2003 November 18 Tuesday
On Intelligence Estimates Of The Iraqi Opposition Forces

The US military estimates there are 5,000 Iraqi insurgents launching attacks against Western forces and other symbols of outside influence in Iraq.

The military estimates the number of resistance fighters at no more than 5,000, including about 200 foreign fighters.

Many attacks are carried out by criminals released from prison by Saddam before the war. "In most of the cases of direct-fire engagements that our troops have, they find very young, out-of-work young men that have been paid to attack our forces," the general said.

Some in the military think the number in the Iraqi opposition is even smaller than 5,000.

CNN anchor Bill Hemmer spoke Monday with Time magazine's Brian Bennett, who wrote an article about the Iraqi resistance.

BENNETT: [CentCom commander] Gen. [John] Abizaid said there could be as many as 5,000 insurgents. He was actually criticized for passively underestimating the number. According to my sources, I think the number could be less than that. People told me if you have a well- organized, well-led resistance force of maybe several hundred or a thousand, they could be inflicting the amount of damage and instigating the amount of chaos we've seen in the last couple of weeks.

By contrast, the CIA estimates there could be 50,000 Iraqi insurgent fighters.

A Central Intelligence Agency report leaked to U.S. newspapers Wednesday suggests as many as 50,000 fighters may be taking part in the insurgency, and that they increasingly enjoy the support of ordinary Iraqis. The report, written by the CIA's station chief in Baghdad and commissioned by director George Tenet, also raises doubts about the U.S. military's ability to crush the opposition unless serious political changes are made in the country.

General John Abizaid, Commander, CENTCOM (and a man who, parenthetically, is very fluent in Arabic and who has a strong grasp of Arab culture and history) sees the military estimate of a 5,000 man opposition force as very dangerous in spite of its small size.

The clear and most dangerous enemy to us at the present time are the former regime loyalists, the Ba'athist cells that operate in the areas primarily of Baghdad, Fallujah, Tikrit, Mosul, Kirkuk, and conduct operations against us primarily through the use of improvised explosive devices, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and, very infrequently, but sometimes also small arms fire. I would say that this group of Ba'athists by far represents the greatest threat to peace and stability and it is very important for us to close with that enemy, to discover their cellular structure, to unravel it and to remove that threat from moderation emerging in the Iraqi government.

The extremists are those that can fill a large number of different groupings. They represent religious extremists, they represent national extremists that may or may not have been associated with the Ba'athists, yet nevertheless desire to fight the coalition, and to ensure that no moderate Iraqi government emerges.

There are a large number of criminals that are hired by the Ba'athists and the extremists to do their dirty work. As a matter of fact, in most of the cases of direct-fire engagements that our troops have, they find very young, out-of-work young men that have been paid to attack our forces, and it is very important that as we progress militarily, we also progress politically and economically so as to get these young men, these angry young men, off the streets.

There are a small, yet important and well-organized, group of foreign fighters, some of whom have been operating in Iraq for a long time, many of whom are infiltrating across various borders. I would point out to you that the border areas of Iraq are as long as the U.S.-Mexican border areas. And they are difficult to secure, yet on the other hand, we have had good success recently in interdicting many of these foreign fighters. And although we have had very good cooperation from the Shi'a community in the south, it is also true that there are some anti- coalition Shi'a movements that also aim to destabilize any moderate government that would form in Baghdad.

So in all, I would say that the force of people actively armed and operating against us does not exceed 5,000. Now, people will say, well, that's a very small number. But when you understand that they're organized in cellular structure, that they have a brutal and determined cadre, that they know how to operate covertly, they have access to a lot of money and a lot of ammunition, you'll understand how dangerous they are.

What is most noteworthy about the 5,000 guerilla insurgent fighter figure of the US military and the 50,000 figure of the CIA is that we are given little insight into how each organization arrived at their estimates. This brings to mind the most historically significant previous disagreement between the US military and the CIA about an enemy order of battle which occurred during the Vietnam War. A then-secret bureaucratic fight pitted a lower military estimate of the Viet Cong and NVA order of battle (OOB) against a much higher estimate by lone CIA analyst Sam Adams. Adams' higher estimate was kept from being the official OOB for the enemy and yet Adams turned out to be right. Shortly before Adams died he wrote an excellent insider's account of the internal bureaucratic battles he fought to try to bring the military to a more realistic appraisal of their enemy: War of Numbers: An Intelligence Memoir.

Is history repeating itself? Is the more pessimistic CIA estimate of Iraqi opposition accurate? It depends in part on how the opposition is defined. This was one of the issues between Adams and the US military back in the 1960s. The communists had various levels of fighters who were progressively less formal, less trained, and less consistently involved in the war. It has been too many years since I've read War of Numbers to recall the exact categories of fighters in Vietnam but Adams included estimates of different types of village-level militias and part-time fighters that the military tried to ignore. As a consequence of this difference over definitions of the enemy Adams came up with much larger counts of enemy forces. The military was opposed to estimates that would make the enemy seem much higher in number and hence more formidable. The higher estimates were seen as potential fodder that could be used as arguments against the US fighting in Vietnam in the first place. Also, once mistaken lower number estimates of enemy forces were made public the Johnson White House and military saw that an upward revision in the estimates would be seen as evidence that the communist opposition was actually growing in strength. The US military's lower unrealistic estimates eventually helped undermine public trust in the US prosecution of the war even as US forces really did significantly degrade the size of enemy forces and as they did most notably during the Tet Offensive.

Abizaid's comments about the nature of the Iraqi opposition bring up somewhat analogous questions about military OOB estimates about the Iraqi opposition. Note that Abizaid refers to criminals hired to do the work of the Baathists. Are those criminals included in the 5,000 number? Probably not. There are likely many criminals who could be hired who haven't even been approached yet. How many would respond to monetary inducements and how much money do the Baathists have available to offer would-be attackers?

In Iraq a likely bigger source of differences of estimates for the opposition probably comes as a result of the tribal nature of much of Iraqi society. An account from Time illustrates how a single fighter can count on an extended family support network.

The Saddam aide says the attack in Nasiriyah was planned and executed by a cell from a town between Fallujah and Ramadi. He adds that a member of the cell told him that the coalition troops in the south, where Nasiriyah lies, were much more accessible, with fewer fortifications, than those in the Sunni triangle near Baghdad, making them an easier target. To further increase their chances of eluding capture and to protect their families, the members of a cell based west of Fallujah, says the aide, never sleep at home. Instead they stay with relatives who live in other towns in the area. And they never keep their weapons in these or their own houses, but hide them in farmers' fields and orchards.

Are the family members who help house a fighter part of the enemy order of battle? Are the family members who look the other way and ignore and do not report weapons caches or who provide money or who stay silent part of the enemy order of battle? It would be misleading to include them in a simple total number of all enemy fighters. But it would also be misleading to ignore their role. Also, will a Baathist loyalist or Saddam Fedayeen member who is killed fighting coalition forces be replaced by a brother who cousin who seeks vengeance?

One factor that the US has working in its favor in Iraq is that the majority Shias and the Kurds fear the return to power of the Sunni Baathists.

For many Iraqis, the foremost worry is that the oppressive Hussein regime and its security forces could return if public ire over poor conditions continues to grow, some religious leaders say. But as attacks against Coalition forces and civilians have increased, such as last week's devastating bombing of an Italian military compound in Nasiriyah, a broad range of Iraqis also speak more fervently of rejecting "Wahabis," or foreign religious extremists they believe are sent by Osama bin Laden. At the same time, many Muslims, especially among the Shiite majority, say they do not envisage an Islamic regime for the country.

While the insurgent attackers are learning and their attacks are growing in sophistication at the same time some of the Shia clergy who were until quite recently preaching a fairly hostile line about the US troop presence are suddenly striking a more conciliatory tone. The Shia are rightly more worried about the Baathists and the Wahhabis than they are about the US forces which the Shias must realize by now will eventually be greatly scaled back as more power is transferred to Iraqi hands. The Shias want to be on the inside when Iraqis assume positions of power and the Shias definitely do not want to see the Baathists or Sunni Wahhabists come to power. That the majority of the population is hostile toward the Baathists and toward Sunni Arab rule is a large factor weighing in favor of US and coalition forces.

Even if the Baathsts continue to refine and improve the efficacy of their tactics and increase the amount of damage they cause in the short run they still face the very real threat that US and coalition intelligence work could break into some of their rings and gradually cut down their numbers. Also, a more deft US handling of the Iraqi Sunni populace could somewhat reduce the level of support they enjoy in their base. The US forces will continue to find and destroy arms caches and the Baathists no longer have the power of sovereign control to use to replenish their cash supplies. So time may not be on their side. Still, at this remove it is hard to judge the accuracy of the US military or CIA estimates or to understand the depth of the support that the Baathists and other insurgent factions enjoy in the Sunni heartland of Iraq.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 November 18 05:35 PM  Mideast Iraq Insurgency

doves shall prevail said at November 18, 2003 7:59 PM:

We're all aware of pressure placed on DoD to better outfit deployed soldiers with best possible protection gear - body armor, Humvee armor, aircraft self-protection, etc.

I heard one small clip somewhere of possible employment of blimp airships to more effectively patrol threat zones over Iraq. Furthermore, we know of the hell-fire armed drones too, so out of curiosity, how many are there, the predators et al, making daily security enforcement patrols?

In my opinion, a fleet of predators, flying air-cover for convoys/patrols in high threat zones (and especially over Tikrit), could prove more effective in many circumstances, while arguably being much cheaper to operate and far less risky to US airmen/women.

As far as airships go, why can't coalition develop and deploy an unmanned, surveillance/recon blimp, perhaps 2km-3km up out of RPG and AAA fire, with mission of providing 24 hr tracking and monitoring possible targets on roadsides, etc? I know a Russian company will sell one which can do something similar to this. It just seems like a best case weapon right now, to gain the "Upper" hand, better enabling rapid reaction tactics.

Could be wrong, but lets hope anyway for a most swift security situation for the Iraqi people and normal reconstitution of their nation~

Steve Sailer said at November 19, 2003 2:53 PM:

There are lots of young men and lots of weapons sitting around in the currently rebellious regions. How many of those are "fighters?" Who knows? We're losing soldiers each week to bombs set up along the road. That seems like the kind of thing that three teenage cousins could pull off in their spare time. Do they count as "fighters"?

Randall Parker said at November 19, 2003 3:19 PM:

Steve, The question in my mind is just how much of the attacks are the result of 3 cousins getting together and how much is coming from organizers seeking out the cousins. If it is the former then my guess is that we are in deeper trouble, especially if there are more groups of cousins who haven't yet made an attack than there are cousins who have made an attack. But if the attacks are coming as a result of organized motivating groups encouraging the various groups of cousins at least the potential exists to run down the organizers and thereby reduce the number of attacks.

Again, at this remove without access to interrogations and intelligence reports it is hard to guess from the public information.

Randall Parker said at November 19, 2003 3:35 PM:

One other note: The bombers are using pairs of cell phones with one phone interfaced to a bomb to be called by the other phone to set off bombs as convoys pass. That strikes me as requiring some help to show the bombers how to make the bomb. That implies some degree of organization.

Dan Van Zile said at November 19, 2003 5:12 PM:

One thing that hasnt been much discussed is the potential Shia problem. Im sure elements of the Iranian Conservatives are oranizing in Iraq. Currently they are laying low and letting the Sunnis take the heat but Im sure once the americans declare victory and leave, probably just before the election. The shia problem will rear its head. My question is are we better off in a civil war, with Islamic Shias as the leading groups or perhaps is there some way we can not destroy the Sunnis as a political-miltary force? Dan

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