

Excellent post.

We know that Baathists are paying for dead American soldiers, we know that the Al-Queda affiliate Ansar-al-Islam is regrouping to take revenge on Americans, and we know that foreign fighters have been captured and killed recently in Iraq.

Fortunately, the solution for each group is the same -- hunt them down and kill or capture them. Our military seems to be doing this with greater efficiency now.

posted by: Ryan Booth on 08.08.03 at 11:04 AM [permalink]

I agree. From my son's letters and phone calls from Baghdad, there's no single narrative right now: one day joking with Iraqis, another day gunfire. One day kicking down doors, another day marriage proposals from giggling Iraqi girls.

But we haven't put enough money and resources into doing a lot of things: especially putting out our message. It took us too long to get TV up, and even now it's too few hours of marginal programming.

posted by: klaatu on 08.08.03 at 11:04 AM [permalink]

A search of the histories of occupational forces teaches us that these events are normal in the course of human events. Just look at occupied Germany following WW 2. Things did'nt calm down until 1947.

posted by: john cheeseman on 08.08.03 at 11:04 AM [permalink]

I always laugh when I read that "Iraqi citizens are coming to arms in resistance against their neo-colonialsist and imperialistic oppressors!"

Yeah...beacuse the average Iraqi just happens to have rocket grenade launchers and stinger missiles lying around the house. "C'mon Achmed! Grab the RPGs next to the good china in the kitchen and we'll go kick some American ass! Alluha Akbar!"

Get real...the "people" of Iraq aren't the ones blowing up embassies either...let's get a little perspective here!

posted by: Brian on 08.08.03 at 11:04 AM [permalink]

As normal as these events some how they didn't figure into the post-war planning of the US government. Why are we suprised that 150,000 troops are inadequit when equilvent nation building exercises in Bosnia and Kosovo when scaled up to Iraq scale would run between 258,000 (Bosnia level) - 526,000 (Kosovo-level)troops? Why will no one fess to the educated guess that the occupation is going to run $21 -$36 billion if Balkans operations costs are scaled up?
(The numbers above are reported in slate and derived from work by James Dobbins, author of America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq )

Politics I guess...

posted by: john kealy on 08.08.03 at 11:04 AM [permalink]

Kombiz wrote:
But how long can people last without services?

From what I've heard, during Saddam's day, he took electricity from 80% of the country for the benefit of Baghdad. Now, the 80% get to keep their electricity and Baghdad gets the short end of the stick.

The media's in Baghdad, so they think what happens in Baghdad is what's happening everywhere. The rest of the country is already better off.

posted by: Jabba the Nutt on 08.08.03 at 11:04 AM [permalink]

Exactly right. Many of the incidents in Baghdad, & the anti-American comments that make TV news, come from the wealthy, privileged areas like the Mansur district which prospered under the old regime. And most of the attacks on the US troops are in the Sunni triangle.

Re: changes in tactics, inevitably they have to adapt to a fluid and changeable situation on the ground. Some local commanders will do better than others at forging working relationships with locals, some local situations are more "relateable" than others.

Are there attempts to form a wider, loose network of attackers. Probably. Is that a bad thing from our point of view? Not necessarily. The more organized they are the easier it is for our forces to identify, counter and neutralize them over time.

posted by: rkb on 08.08.03 at 11:04 AM [permalink]


I guess that was actually a celebration in Basra earlier this week. That damn BBC made it look like a riot for water and electricity.

posted by: MacMan on 08.08.03 at 11:04 AM [permalink]

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