All ye know on earth, and all ye need to know
A remark by General Jack Keane, former Vice Chief of Staff of the Army who consults on Iraq, started off a controversy about the size, nature and location of the enemy. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Lawrence Di Rita was recently questioned about Keane's remarks. A Department of Defense News transcript reports:
Q General Conway, General Jack Keane, the former vice chief of the Army has apparently just come back from Iraq. And he has said at a luncheon yesterday that U.S. forces had either captured or killed some 50,000 insurgents so far this year. Is that number accurate? Can you tell us how many were captured or how many were killed? And whether or not -- you know, what that says about the size of the insurgency?
GEN. CONWAY: I just saw the article this morning, and I accept the fact that General Keane has been in-country certainly since I have. I can't speak to his source of the figures. I can tell you that we don't keep that metric here. So I'm afraid I can't confirm or deny the accuracy of those figures.
Q Well, I mean -- U.S. forces are constantly rolling up -- and Iraqi forces are rolling up suspected insurgents. Some are held, some are released. Do you not -- can either one of you give us any idea of how many are being held now, and does the numbers seem reasonable? And setting the number aside for a moment, what does it say about the size of the insurgency if there have been numbers in that range?
MR. DI RITA: Well, you know, it's something that commanders have been asked on many occasions. I think the secretary has certainly been asked it. It's an interesting thing to understand, you know, what's the size of the adversary that we're facing. And the estimates have ranged from a few thousand on the low end to many tens of thousands on the high end -- this now -- this comment that General Keane has made. It's not a number that we do track. It's -- there is -- we are capturing or killing a large number of bad guys in Iraq. We are detaining a large number of people who are under investigation either as criminal elements or potential insurgents from whom we can gather additional information.
But, you know, we don't tend to count. Nobody's maintaining a count of the size of the insurgency or the numbers that we're capturing because, as we've discussed from here and elsewhere -- before Congress -- it's not a -- first of all, it's not a metric that has a lot of meaning by itself. And secondly, it's a difficult thing to do, and for the effort that would be expended, one would have to wonder what we'd have at the end of the day if we were able to count it with precision. ...
Q General Keane also said that the U.S. has a pretty good idea of the leadership of the insurgency. He mentioned that eight to 10 leaders occasionally meet and that that was something that was known. Can you comment on that, and whether that's accurate? Is there a -- do you know if there's a core of eight to 10 leaders? Have they met?
GEN. CONWAY: I think those statements are accurate. We're starting to get into some classified type of material at this point. But we have an index, we think, on who the leadership is, and we do know that they occasionally meet. That doesn't portend, I think, other views that it is a very well commanded or controlled insurgency, but we do know that they meet from time to time to talk organization and tactics.
Keane amplified some of his views on the insurgency at a presentation at the Washington Institute, which provided the following summary of his remarks.
The Iraqi insurgency is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab based and can be divided into two main branches: former regime elements and Sunnis opposed to the occupation. The approximately 150,000 thugs and secret police from the former regime are the core of the problem. They have no political agenda for the country, nor are they fighting for a political ideology. Foreign terrorists constitute a small but critical part of the insurgency. Syria, which would like to see the Baath Party to return to power in Iraq, has made it a national objective to help the insurgency. As a result, the insurgents are well-financed and capable of maintaining a level of violence that creates instability and discourages reconstruction efforts. ...
Given the insurgents’ focus on provoking sectarian violence, the absence of all-out civil conflict is remarkable. Of note is the political maturity of the Kurds and Shiites, especially the remarkable restraint demonstrated by the latter in not retaliating on a large scale against Sunnis for attacks clearly calculated to foment civil war. Watching Ayatollah Ali Hussein al-Sistani deal with elements within his own community (e.g., Muqtada al-Sadr) has been instructive. Although civil war would be a tragedy, with immense costs, it would at least force a definitive outcome to the ongoing struggle in Iraq. But there are no signs of that happening at this time.
The best indicator of success in Iraq will be the political process. Many ministries and government institutions are effectively being rebuilt from scratch, and that takes time, particularly given the insurgency’s intimidation campaign. If the political transition is stymied, U.S. public support for the war will erode. That is the goal of the insurgents. They believe they can break the will of the American public as occurred during the Vietnam War, when a premature U.S. withdrawal led to military defeat. Indeed, if the United States withdraws from Iraq before the ISF is capable of sustaining itself, it would lose there as well. That, however, is not likely to happen.
Two other speakers, Francis West and Jeffrey White, (both former officials in Defense and intelligence) shared the podium with General Keane. The Washington Institute provided these excerpts of their speech.
West: 'When U.S. forces invaded, they avoided Sunni areas and thus never actually eliminated the Sunni Arab threat. ... The insurgents show no signs of weakening; in fact, they have begun to adopt tactics that are difficult for coalition forces to counter. These fighters learned their lesson in Falluja; they now favor bombs over direct attacks on coalition troops. They have also mastered the art of wrapping their efforts in religion. Accordingly, anti-sedition laws should be passed so that those who incite violence in mosques and schools can be held accountable. ... Regarding Syria, the country is essentially a safe haven for insurgents. The coalition should not allow this. Despite the many obstacles, victory is achievable. When will the coalition know it has won? The day an Iraqi soldier can sit on a bus in uniform and not worry about being a target.'
White: 'The United States has forced Sunni Arabs to make serious decisions about their future. Many of them now appear to be cooperating with the new Iraqi government and participating in the political process. ... The insurgency is growing in intensity and can be expected to continue at its current level for at least six to twelve months. It has endured despite coalition offensives designed explicitly to eliminate it. ... For example, it has reemerged in Falluja despite two major offensives that ostensibly eliminated the insurgent presence there. Even more disturbing, the insurgency enjoys popular support in Iraq. ... Overall, several signs indicate that a civil conflict is under way in Iraq; the Sunnis certainly seem to see it that way. As the ISF assumes more responsibility, the increased targeting of Sunnis in security operations will run an even greater risk of transforming the counterinsurgency into a war against Sunnis. The insurgents are obviously targeting Shiites, while the growing frequency of low-level attacks on Sunnis and the seizure of Sunni mosques indicate further escalation. Unfortunately, these sorts of situations tend to get worse. The upcoming referendum on the Iraqi constitution will give the insurgents a chance to inflict damage on the political process. They may find it easier to enforce a boycott than to compel Sunnis to vote their way. Once people are in the voting booths, the insurgents will not be able to prevent them from voting their conscience.'
(Personal note: I interpret the sentence attributed to Jeffrey White's that "the insurgency enjoys popular support in Iraq" to mean 'the insurgency is becoming or has become a Sunni national war' in the context of his overall depiction of the insurgency as a civil war between Sunni and Shi'ite. Clearly an insurgency which is actually a civil war cannot be gaining popularity among Shi'ites and Kurds as it is directed against them.)
One of the interesting implications of Keane's remarks and its subsequent press fallout, only fleetingly amplified by the forum at the Washington Institute, is how greatly politics has distorted the public face of operations in Iraq. It offers a momentary glimpse into the internal strategic debate. The remarks, let slip by Keane in a fit of supposed absentmindedness, suggest the US cannot admit to inflicting huge numbers of losses on enemy forces because it would imply the insurgency was bigger than earlier described -- at least to Congress. It hints at resistance to recognizing the belligerent role of Damascus. It indicates the Islamic religious establishment, at least of the Sunni variety, has become belligerent itself. It implies that politics prevents recognizing the 'insurgency' not as a struggle between 'Iraqis' and invading Americans, nor even a duel between Al Qaeda and America, but a civil war between Sunnis and Shi'ites and Kurds: in other words, between the ancien regime and a new client ethnic group supported by the US in lieu of the old masters.
(Speculation alert) It hints at the strategic decisions America has taken, not always with success. Direct attacks on Syria may have been vetoed in favor of efforts to detach the insurgency from its Syrian rear, such as Operation Matador. The US apparently continues to build a workable Iraqi unitary state despite the temptation to unleash the Shi'ites on the Sunnis. ('Although civil war would be a tragedy, with immense costs, it would at least force a definitive outcome to the ongoing struggle in Iraq.' -- Keane) America tries not to tar Islam, or even certain sects of Islam, with the brush of terrorism, despite open incitements in mosques. ('anti-sedition laws should be passed so that those who incite violence in mosques and schools can be held accountable.' -- West). Yet the Iraqi operation is adjudged winnable despite these limitations. ('Indeed, if the United States withdraws from Iraq before the ISF is capable of sustaining itself, it would lose there as well. That, however, is not likely to happen.' -- Keane. 'Despite the many obstacles, victory is achievable.' -- West. 'Once people are in the voting booths, the insurgents will not be able to prevent them from voting their conscience.' -- White).
But what sort of victory would it be? Perhaps a shadow victory like that achieved in Korea 50 years ago. A Syria belligerent but not really; Islam still the 'religion of peace' -- whenever it is not inciting attacks against America; Bin Laden in Pakistan but only when he is actually spotted; an Iran with nuclear weapons which they will be bribed not to use. A West partially mobilized against enemies it cannot bring itself to name or destroy, a display of aggression from the civilized herd to prevent further attack from the circling pack of predators serving in lieu. Iraq dozing in an uneasy peace. An act of faith really; faith that things will work out if only we can keep the world spinning on its axis.