Al Qaeda in Iraq -- Heroes, Boogeymen or Puppets?

Four years on in Iraq, the White House still portrays the war as a life and death struggle between the forces of good, the US led Multi-national forces, and the forces of evil, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

With the advent of the new "surge" strategy, the media ledes have been triumphing the numerous coalition "anti-Al Qaeda" operations in Anbar province including the areas of Karmah, Baqubah and the Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad. These operations have the intent to secure Baghdad and other major urban areas from insurgent terrorism. The strategy writ simple is to deny the insurgents an urban sanctuary and killing ground as well as to secure the Iraqi population from their sectarian attacks through a series of wide-area operations. But are we fighting the right enemy?

A better question is whom are we fighting? The response heard most often is that we are fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq. In May 2007 the President declared "Al Qaeda is public enemy number one in Iraq." The consensus opinion, from the Pentagon to the PFC, is that America is waging a desperate fight against Al Qaeda both in and out of Iraq and it will directly determine the national security on the streets of Europe and America. Additionally, for four years Abu Mussab Zarqawi, AQI's first leader, was portrayed as the commander of the insurgency. It was an easily consumable media narrative so effective that even the Iraqis believed it until his death.

There is no question that Al Qaeda is a real threat but are they the main threat? Has AQI has been catapulted to the top of the insurgency by virtue of the fact that they carry out the most dramatic and sectarian attacks or hard intelligence? In fact, listening to Washington one would think that the coalition forces are pretty much fighting "All AQI. All the Time." As with most things in Mesopotamia, this is not nearly so clear cut. The answer may or may not surprise you.

When I completed my most recent book "The Terrorists of Iraq: Inside the Strategy and Tactics of the Iraq Insurgency" many of my warfighting peers, both in and out of Iraq, insisted AQI was commanding the insurgency. When asked what gave them this impression they insisted that AQI was by far the smartest, most capable of the insurgent groups due to their car bomb (SVBIED) attacks. They argued that AQI had fostered a virulent, militant form of Islam among the formerly secular Sunni Iraqis. Some also point out that the formation of the Islamic State (Emirate) of Iraq and attempts to enforce Islamic law (Shari'a) on the population was the strategic error that pushed the Iraqi tribes of Anbar province into the arms of the coalition. In short: AQI was bad. Very bad. Having survived an AQI suicide bombing, I knew this to be true but does stopping the spectacular nature of their tactical weapons selection override the strategic mission to secure Iraq from all insurgents. In some minds, it had.

On the other hand, many advocates of immediate withdrawal, weary of the bloodletting, bank on the hope that the other groups of the insurgency will dispose of AQI as soon as the US forces withdraw and leave the battlefield. AQI is often described by administration opponents as a convenient smokescreen and boogeyman for the White House to use to keep American troops in Iraq. Knowing the particulars of AQI's strategy, who wants to take a chance on the insurgents doing our job once we leave?

Both sides of the argument have points but some of them are extreme and require a bit of myth-busting before any salient discussion of counterinsurgency strategy can occur.

We Really Don't Know Our Enemy That Well - It is well documented that the Sunni insurgency is composed of three wings of insurgents. It is composed of the nationalist Former Regime Loyalists (FRLs) and their former military elements (FREs). This force may be upwards to 29,000 active combatants carrying out over 100 unconventional attacks per day using improvised explosive devices, rockets and automatic weapons ambushes. The FRL-originated Jaysh al-Mujahideen is composed of former Saddam Fedayeen, Special Republican Guard intelligence officers, former-Ba'athists, Sunni volunteers and their families. The second wing is the nationalist Iraqi Religious Extremists (IREs). These are forces including the Islamic Army of Iraq, Ansar al-Sunnah and other smaller groups, which may total approximately 5,000 fighters, sprinkled throughout western, central and northern Iraq. On occasion come into the conversation when one of their attacks is particularly daring or when the coalition claims it is negotiating their departure from the battlefront. Inevitably these "lesser" insurgent groups are portrayed as bit players on the sidelines of the epic.

Finally, the foreign fighters of the Al Qaeda in Iraq and its umbrella group the Islamic Emirate of Iraq (aka Islamic State of Iraq) may be as few as 1,500 fighters and supporters and may also have direct links to the two other tiers.

Overwhelming evidence exists that that the FRLs have been waging the lion's share of the insurgency. Until 2004 they were considered a separate part of the insurgency but recently they have been called 'Al Qaeda-associated' because AQI was operating in their area of operations ... by 2007 it wasn't hard for Washington to make a semantic and rhetorical leap to refer to all insurgency forces as "Al Qaeda."

This is an error worth remembering. For over four years the FRLs (especially the paramilitary Saddam Fedayeen and Special Republican Guard) almost exclusively carries out IED, indirect fire (IDF), sniping, aircraft shoot downs and ambush attacks with conventional weapons with alarming regularity which account for the lion share of the US forces' 3,500 KIAs. The smaller IREs did the same type of attacks but occasionally peppered their missions with Suicide bombings. AQI almost exclusively perform carries out suicide car bombings and suicide vest bombings (SVBIED/SPBIED). They occasionally perform IED, rocket, MANPAD and even a few impressive massed infantry attacks on Iraqi Police and government buildings (such as the symbolic assault on Abu Ghraieb prison in 2005). In fact, AQI's impact on US forces is actually quite small in comparison to the FRLs and IREs.

When the first SVBIEDs of the post-war were launched against the Jordanian embassy, the UN's Canal Road HQ and Sheik Hakim in Najaf the mindset of our commanders was to associate all insurgent related terrorism events to Zarqawi and Al Qaeda. This group-think about the foreign fighters went on right up until Zarqawi was killed in 2006. Faced with an increase in IED and SVBIED attacks after his death, and because some minor groups were joining forces in resistance councils it became convenient to call everyone Al Qaeda in Iraq.

AQI Does Not Command the Insurgency - In November 2005 at a speech at the US Naval Academy the President once accurately described AQI as "the smallest, but the most lethal" insurgent force. Many claim that their size, intelligence, and history put them at the top tier of the resistance. To claim AQI leads the insurgency would have to allow that AQI has a more politically savvy guerilla military and political operation on the ground than the entirety of the former regime and the present Government of Iraq. This is giving them too much credit.

AQI is a microscopic paramilitary terror force that selects very specific weapons for very specific targets to meet strategic goals of their cultish reading of Islam. However, AQI itself has been subject to a significant degradation since January 2005. I believe that since mid-2003 AQI coordinated their SVBIED campaigns in 2004 and 2005 with the support of the FRLs networks. It hard to believe that foreign fighters can enter the Iraqi Sunni community, anywhere, without first kissing the ring of the local FRL or Iraqi religious extremist insurgents.

The AQI SVBIED is used almost exclusively as the basis of Zarqawis' anti-Shiite sectarian war strategy (to punish the Shiite community and encourage the Sunnis to fight together) and kills relatively few coalition soldiers compared to other weapons. Without question the number one killer in Iraq is the roadside IED, followed closely by automatic weapons fire - this is the tactical situation on the ground and it is an unambiguous indicator that a much larger force than AQI is performing these attacks. It is obvious that the FRL backed insurgent groups, with their massive all-Sunni pre-war intelligence and paramilitary apparatus remain intact in carrying out the traditional anti-coalition ambush operations they put into motion in 2003. Granted, in the dynamic and fluid terror-dome that is Iraq, our soldiers could be fighting AQI in the morning, FRLs in the evening and IREs all night but the most likely terror cells our soldiers will encounter in Iraq are the FRL's IEDs on the roads.

Still some classify any Iraqi insurgent support of AQI objectives, active or passive, is often pointed to as a reason to classify all insurgent groups as Al Qaeda. This reading of the enemy does not take into account the diverse strategies, goals, personalities and political linkages of the other insurgents. It lumps them all into one pot and uses the same hammer to try to smash them. Hammering this particular insurgency is like smashing a ball of mercury with your palm. You may get a little of it under your control (and the toxins that come with it) but the rest will disperse, roll away and reform as they please.

AQI has reached its tactical goals in a very limited sense, as they are on the ground fighting the Americans --this makes great video propaganda but beyond the attacks, there is nothing there but air. On the other hand, AQI has never been within sight of their stated political goal - to establish a base and safehaven for the spread of their Salafist variant of Islam into the heart of the Middle East.

On occasion, AQI has made feeble attempts to operate in the political sphere through armed force. Sunni Iraqis are Moslems but even they don't want to be told how to live their religious and social lives by foreign extremists. Each attempt, no matter how small, to radicalize and dictate to the Sunni community in Iraq failed miserably. Examples of these failures include the heavy losses in the Iraq-wide mini-Jihad of July 2004 where AQI forces rose up in several cities and tried to impose Islamic law in them; several attempts to impose Shari'a in Ramadi, sections of Mosul and Tel Afar, the 2005 Haifa street uprising in Baghdad and the multiple attempts to seize the Baqubah city government.

Their failures are why AQI manufactures its own reality. TV transmitted SVBIED attacks and Internet based AQI videos makes the insurgency appear wildly successful. This information operation has been far more successful than the attainment of any stated political goals. That is because they have managed to use their net-centric strategic information operation in such as way that they have credibility to their target audience. This has led to a thin but steady stream of manpower and money. Apart from that and the inspirational aspects of their news operation. AQI has not achieved any tangible support from the Iraqi people ... except those that need them to take the heat of coalition operations off of them.

On the other hand, the FRLs have a history of cold, calculated manipulation of the Iraqi people and events using selective intelligence collection, assassination and intimidation and propaganda. It must be remembered that Zarqawi's original AQ backed group Tawheed Wal Jihad came into Iraq just days before the invasion and set up in Fallujah under control of the Saddam Fedayeen. The Iraqi Baath party grew from a covert political organization and its current adherents still operate as "neo-Ba'athists" in Damascus and Latakia, Syria; Cairo, Egypt and even the UAE. The FRLs are operating as a covert intelligence and Fedayeen driven terrorist force, just as they were in the 1950 and 60s before they overthrew the government of Abd al-Karim Qasim and took power. Having had decades of experience researching the lives of the population, they are even more dangerous as their knowledge of the political and personal dynamics in Iraq runs deep. When necessary they have AQI, organized criminals and other forces to assist them.

AQI Did Not Bring the SVBIED, the SPBIED, the IED and Beheading to Iraq -- Many supporters of the 'All AQI. All the time.' meme have limited knowledge of Iraq before the war. The former regime intelligence and paramilitary forces were active for years prior to the war perfecting numerous types of unconventional weapons, which are used extensively throughout the insurgency. In each instance, these systems were first developed and deploy by the FRLs in both the invasion and post-war insurgency. Take beheading for example. Largely attributed to AQI and Zarqawi there was in fact an extensive use of it in 2000 and 2001 by the Saddam Fedayeen. They were tasked to carryout an "anti-prostitution" campaign that targeted against political opponents. They publicly beheaded over 200 wives and women family members of Saddam's enemies. Videos of the brutal beheadings could be found on the streets of Baghdad for less than .25 cents a full year before AQI carried out their first beheading.

The menu of post-war IEDs were found to have been developed by the regime's intelligence agencies under the title "The Ghafiqi project" and "Challenge project" months before the start of the war.

The first SVBIED and SPBIED attacks in Iraq were carried out during the invasion the war by an Army Sergeant and two women. Numerous other SVBIEDs greeted the 3rd Infantry Division during their Thunder Run into Baghdad. Not to mention that a large sophisticated Iraqi intelligence service-built VBIED was part of the plot to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush in Kuwait in 1993.

Is Iran Supporting AQI? -- Iran has created real friction with its involvement with the Shiite militias. In fact, the rise of the Jaysh al Mahdi/Mahdi Militia could be a regional threat unto itself that could eclipse Al Qaeda in the next few years (I will address in another blog). Yet there is little to no evidence that Iran is playing both sides of the fence. Although some advanced weapons such as EFPs, RPGs and mortars have undoubtedly found their way into the hands of the Sunni insurgents through black market arms sales and seizures of Shiite militia arms caches, the Iranians have little to gain for a Sunni insurgency to flourish with AQI at its helm. They have but to watch and let the Sunni insurgency play the game for them. This theme has taken residence in the minds of many who want to see Iran brought into the conflict as a way to take pressure off of Iraq. It's just not credible at this time.

The bottom line is that for US decision makers and commanders to win in Iraq they must to clarify exactly whom we are fighting and deal with them accordingly. There may be misgivings about switching gears from AQI to the FRLs at such a late date because that would openly require an acknowledgement that the strategy of "All AQI. All the time." was flawed from the beginning. Additionally any ceasefire with the former regime insurgents would require a broad political framework involving a regional approach that would have to include Syria, Saudi Arabia and the FRLs themselves. Many in Washington find this politically abhorrent.

In the end, mistaking the FRLs for AQI or AQI for the IREs or a mix of one or the other means that the strategies needed to defeat one specific group will be lost to the singular mindset of 'military destruction of AQI at all costs.' This myopia has lead the effort in Iraq for nigh four years now. Many have become so entrenched that the American people believe they are fighting no one else.

Defeating, disarming or buying out key insurgent groups could yield greater results and a lessening of combat losses through targeted military operations, negotiation, reconstruction, civil affairs projects and cash. From down here at the deck plates level this seems like common sense but it has yet to filter up to the policy makers.

If General Petraeus and his excellent counterinsurgency advisor David Kilcullen are to succeed then the hard reality of enunciating to the American public requires that the terms we use to label the opposition have to be changed. If this is part of an aggressive information operation, as some have suggested, to turn the Iraqi people against the Iraqi Insurgents by giving them all a bad name (AQI), then it's a desperate gambit as most Sunnis know who the real insurgents are in their neighborhood. This rhetoric has already had a negative operational effect by making our own soldiers believe that all of the Sunni insurgents and community supporters are Al Qaeda. This may have led to several instances of battlefield murder, torture and abuses of prisoners.

If the Petraeus strategy is to neutralize AQI first, he may eventually succeed, but he may also secure a rested, rearmed, refueled, retrained insurgency that are not AQI. The FRLs appear smart enough to let Petraeus do just this and may even cooperate a little all the while winking and supporting AQI suicide operations ... only time will tell who is the more clever bargainer at the camel bazaar.

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Chap;
Check out de Mesquita's podcasts here; he presents and applies the lessons from research which shows the decisions of politicians and rulers, throughout history and currently, are explained by the size of the Selectorate and the "ruling coalition", which may be a few generals, a nomenclatura, an aristocracy, property-owning males, or a large chunk of the voting public. Idealism and statesmanship are rewarded only when there is a large pool benefiting from Public Goods whose support is necessary. Fake elections without freedom of information and association don't count as democratic rule.

The World Bank and foreign aid ministries in general have been drawn into a system in which loans, grants, and aid funneled through corrupt governments actively suppresses growth and freedom.

In this system of analysis, corruption is the essential method of distributing spoils to the "ruling coalition"; it ceases to pay off when the coalition gets large enough that general societal improvement results in prolonged power for the "rulers" -- it's the only win-win formula. But even democratic rulers have the welfare of their closest associates and coalition at heart; lame-duck presidents are famously profligate in passing out goodies to friends and relatives.

In the case of dictators, once they get past the first 18 mo. or so and get the payola rolling, they stay in power for life -- or until they are diagnosed with a fatal condition, like cancer. Then the wolves gather, deposition follows, and a new regime arises. (The Shah, e.g., fell only when he was diagnosed with incurable cancer.) The gravy-train coalition suddenly sees the end of the guaranteed payoffs, and everything goes up for grabs.

In SH's case, he had far less of a coherent bureaucracy and pool of plausible succesors or competitors than Stalin; probably he was keeping the decks clear for U & Q. But even granting a fair pool of competence in the FRL, and R. Hussein's cash flow to draw on, their appeal and vision is being undercut and degraded by the same processes that are sidelining AQ.

And they don't have the tools, short of a coup, to keep their "inner coalition", rich and happy.

I may be underestimating the Sunni political parties' longing for dominance at any price, but I think they lack the wherewithal to engineer a takeover.

A nit to pick: Brian H says

Since the Former Regime was a personal vehicle of SH, and SH is dead, it is not a viable or coherent movement any more. It was only nominally Baathist; it seems any Baath regime readily devolves into garden-variety police state tyranny.

I think I disagree with that assertion.

I worked in 2001-2003 with some leadership analysts that had a very detailed, knowledgeable description of what we knew about the Saddam regime. Seems that Saddam was quite the admirer of Stalin and built the Iraq internal security structure in a manner similar to Stalin's.

Stalin's structure was very stable (because among other things it was very brutal) and long outlasted the man as more than a 'garden variety police state tyranny'. The analysis pointed out that this was also likely true for Iraq circa 2003. It's also a good reason why removing only the head of state wouldn't work either.

Is there other evidence here I don't know about that would prove my assertion wrong?

Previewing your Comment

Since the Former Regime was a personal vehicle of SH, and SH is dead, it is not a viable or coherent movement any more. It was only nominally Baathist; it seems any Baath regime readily devolves into garden-variety police state tyranny. And the FRL don't even have a candidate tyrant.

As for the Sunni-FRL linkage, it would appear that very few coherent Sunni groupings are prepared to forget that sectarian dominance on the SH model comes with the price tag of brutal absolutist rule by some megalomaniac who is just interested in using you as a basis for staying on top. It beats being on bottom, but has little appeal for even marginally civilized citizens, and clearly isn't the sectarian theocrat's idea of a legitimate state, either.

The AQ is cruder and simpler; it sticks to a stripped-down fundamentalist religious pose, and uses whoever is prepared to join the suppression and terrorization of the populace as its recruits and tools. It can overwhelm the brains of some (many) susceptible educated Muslims with the usual useful idiot fare: dreams of being among the ruling elite in a New Dispensation. And for fighters, the gangs of Iraq or anywhere make willing and uninhibited players.

One might doubt the AQ would know what to do with a Global Caliphate if it got it, but the road to Babylon/Jerusalem/Londonistan is goal enough for the foreseeable future. No holds barred along the way, of course.

So the FRLs are anachronistic and limited in potential and scope. The AQ is neither.

I have an extensive response to this article in which I at least moderately concur with the author's position; a short snippet is below:

"The coup is not merely that the tribal chiefs and their people are cooperating with U.S. forces. It is larger than that. The coup is that the insurgency, properly defined as indigenous fighters rather than terrorists, foreign fighters and left-over Baathists - those who were previously pointing a gun towards U.S. troops - are now pointing them at the terrorists. Not only have many of them made peace with the U.S., but in a development just as important, the U.S. forces have made peace with them. This has been accomplished with the new difficulty introduced by globalization (foreign fighters), and the new difficulty introduced by religious fanaticism (suicide bombers), and the new difficulty introduced by technology (stand off weapons such as roadside bombs). This is a counterinsurgency tour de force, and as time judges this victory it will take its rightful place in the great military campaigns of world history."

Continue reading Al Qaeda, Indigenous Sunnis and the Insurgency in Iraq at:

http://www.captainsjournal.com/2007/07/16/al-qaeda-indigenous-sunnis-and...

M. Nance: ...bargaining "at the camel bazaar."

Yup, that's how I see it, too. And those 'deals' are about as permanent as the desert's shifting sands.

Newbie here (see my disclosure on D.Kilc's 'Understanding Current Opns...'). I insistently agree that we should know who the real enemy is (akin to any problem-solving method --- Step 1: 'define the problem accurately', or forever be lost).

I'm pretty sure (hopeful?) that our mil. knows this, and that the "All Al Qaeda - All the Time" verbage is just for propaganda effect, both in Iraqi govt. circles AND here on the home front. One can also substitute 'Iran' in the above equation, for similar effect, when it's convenient.

As Spence04 alludes, I'd like to know how Mahdi and greater Shia fit into this thread's analysis. A big part of the equation...and it's missing. How would THEY (Shia - Mahdi, SCIRI, etc.) be behaving were it not for Maliki and the Shia-heavy central govt. (term used loosely)? My opinion is that they've not been terribly accomodating as it is, have they? When one factors that in, the issue to me (and many others) is less about one 'enemy' to be dealing with... than it is about the constant dynamics of a variety of Sunni tribes vs Shia groups vs each other...all wanting the same thing - CONTROL. That necessarily throws us in a snakepit (both locally AND nationwide in Iraq), because no matter how we turn, we are sure to upset at least one potential troublemaker next door. Hence, the emphasis on 'political solutions'. And we see how well that's faring. :(

Back to tactics.... AQI (or any other external factors) are (for us) more like the match to these powderkegs, the needles in those haystacks. No doubt (from my insiders), those at the camel bazaar are using these outside benefactors (incl us!) much the same way we used the French during our Revolution, or the South used the Brits during the Civil War. Let's not kid ourselves. :( I don't get the impression that the locals just want to grow up being like AQ, or Iranians, or Saudis, or Americans/coalition. "For convenience," as MojaveCabal says. Again, going back to our own experiences, we didn't do much for the French afterwards, for all their help...and we even dissed the fried potato delicacies in 2002! ;)

As Mr. Nance says, AQ is lethal, but not the largest problem there. But I don't think the FRL's are the biggest issue, either. Unless things have substantially changed (doubtful) since OIF-4, it's more the Iraqis themselves (the 'problem' Sunni, Shia), and that numbers into at least 6 figures. Enlighten me if I've got this figured all wrong.

Outstanding site, great exchange. And thanks to all the 'practitioners'! Al

Very good read and perspective.
Mr. Nance is exactly right when he says we must, ". . . clarify exactly whom we are fighting and deal with them accordingly." From the "deck" perspective this is what Commanders are taught before they go into theater and one of the things in COIN operations that really matter.

He is on the mark when he writes that Iraqis (must less, the rest of the Middle East), ". . . dont want to be told how to live their religious and social lives by foreign extremists". If there is a linkage between AQI and Former Regime Loyalists (FRLs) or former military elements (FREs) or for that matter, anyone else in the region, it is a matter of convenience rather than the jelling of ideologies.

Mr. Nance also points out the key nature of insurgencies in that they, as well as AQI, ". . .manufactures its own reality" and every time we read into their rhetoric and overstate their capabilities and accomplishments, we not only are drawn into playing their rope-a-dope game, we also move off track with how to effectively undermined an insurgency.

At risk of going off topic, I have to take Mr. Nances principle notion one step further. Somewhere in the genetics of what makes the diverse population of Iraq, purely and uniquely, Iraqi is the answer to stopping the bloodshed and mayhem. Not only must we clarify exactly whom we are fighting with, we must also understand exactly whom we are dealing with in the Iraqs diverse population. We can kill and capture extremist and radical opportunist all day long but until we help the indigenous people of Iraq find and promote their ideologies, nothing good will happen in Iraq. mgs

Bill Roggio of The Fourth Rail has much to say on this subject which may be of interest. Bill took a look at the major points advanced by Nance and found his argument to be unpersuasive. Nance makes several factual errors and contradicts himself on several important points. And he fails to recognize the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq, the continually evolving nature of the Sunni insurgency and our understanding of it.

Read Al Qaeda and its role in the Iraq insurgency.

Michael Yon disagrees with the author: `The focus on al Qaeda makes sense here, where local officials have gone on record acknowledging that most of the perhaps one thousand al Qaeda fighters in Baqubah were young men and boys who called the city home. This may clash with the perception in US and other media that only a small percentage of the enemy in Iraq is al Qaeda, which in turn leads to false conclusions that the massive offensive campaign underway across Iraq is a lot of shock and awe aimed at a straw enemy. But as more Sunni tribal leaders renounce former ties with al Qaeda, its becoming clearer just how heavily AQ relied on local talent, and how disruptive they have been here in fomenting the civil war.` Source: http://www.michaelyon-online.com/wp/al-qaeda-on-the-run-feasting-on-the-...

In addition, I would like to remind you that Michael Ware has pointed out that AQ has a talent in converting former Baathists into salafists.

Not to split hairs over which labels we tag these groups with since our strategy will not dramatically change one way or the other. I will not speak for the author, but I thought he laid out succinctly the other actors in this fight which we rarely hear about in the mainstream media. The latest round of verbal flatulence coming out of the Congress and Senate is nothing more than freely using the term "Al Qaeda" to possibly encite more fear among the population and/or provide some sort of credence to the surge and that it is supposedly the answer to us "winning" the Iraq War. In our current political environment we see and hear a lot of finger pointing and using the media to attack the other side for their policies. What I would like to see is more effort politically to move economically and politically against countries like Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia (especially), and others who continue to support these various groups that cause the violence to continue... Since these clowns voted for the war they should probably spend less time worrying about "surges" and more time trying to do what they can to ensure the success of the fledgling Iraqi government and let the military worry about the tactical defeat of the enemy within Iraq.

SoldierNoLongerInIraq, I was not really specific enough about the "enlightening details" I thought were interesting. I was really just referring to this passage:
"It must be remembered that Zarqawis original AQ backed group Tawheed Wal Jihad came into Iraq just days before the invasion and set up in Fallujah under control of the Saddam Fedayeen." I hadn't read that before.

In regards to your overall point, I would agree with you that AQI-Zarq was never closely associated with AQ- Bin Laden/Zawahiri, but I think we could both agree that they were/are close allies with similar goals and atleast some limited cooperation. While I think it is important to distinguish between separate groups like TWJ and AQ-BinLaden, among others, in order to better determine how to defeat them; we should also consider them as part of a whole global Islamist terrorist movement. I think our friends over at CounterTerrorismBlog call it "Networked Diasporas." Whether its the GSPC in the Maghreb, the small-movements throughout Europe, etc; they are all past of one enemy force.

Because of this situation, I think it is fair to call the Islamist movement in Iraq AQI, as long as the nuances are pointed out.

Malcom,
Excellent piece. Saddam loyalists have heavily allied with themselves with the Islamists and al Qaeda in Iraq.

I actually have a list with hundreds of these guys that I am going to post at www.regimeofterror.com if you are interested.

This is Malcolm here ... very interesting comments and views. Concerning the genesis of AQI I invite you to read the book. You will find answers to the questions raised. The book's findings are based on four years of continuous field analysis and account for internal transformations and alliances of convenience of each group. I wanted to point out that the big players remain in Iraq but some get more press than others. The belief that the local Sunnis are joining AQI (which would be a given) is well founded but not in the numbers many believe. AQI undoubtedly congealed with smaller groups in the Shura council and Islamic State of Iraq, because after the Fallujah offensive and loss of Zarqawi it has had a problem bringing experienced insurgent manpower into their fold. Ansar al Sunnah aside (because as Ansar al Islam they were always a salafist organization), groups such as the 1920 Revolution Brigades - which never recovered from their decimation in Fallujah and Mosul - were FRLs and nationalists first and were not party to AQI's takfiri philosophy.

It would have been helpful to his message if he had actually provided enlightening details on the genesis of AQI, but he didn't do that, Spence04.

Zarqawi, former leader of AQI, has in Afghanistan with bin Laden but he never joined bin Laden's far-war al Qaeda group. This was as much due to personality as it was to doctrinal considerations: In sum, Zarqawi sought to attack near-war enemies, such as the corrupt dynastic regimes in the Middle East, or their allied, corrupt, secular, aging pan-Arabist governments in Cairo and similar places; bin Laden's al Qaeda famously sought to attack US targets because he saw the Americans as propping up weaker vassal states.

In Iraq, they had shared enemies (a Shi'i-dominated central government in Baghdad, and a US-led Coalition propping them up). AQI was a rebranded form of al Qaeda that didn't exactly listen much to the far-war group's diktat.

In the URL I have spatchcocked what actually is a good primer on AQI's origins in Afghanistan and development in Iraq, including mentions of the whistlestops (Ansar al-Islam, Fedayeen, et al) along the way.

Very interesting article Malcolm. I particularly found the labeling with acronyms a helpful idea. Also, some enlightening details on the genesis of AQI. I was wondering where/how you would classify al-Sadr's Mahdi army and the so-called special groups sponsored by Iranian Quods forces. Do they deserves their own acronym designator or would they fall under the IRE classification?

Thanks so much for bringing knowledge, clarity and reality-based thinking to what has seemed, and now clearly is, yet another stage of the propaganda drive for U. S. domestic opinion. I will now be reading Michael Gordon (and such like) with a more knowledgeable and jaundiced eye.

I would agree that the FRLs do pose the greatest danger to our troops by far and away. The focus on AQI forces would seem to be the appropriate strategic approach though. The greatest threat to stability in Iraq appears to be a widened sectarian conflict. Baghdad and its environs have been and remain the flash point for that conflict. AQI has an apparent and stated goal of stoking that conflict, and their more spectacular attacks have gone a long way towards promoting that strategic goal. AQI knows they cannot militarily force us out. There only hope for an AQI victory is for widespread Iraqi unrest and civil conflict. FRL forces certainly could attrit our forces and political will. That is okay as long as they can be incorporated into the Iraqi government as abhorrent as that may be.

If we can largely defeat AQI's efforts to foment unrest then we can tolerate a continued sideways situation with FRL forces for the time being. So long as the Iraqi government takes steps to stabilize the political situation and the Iraqi National Army continues to expand in size and capability, we should be able to bring Iraq to a point where it will make sense for the FRL forces to negotiate.

I do not think we could completely stamp out FRL forces in Iraq without another decade and another 300,000+ troops. That is not a very attractive option (not to mention that is politically untenable). With our limited resources in men, materiel, and time focusing on AQI in the hopes of providing enough stability for the Iraqi political situation to mature would seem to be our best option for giving the US acceptable conditions for a withdrawal from Iraq.

While I share the author's perspective on the total number of organic insurgents involved in the Anbar insurrection, I would have to say that he's a bit off about the influence of AQI, especially its earlier role in The Shura Council and its network of mosques that certainly influenced the direction of the rebellion.

Of course it's too simplistic to say that AQI "ran" the insurgency, but it's not simplistic at all to suggest that AQI slowly but surely gained a major role, that its eventual domination of Shura group gave it great suasion over the organic elements, that its flow of money and men from outside Iraq was instrumental in raising its profile, and that it eventually was able to dictate the tempo of their combined operations, most especially when several prominent tribes were part of the AQI nexus.

In trying to dispel a real myth bandied about by the White House (certainly it is false to conclude that every rebel in Sunni-dominated parts of Iraq is AQI), the author seems to overlook the increasingly dominant role within the Anbar insurgency AQI achieved by 2006.

Part of the pacification in Ramadi (and the area from there through Jazeera to Fallujah) by USMC and USA elements involved the systematic destruction of AQI and AQI-affliated cells, most especially their units devoted to slaying western tribal leaders and their families.

Once we were able to rein in AQI, protect the tribal and kinship elders, and then arm them to kill AQI and related operations, we were able to "turn" Anbar, at least temporarily.

By forgoing the very real, dynamic and, ultimately, powerful role AQI played in transforming the western insurgency, the author eventually loses sight of how important they really became.

Interesting analysis. Returning the regime to power appears more plainly unrealistic every week, and as FRLs die or abandon the cause and fade back into the populace (tribe, clan) or emigrate away, the FRL threat resembles similar threats in the former Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan that evaporated after years of dead end fighting.

The FRLs who stay will eventually face the new reality and attempt to make whatever deals they can make. But the foreign fighters from neighboring countries must go.

Killing foreign fighters is imperative, so that the clans, tribes, sects, and ethnic groups of Iraq can decide their future themselves. Foreign fighters include Iranian/Hezbollah/Palestinian Hamas groups.