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Countering Insurgency in a Foreign Land

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Countering Insurgency in a Foreign Land

James Forest

         Most Americans are at least somewhat familiar with the story of Afghanistan. They know about the years of Soviet occupation which inspired thousands of mujahideen fighters to travel to this remote, barren land, where they learned guerilla warfare tactics and formed indelible bonds of trust. When the Soviets eventually left the country, the mujahideen declared victory, inspiring the global umma and emboldening men like Abdul Azzam and Osama bin Laden to establish a global network of veterans which they named al Qaeda. They know the story of how a group of Islamic extremists calling themselves Taliban many of whom were inspired at radical Pakistani madrasas led an insurgency to overthrow a weak government and establish an Islamic state in Afghanistan. The international community stood by and watched as an impoverished failed state teetered between anarchy and religious extremism, where Buddhist shrines were destroyed and women were stoned to death in public. They also know the story of the thousands of Muslims from around the world who traveled there to receive training at one of the many camps established by al Qaeda (and sanctioned by the Taliban), many of whom then returned to their countries of origin with inspiration, tactical knowledge, and relationships that could enable them to make a meaningful contribution to a global jihad. Most of the 9/11 hijackers were chosen from among these products of al Qaeda training camps.

An equally compelling story has been unfolding in Iraq over the last three years, where certain individuals inspired by the lessons of Afghanistan are pursuing a similar training and global jihad experience. In this case, they are acquiring a variety of tactical skills and abilities that the Afghanistan conflict did not afford, namely, urban guerilla warfare. In Iraq today, foreign fighters are learning (alongside many Iraqis) how to construct and deploy improvised explosive devices (IEDs) particularly in the form of roadside bombs as well as fire mortars, conduct suicide bombings and kidnappings, and use sniper rifles. Based on the story of Afghanistan, several policymakers have made several assumptions about what is taking place in Iraq, and what its future holds. "Foreign terrorists are seeking to disrupt the democratic process through violence," the argument goes, "and thus we must remain in Iraq, because our hasty departure would create a new terrorist Disneyland, a safe haven for multitudes of training camps and an enhanced global terror threat." This is a common narrative which permeates public opinion and policy.

However, much of this Iraq narrative is predicated on our understanding of Afghanistan, without much attention to several key differences between the two countries. For example, Iraqis are a highly literate, educated people who for the most part tend to balance their religious beliefs with the secular realities of a modern, globalized world. In contrast, the people of Afghanistan were (and remain) one of the world's most illiterate and suspicious societies, where warlords and tribal loyalties are far more important than the written word. Second, the Iraq economy is very diverse, offering many different sources of family income, whereas Afghanistan's economy is almost entirely dependent upon the opium trade, textiles and foreign aid. And third, there is a deep, multi-generational history of Iraqis taking pride in a national identity of Iraq (and in some cases, pride in a form of pan-Arabism as well), but there is no such nationalist history in Afghanistan.

Foreign fighters with or without any al Qaeda affiliation are not the principle threat in Iraq; indeed, according to recent data and reports, foreign fighters are a distinct minority in Iraq (albeit a considerably lethal one). Instead, the bulk of the violence is attributed to Iraqis both Sunni and Shia who are pursuing a variety of different objectives, but virtually all of whom agree on the need to drive out U.S. forces. Former officers of the disbanded Iraqi military have in some cases provided discipline, a pyramid structure, operational knowledge and weapons procurement networks to local insurgent fighters. Women and children are playing various support roles, including transporting messages and weapons, in part because so much emphasis is placed in this culture on supporting one's husband and family. Doctors are providing medical treatment to wounded Iraqis, while community merchants (and mosques) are providing funding. They are united not by a deep hatred of America or democracy, but by the occupation of their country, which is a humiliating affront to a very prideful people. As a result, they are fighting what they consider an insurgency against the U.S. and its allies. Their ultimate goals are: 1) get the occupiers out of our land, 2) allow the Koran to guide our lives, until we 3) establish a new government of our own choosing.

Countering an insurgency in a foreign land is a terribly complicated challenge. Few occupying powers have ever done very well in capturing the hearts and minds of the occupied. Fighting an insurgency within one's own country is one thing; trying to do this in a foreign country, on behalf of an envisioned future democracy, well, that's clearly more difficult. For example, consider the critical role of intelligence collection in supporting counterinsurgency operations. When the security mission is primarily led by an occupying foreign power in this case the U.S. and our allies gathering usable intelligence too often requires an Iraqi to "sell out" a fellow Iraqi. This is one of our biggest challenges in this conflict; Iraqis generally have a great amount of pride in their Arab and Iraq nationalist identity, and thus have proven far more likely to turn in a foreign fighter than a fellow Iraqi national, regardless of Shia or Sunni differences. Fear of retribution (particularly after the U.S. troops are gone) also plays a role in the difficulty of collecting intelligence; unlike Americans, the people in this part of the world have long, vivid memories.

We (the occupiers) establish routines, standard operating procedures, patterns of behavior and authority hierarchies as required by a military organization. Meanwhile, our adversaries those individuals responsible for the 100-plus attacks each day in Iraq live and move within a social network, where rules, loyalties, etc. are not set by policy, regulations, doctrine, formal hierarchies, etc. but rather by a complex, mix of trusted relationships built on experience, family, tribe, religion, etc. These are some of the reasons why insurgencies can achieve success in overthrowing an established government. Unfortunately, this social network aspect of the current violence in Iraq poses an array of daunting challenges for the U.S. There is no military advantage that an outside force like the U.S. military can acquire to overcome the complex mix of local trusted relationships that sustain the current level of violence. This is why so much emphasis is currently being placed on developing the capacity of local Iraqi forces both military and law enforcement to tackle more of the security problems on their own. However, to do this requires time and patience, two things that are in short supply throughout the U.S., particularly in an election year full of partisan animosity.

The Soviets lost their struggle against the mujahideen insurgency in Afghanistan after a ten-year struggle, and withdrew in shame. This will not be the way the story ends for the U.S. in Iraq, precisely because we are investing so heavily in building the infrastructure and capacity for the Iraqi government and security forces to take control of their country. Unlike the Soviets, whose invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was meant to secure a buffer to support Communist expansion, the U.S. and its allies invaded Iraq to overthrow a pariah regime, establish a stable democracy, and then leave the country better than we found it. It is has never been our intention to occupy another country, and as all the contemporary public rhetoric illustrates, we do so now quite reluctantly, and for the sole purpose of providing some hope of security for the fledgling democratic process. Thus, comparisons of Iraq to Afghanistan are inherently flawed. We are writing a different narrative, which will have a much more positive ending.

About the Author

Dr. James Forest is the Director of Terrorism Studies at the U.S. Military Academy. For more information about the work of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, please visit their website at:

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