2005 November 16 Wednesday
Foreign Fighters Rare In Iraq

US forces rarely capture foreign fighters in Iraq.

BAGHDAD -- Before 8,500 U.S. and Iraqi soldiers methodically swept through Tall Afar two months ago in the year's largest counterinsurgency offensive, commanders described the northern city as a logistics hub for fighters, including foreigners entering the country from Syria, 65 miles to the west.

"They come across the border and use Tall Afar as a base to launch attacks across northern Iraq," Col. H.R. McMaster, commander of the Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which led the assault, said in a briefing the day before it began.

When the air and ground operation wound down in mid-September, nearly 200 insurgents had been killed and close to 1,000 detained, the military said at the time. But interrogations and other analyses carried out in recent weeks showed that none of those captured was from outside Iraq. According to McMaster's staff, the 3rd Armored Cavalry last detained a foreign fighter in June.

The role of foreign fighters in Iraq has developed into part of a mythology constructed to try to justify a foolish and counterproductive war.

So why the constant exaggerations about the role of foreign fighters? Anthony Cordesman says the exaggerations are politically useful.

"Both Iraqis and coalition people often exaggerate the role of foreign infiltrators and downplay the role of Iraqi resentment in the insurgency," said Anthony H. Cordesman, a former Pentagon official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who is writing a book about the Iraqi insurgency.

"It makes the government's counterinsurgency efforts seem more legitimate, and it links what's going on in Iraq to the war on terrorism," he continued. "When people go out into battle, they often characterize enemies in the most negative way possible. Obviously there are all kinds of interacting political prejudices they can bring out by blaming outsiders."

Thanks to Greg Cochran for the tip.

Army Maj. Gen. William Webster, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division says US forces in Baghdad have capture 81 foreign fighters in almost a year.

Addressing a reported statement by Iraq's Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, Webster said he believed it "a distinct possibility" that insurgents now were training in Iraq for attacks in other countries. Webster added he had not seen any evidence of Iraq being used as a training ground or of any large-scale training camps.

Webster said U.S. forces in Baghdad have detained 81 foreign fighters since he began his current tour in Iraq almost a year ago. The "overwhelming majority" came from Syria, he said. The second-largest category was those whose origin could not be determined, he said. Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Egypt accounted for the next three largest groups, in that order, he said.

The bulk of the insurgents in Iraq are Iraqis. Most of them are fighting because US troops are in Iraq. Some fight because they want Sunnis to rule Shias. The main connection between the war in Iraq and the counter-terrorist battle against Al Qaeda is that the US troop presence is like a big expensive recruitment advertisement for Al Qaeda: "See, those infidels reallly do intend to invade and rule us".

James Fallows sees the US strategy in Iraq as too little too late and based on too of short time horizons.

The U.S. military does everything in Iraq worse and slower than it could if it solved its language problems. It is unbelievable that American fighting ranks have so little help. Soon after Pearl Harbor the U.S. military launched major Japanese-language training institutes at universities and was screening draftees to find the most promising students. America has made no comparable effort to teach Arabic. Nearly three years after the invasion of Iraq the typical company of 150 or so U.S. soldiers gets by with one or two Arabic-speakers. T. X. Hammes says that U.S. forces and trainers in Iraq should have about 22,000 interpreters, but they have nowhere near that many. Some 600,000 Americans can speak Arabic. Hammes has proposed offering huge cash bonuses to attract the needed numbers to Iraq....

If you want to develop an appreciation of the importance of local language skills I recommend Stuart Herrington's book about his service as an intelligence officer in Vietnam: Silence Was A Weapon: The Vietnam War In The Villages. The deficiencies in Arabic language training are an appalling, very large, and on-going mistake. Though the same could be said about the war in the first place.

[I]f the United States is serious about getting out of Iraq, it will need to re-consider its defense spending and operations rather than leaving them to a combination of inertia, Rumsfeld-led plans for "transformation," and emergency stopgaps. It will need to spend money for interpreters.... It will need to make majors and colonels sit through language classes.... It will need to commit air, logistics, medical, and intelligence services to Iraq—-and understand that this is a commitment for years, not a temporary measure. It will need to decide that there are weapons systems it does not require and commitments it cannot afford if it is to support the ones that are crucial. And it will need to make these decisions in a matter of months, not years—-before it is too late.

Short time horizons would make sense if we were preparing to leave. But the Bush Administration will not hear of talk about withdrawal.

Iraqi government forces might eventually improve. IQ tests under development for selecting smarter Iraqis to serve in the military (developed at the behest of the US military btw) might eventually help improve the Iraqi military's performance. So many Iraqis will end up getting recruited that some will want to fight for the Iraqi government. But how many? And how many US soldiers will get killed or maimed in the meantime and how many more tens or hundreds of billions will we spend before we finally withdraw?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2005 November 16 11:07 PM  Mideast Iraq Insurgency

Stephen said at November 17, 2005 1:41 AM:

I'm wondering, what are the advantages of joining the Iraqi army? If the potential recruit is smart he wouldn't be volunteering lest he find themselves fighting on the losing side (a real risk I'd think, and one with potentially lethal consequences for the potential recruit and his family). Therefore, it seems to me that IQ will tend to be inversely proportional to the probability that a particular person would join up.

Stephen said at November 17, 2005 2:11 AM:

As for foreign fighters, the fact that the vast majority of the US population believes that the insurgency is all down to these guys should be seen for what it is - a successful propaganda campaign. Goebbles would have been proud.

I don't know what's worse - a democratic nation targetting its own citizens with propaganda, or the fact that those same citizens swallow it so uncritically.

Marvin said at November 17, 2005 4:06 PM:

The foreign fighters are less apt to let themselves be captured. They are generally recruited for shahid. It is an explicit point with recruiters. It is not meant to be a round trip.

Marvin said at November 19, 2005 7:35 AM:

The indigenous Sunni insurgents, who want nothing more than to go back to the way it was before George Bush Sr. pushed Saddam out of Kuwait, are not willing to go as far as to deny that foreign al qaida fighters are in Iraq. Some of them even resent the foreign fighters. Some of them even fight them outright. Denying the existence of the foreign jihadis is a luxury for superfluous commenters far away from the action.

gcochran said at November 19, 2005 12:35 PM:

Pretending that non-Iraqis account for the preponderance of the insurgency is for liars and morons.

Marvin said at November 19, 2005 6:49 PM:

Confusing the concept of "a meaningful element of" with "preponderance of" is for people who should not be calling other people liars and morons.

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