Iraq: Fairy Tales


July 10, 2007: The war in Iraq is notable not because it is against guerillas or terrorists, but because of the large number of armed opposition groups that are, for all intents and purposes, criminal gangs. Such organizations have been around here for thousands of years, but Saddam made them more powerful by incorporating the loyal ones into his security organization. Maybe it was something he learned from the Russians (the KGB loved to work with gangsters), but it left post Saddam Iraq awash in criminal gangs. Sunni Arab gangs grew rich, Kurd and Shia gangs got constant heat. Many quickly discovered that there was money to be made by giving yourself a nationalistic or Islamic name and declaring loyalty to the cause of Sunni Arab supremacy. Al Qaeda and Saddam's old allies had cash and cachet that made the gangs more powerful. All they had to do was support the bombing program and attacks on cops and soldiers (local and foreign). Since many of these attacks were paid for, the gangs treated it like another bit of business, even if 90 percent of the attacks on U.S. troops failed. Their paymasters understood.

American troops, especially reservists whose civilian jobs were as big city cops , noted the gang aspects of the situation over three years ago. Since American combat divisions and brigades were given a lot of freedom to innovate, some U.S. troops began importing gang fighting techniques from back home. Mainly, this consisted of intelligence gathering techniques, and specialized software used by some police organizations. The newly formed Iraqi police got into this as well, but they were not as effective, because of the pervasive corruption. Unfortunately, the Iraqi police had the manpower on the street, that U.S. forces lacked. Iraqi cops spoke the language, and could quickly size up where a neighborhoods loyalties were. But the Iraqi police or army never had enough first rate units to take on the gangs.

The American databases of Iraq's Most Wanted grew year by year. The databases were eventually merged, and the picture of who was who in the Gangs of Iraq became clearer. Then came the idea that, with enough additional American manpower, one could conduct a targeted gangbusters campaign. The key to making this work long term was the desire of ordinary Iraqis to be done with the gangs. Over the last three years, life had become intolerable in many parts of Iraq, as the gangs began spending most of their time getting rich and, worst of all, doing whatever they liked. The stories of gang atrocities began to sound like stuff you'd only encounter in a horror movie. But then, U.S. intel troops knew that the horror stories of Saddam's street level enforcers were true. With that in mind, the new horrors seemed familiar. But now the Sunni Arabs were most often on the receiving end, as the gangs sought to insure the loyalty of those they lived among. The gangs had no trouble recruiting. There was little reconstruction going on in Sunni Arab areas. While Iraq's economy, overall, has been growing quickly in the past four years, it's been unending recession in Sunni Arab areas. The gangs offered young Sunni Arab men a job, and a license to do whatever the hell they wanted. Most Sunni Arabs now wanted the gangs gone, and were in an appreciative mood when American troops came in and took on the outlaws.

The deal was simple. We will run the local bad guys out, killing or arresting those we catch. In return, the local tribe and clan leaders will support recruiting for the local police force, and the tribe will recognize the Shia dominated government. If that happens, then American, or Iraqi, troops will be available if the bad guys try to return and reassert control. Thus peace will return, along with economic growth and a lot less violence in the streets.

The gangs have not taken this new program well. Of the hundreds of gangs in Sunni Arab areas, about half are now banged up and in flight, or essentially destroyed. Still lots of bad guys running around, but without their safe houses, stockpiles of weapons, or piles of cash. When the U.S. troops move it, they start getting lots of anonymous, or not-so-anonymous tips about where the bad guys, and there stuff, is. Even without the tips, the presence of American troops makes other ploys possible. Like the use of many UAVs at night, looking for people moving and burying weapons and other stuff (explosives, radio gear, cash). Raids and car chases follow. Many U.S. troops prefer working the night shift. There's more arrests, the night vision gear is fun to use, and it's not nearly as hot.

The gangs are united by common needs, common enemies, and a desire to see Sunni Arabs running Iraqi again. The chatter among the gangs is that something spectacular needs to be done now, to prevent the gangs from being hammered into a state of marginalized ineffectiveness. That's where the talk of a "Tet Offensive" comes from. This would emulate the suicidal attacks South Vietnamese guerillas and North Vietnamese troops made in 1969. The idea then was that such a broad offensive would encourage the South Vietnamese population to rise up in support of the communists. Most South Vietnamese were anti-communist, but the communists had convinced themselves otherwise. Militarily, the attacks were a major defeat for the Viet Cong (the South Vietnamese guerillas) and a big setback for the communist effort to take over South Vietnam. But the American media declared it a U.S. defeat, and U.S. government support for South Vietnam declined, reached the point where, in 1975, the second North Vietnamese attempt at taking South Vietnam via conventional invasion worked, because the American Congress had halted even ammo shipments to South Vietnam.

Of course, the situation is different this time. While an Iraqi Tet would also result in a great slaughter against the "guerillas," the only neighboring country capable of invading and taking over is Iran. But Iran is the traditional foe of the Sunni Arabs. So what do the Sunni Arabs expect to achieve by attempting a general uprising? Well, it seems that the Sunni Arabs are still very full of themselves and believe that, if they can force American troops to leave Iraq, they will be able to outsmart and outfight the Kurds and Shia Arabs, and regain control. To understand what's going on in Iraq, you have to understand that fantasies like that are taken very seriously.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close