2004 February 12 Thursday
Insurgency In Iraq Like Self-Replicating Virus

Michael Hirsh of Newsweek follows the First Battalion of the Eighth Infantry of the 4th Infantry Division on night operations to track down insurgents in Samarra Iraq.

But now, in the aftermath of Saddam's capture on Dec. 13, a new kind of threat is emerging that comes from deep within Arab culture and has little to do with the bedraggled Iraqi tyrant.

These are the "bloodline" attacks, as Tomlinson's superior, Capt. Todd Brown, calls them. Samarra is only about 15 miles from where Saddam was captured at Ad Dawr, but "what we're seeing now is much more tribal," he says. "It's the Arabic rule of five. If you do something to someone, then five of his bloodlines will try to attack you." The insurgency is self-replicating, like a virus, through the vengeance of brothers, sons, cousins and nephews.


They're professional soldiers, smooth and sure at urban fighting tactics. But once inside the houses, pressed into a counterinsurgency role they've never been trained for, they improvise, often amateurishly. Until a month ago, they didn't even have an Arab translator. They relied on Captain Brown's pidgin Arabic (his own description) and a lot of "pointy talk"—hand gestures—to question detainees.


The Army has yet to implement other ideas, like training commanders in local culture (which the Green Berets do).

US forces, untrained in the local culture and language, are fighting a self-replicating tribal insurgency. This is the result of incompetence at the highest level in the Bush Administration. Former members of Saddam's regime are just one part of the insurgency. Other parts include Islamists and tribe members looking to get even for things the US military has done to members of their extended families. Every US Army raid that goes in with bad intelligence and kicks down doors of innocent people builds up resentment. Killings of innocents have an even bigger effect.

The US needs a game plan. First off, it needs a military that has much greater training in Arab tribal culture and the Arabic language. But it also needs a grand strategy for what to do about Iraq in the long run. The most obvious question that needs to be asked is should Iraq even be kept together as a single state when the three major groups in Iraq (Sunnis, Shias, and culturally and linguistically separate Kurds) do not see themselves as members of a common polity?

Even a splitting of Iraq into 3 pieces will not make the resulting states easy to govern. The Kurdish state would probably function fairly well. The Kurds have showed they could govern themselves during the 1990s when the US and British air forces enforced an effective partition of Iraq that made the Kurdish zone de facto independent of Saddam's regime. But both the Sunnis and the Shias are still too tribal and hence will have little loyalty toward any government.

While foreign fighters are estimated by the US Army to be only 5% to 10% of the insurgents the foreigners may be having a far bigger impact by being suicide bombers.

But commanders also say the foreign fighters' impact has been significant and has probably yielded the bulk of what has become perhaps the insurgents' most potent weapon — suicide bombers. However, the Army adds that no successful suicide bomber has been positively identified.

Another sign of incompetence:

There's also a disturbing sense that the U.S.-appointed civilian administrators of Iraq have left the military holding the bag, lending credence to a growing sentiment that the Coalition Provisional Authority has seriously dropped the ball. Gen. Ray Odierno, the 4th Infantry Division commander who orchestrated the capture of Saddam Hussein, explains how his unit ran out of money last fall and couldn't pay the fledgling Iraqi police.

"We were just beginning to see people reacting to the successes. . . . We had the momentum," Odierno says. "And so we've somewhat lost that a bit. . . . I can't tell you why it happened. . . . It's water under the bridge."

More than his words, it's Odierno's face that paints the clearest picture of betrayal.

It is the Bush Administration that has dropped the ball. The US military is incredibly great at fighting wars. But it has not been funded or trained to govern hostile tribal Arabic populations. At the same time, the US civilian administrators have shown themselves totally inadequate for the task. Does George W. Bush even know this? Does the guy have a plan for what to do about it?

US Marines headed for a Sunni area in Iraq plan to make sure the locals know how different the Marines are from the Army.

Their destination is the Wyoming-size desert province of Al Anbar west of Baghdad that includes the flashpoint towns of Al Fallujah and Ar Ramadi, where at least 11 U.S. soldiers have been killed in the past two weeks.

While the Army has reported some progress and improved relations with the people of the region, there has been increased violence after a brief lull following the capture of Saddam Hussein in December.

Marine officials say they plan to make it clear that they are different from the Army, which made some costly blunders in the beginning of their tenure in Al Anbar that some say soured relations with locals.

The Army needs to train many more soldiers in Arabic language and tribal culture. The Bush Administration's leading intellectual figures of the neoconservative persuasion need to abandon their ideological beliefs and accept that they are attempting to do something that is incredibly difficult.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2004 February 12 03:04 PM  Mideast Iraq

Bob Badour said at February 12, 2004 7:19 PM:

Five for one. An eye for a tooth. Sounds like a recipe for mayhem. I suggest we nuke them from orbit -- it's the only way to be sure.

Bob Badour said at February 12, 2004 7:30 PM:

They can bill me.

Mohd Ali said at February 13, 2004 4:55 AM:

The writer is surely right about one thing and that is that Iraq can not be kept as one single state without giving in to the Sunni Triangle and their Al-Qaeda allies . The triangle is trying to again gain control over the country and its billions of dollars and they will sure fight until the end for that . It is time to go back to the old tried and successful method of Divide and Rule . The Sunni triangle is mostly a desert area with no oil or agriculture . For a group that adopts the all or nothing motto , I think it is only fitting to grant them what they really have and grant the others what they have . By this the US will isolate the triangle elements and deprive them of the resources that they use to feed Al-Qaeda . 85% of Iraqis will be happy to get rid of the disruptive 15% ,however , those 15% have great ties with neiboring Jordanians and Saudi Arabians who both have in the last eight month vocally and financially supported the insurgence .All arab states agree on one point and that is they rather have a destroyed Iraq that a Shiite controlled Iraq . On the other Hand , Turkey , Iran and Syria would find establishing a state with 97% majority of Kurds rather threatening . Us will be happy with the fears of Iran and Syria but can not affrod to upset an old ally like Turkey. A way around that is to split Iraq into North and South . The north will be ethincally mixed (Arab+Kurds +Turkmans) but with majority Sunni ( kurds and arab in the north are Sunni ) . Having a majority Sunni in the north will pacify Arab states who will find it hard to find a rationale to their religious fighters and mullas in order to attack kurds who are sunnis and not viewed as infidels like the Shiite .

Joe Katzman said at February 22, 2004 9:22 PM:

Bush and his neocon advisers have always said that this process would be difficult and protracted. That won't come as any sort of surprise to them.

Randall Parker said at February 22, 2004 11:36 PM:


I do not believe it. While the military at the level of the officers was planning for a harder occupation the civilian political appointees in the Pentagon obviously thought they could occupy Iraq with no more troops than it took to capture it. That was a big mistake that they dragged their feet in reacting to.

I also see little indication that they expected an upturn in attacks a few months after they overthrew Saddam's regime.

Randall Parker said at February 22, 2004 11:46 PM:

Joe, One reason the Bush Administration is trying to ignore their understaffing of soldiers in Iraq is that the US military is not big enough. The US can not afford all its commitments with current levels of taxing and spending. We have a half trillion dollar budget deficit. The US is therefore doing an inadequate job in Iraq.

I think they really blew it by not training lots of soldiers to speak Arabic. Read Stuart Herrington's Silence Was A Weapon: The Vietnam War In The Villages for an idea of how much local language skills can help soldiers take apart cells operated by the enemy. I keep thinking about that book when I read, for instance, reports of US soldiers who are training Iraqi soldiers to understand Englisih language commands and giving them American nicknames to make their names easier to remember in order to train the Iraqis. How utterly foolish.

Mike Trier said at February 23, 2004 6:21 PM:

I think we could use a different alternative as the interim authority in Iraq. Will the Iraqis ever trust the motives of the CPA? The U.N. has a proven record of inadequacy in the Balkans, Middle East and Africa. The problems of Iraq at this point are the problems of local government. What if the CPA was replaced by a body of former democratically elected mayors of large cities with multiethnic populations? Say one from Canada, Ireland, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, the U.K., Korea, Australia, India, Indonesia and Singapore. They could operate under U.N. charter until we sort out the Iraqi election mess. We don't need UN bureaucrats calling the shots but experienced problem solvers.The Iraqi's could focus on electing mayors and governing councils. Iraqis could step up to fill these post without being labled as collaborators with the U.S. occupation. You focus on getting the local police protection, power, utilities and schools. Local politicians would establish a track record that would be the basis for runs for regional and national office. We could better persuade other countries to help us train Iraqi police and para-military.

I think the Bush administration is right to focus on training more Iraqi's as opposed to sending in more U.S. troops. We need to take steps to show that we are acting in the best interest of the Iraqis, not fighting wars for profit or building empires.

T. Wirgau said at March 22, 2005 7:48 PM:

I'm wondering, if they had reacted with the required number of soldiers (likely we would have needed to finish our prior engagements first) and then closed the borders with a firm border patrol would things be as bad? Maybe I'm missing something here but isn't that basic military theory? I've heard many of our more experienced generals suggested this and were promptly ignored by the President. I'm still not sure what to make of such news...

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