23 October 2010

The Growing "Re-Insurgency" in Iraq

I continue to be disturbed by reports from Iraq that indicate the beginnings of a Sunni "re-insurgency." One of the op-eds in Wednesday's New York Times does a good job of summarizing the two primary drivers of instability:

1) The movement toward formation of a unity government that will essentially be controlled by Shia interests - leaving the Sunnis with little to no representation. The recent announcement of an alliance of convenience between the Maliki's party and Sadr's party puts the Shia within striking distance of a majority in parliament, with the Kurds essentially serving as kingmakers. The Kurds are likely to join the alliance (after extracting as many concessions as they can), leaving Allawi (and the majority of the Sunnis who voted for him) hanging out to dry. Thus, in the eyes of the Sunni populace, even though their candidate won more seats than any other candidate in the March 7 elections, they are somehow being almost completely disenfranchised. This doesn't exactly incentivize participation by the Sunnis at any level (local, provincial, national) and fuels growing feelings of disappointment, resentment, and anger amongst the Sunni populace.

2) The failure to effectively transition members of the Awakening ("Sahwa") movement into follow-on jobs (whether within the ISF or other government-provided jobs) - creating a cadre of military-trained, unemployed, and disaffected Sunni males. As this exceptional article in the New York Times points out, this creates the ideal conditions for AQI to recruit these young men back into the insurgency. As the article points out:

"Although there are no firm figures, security and political officials say hundreds of the well-disciplined fighters — many of whom have gained extensive knowledge about the American military — appear to have rejoined AQI. Beyond that, officials say that even many of the Awakening fighters still on the Iraqi government payroll, possibly thousands of them, covertly aid the insurgency...

As of July, less than half — 41,000 of 94,000 — of the Awakening’s fighters had been offered jobs by the government, according to the Department of Defense. Much of the employment has been temporary and involved menial labor. The government has hired only about 9,000 Awakening members for the security forces, with officials blaming budget constraints."

The case of Nadim al Jabouri, one of the former Awakening leaders quoted in the article, illustrates the ongoing efforts of Maliki's government to weaken the Awakening movement (and thereby the larger Sunni bloc) across the country. Nadim, born and raised in the Sunni stronghold of Duluiyah in Salahadin Province, was a top leader within the AQI organization from 2003-2006 - serving as both a military and media emir at various points during those years. During my first deployment to Iraq in 2005-06, Mullah Nadim (as he was known at the time) was my Battalion's #1 high-value target (HVT) - driven by a massive amount of confirmed intelligence reporting linking him to attacks against US and Iraqi forces across the province. Nadim had been the imam of the Khulafa Mosque in Duluiyah, using his street cred as a self-proclaimed imam to rally the local Sunni youth (and coerce the Jabouri tribal leadership) into fighting both US forces and the Shia-dominated Iraqi Army units in the area.

When I returned to Iraq at the end of 2007, Nadim had essentially switched sides and was the leader of the local Sahwa group - actually living and working from an office on an American base. Although this was initially a tough pill for me to swallow, I recognized the need to work with historically unsavory characters to provide some measure of security. Unsurprisingly, attacks, violence, and intimidation dropped dramatically in the area as Nadim's group of 200-300 Awakening members continued to receive pay from US forces and then for a time from the national government. However, as time progressed and US forces began to shift their attention to other matters and the impending drawdown of troops; and when the Shia-dominated national government took over responsibility for maintaining the Awakening program (on 01 Apr 09), they began a deliberate campaign to weaken and dismantle Awakening groups across the country.

In April of 2009, Nadim was the target of a massive suicide vest attack, which missed harming him but ended up killing five locals and wounding 18, including one of Nadim's brothers. The attack was likely the work of AQI leaders who were upset that Nadim had switched sides and was now helping US and Iraqi forces target AQI. Only one month later on May 4, Nadim and two of his brothers were arrested by Iraqi Security Forces in what was a fairly blatant, sectarian attempt to limit the growing strength of Nadim's group - and to check his growing political power (he was a leading local candidate for provincial/national office within a small Sunni party). Within two months time, Nadim had been targeted by both sides (AQI and the Iraqi government) and with US forces drawing down, he had few people to turn to for support and protection.

Events like this are occurring all across Iraq as Awakening leaders and fighters are arrested, intimidated, and left with no pay. This situation has created a group of trained, armed men who are now extremely disillusioned and angry with the government and left with little or no options for redress. As Nadim explained in the most recent New York Times article:

“The Awakening doesn’t know what the future holds because it is not clear what the government intends for them...At this point, Awakening members have two options: Stay with the government, which would be a threat to their lives, or help Al Qaeda by being a double agents."

The situation is not likely to improve as the Shia consolidate power in Baghdad and continue to undercut any efforts by the Sunni to secure themselves (and their towns) or gain more power through legitimate political means. In my opinion, we are seeing a perfect storm come together that gives Sunnis few options but to turn back towards an insurgency against the Shia-controlled national government. Unless the Iraqis (hopefully with US help) can figure out a more effective power-sharing deal at the national level and determine a better system to reintegrate Awakening fighters and leaders back into the workforce in a fair and legitimate manner, the situation could spiral out of control quickly and move towards an all-out civil war.


  1. Excellent post Pat. I was surprised to hear that Nadim eventually came around...sort of. The rest of my response is at the CPOST blog.

  2. Dave, thanks for the insightful response. I completely agree with your conclusion that the primary driver is political - and thus that the primary solution must be political. However, it's also illuminating to look at the problem from a more individual-focused level. Ultimately, if enough individuals think the way Nadim do (and are viewed as influential thought leaders within their community), they can pretty quickly mobilize groups that will form the core of an insurgency.

    Thanks for taking my rough ideas to the next level and examining the discussion in a more rigorous way. Hopefully we'll see a compromise solution at the national level, but unfortunately I don't foresee that at this point.

  3. Good article; however, how much actual proof is there of former Sawah re-forming an insurgency? A detailed review of the sourcing of they NYT article you reference by "Musings on Iraq" blog surfaces that the sources were primarily from Diyala. We should not jump to conclusions hastily on the SOI turning. However, they are continually being attacked (either by AQI or by SEG) and so far the GoI is doing a poor job of stopping that.

  4. As goes Diyala, so goes the rest of Iraq. If it's happening there, which it is, it has or will spread through the other provinces quickly. This is pretty difficult to quantify, and anything you can count will come months down the road as our systems play catch up to ground truth, especially now with our reduced operational footprint.