How AQM Thinks About the Surge

Marc Lynch has a fascinating post examining a recent (unofficial) document posted on a jihadist forum, entitled A Strategic Plan to Improve the Political Position of the Islamic State of Iraq. The whole post is worth reading for insight into the current state of thinking about the Iraq war on the part of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM) and its supporters, but I was particularly struck by this passage, discussing the document’s take on the reasons for AQM’s declining fortunes since 2006-7:

It explains its setbacks, which it argues came at the height of its power and influence, on what it calls two smart and effective U.S. moves in 2006-07: an effective U.S. media and psychological campaign, which convinced many that the “mujahideen” had committed atrocities against Iraqis and killed thousands of Muslims; and the Awakenings, achieved through its manipulation of the tribes and the “nationalist resistance.” The document doesn’t mention the “Surge” much at all, at least not in terms of the troop escalation which most Americans have in mind.

Back in the U.S., of course, hawks have been keen to emphasize the third element–the troop escalation–at the expense of the other two. After all, to suggest that the Awakenings bore primary responsibility for the drop in violence comes uncomfortably close to implying that jihadists are not a monolithic group of bloodthirsty fanatics who “hate us for our freedom”; instead, it might suggest that we should actually talk to them and perhaps (gasp!) offer the relative moderates among them incentives to defect. Classic appeasement, in other words. Similarly, although talk of winning “hearts and minds” is all the rage in counterinsurgency (COIN) discussions these days, hawks have been careful not to focus too much on the role that atrocities (by the U.S. or its enemies) play in swaying public opinion; that might imply that the U.S. should, for instance, close Guantanamo and Bagram, thoroughly reform its detainee system, or halt the drone war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Far better, from the hawks’ perspective, to credit the drop in violence and the wane in AQM’s fortunes entirely to the surge. Doing so sends a nice unambiguous message: when in doubt, the solution is always more troops, more money, more war.

Iraq experts continue to vigorously debate which factors were most important in causing the drop in violence, and in any case I am no Iraq expert myself. Nonetheless, it is striking that strategists associated with AQM itself appear to attribute their downfall primarily to public perceptions of their own atrocities, and to the U.S. decision to reach out to former members of the insurgency, rather than to the surge itself.

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. In this context, it’s always worth mentioning Nir Rosen’s excellent reporting from Iraq. In the November/December 2009 issue of the Boston Review, Rosen’s article, “An Ugly Peace,” recounts the Iraqi Civil War and gives at least one uncommon — though simple — explanation for it’s end: The Shias won.

    “It was clear that something significant had changed in Iraq. While resentment lingered and murders continued, the sectarian violence had subsided, and there was a willingness to think about a future in which different Iraqi communities would live together in peace.

    Still, talk about a ‘post-sectarian future’ is premature. The situation is complex and fluid, and people in the communities most ravaged by the civil war understandably tell each other a range of conflicting stories about the roots of the change. One explanation that few are prepared to discuss openly is that Iraq’s civil war ended because Shias won: violence against Sunnis ceased after Sunnis were brutally cleansed from Basra and large swaths of Baghdad, and Shias gained firm control of government ministries and local police. Sunnis knew they were defeated and Shias no longer worried that Ba’athist oppression would resume. With no external enemy, Shia militias began to fight each other and turned into criminal gangs terrorizing their own communities. The defeat of the Sunnis and divisions among Shias created space for new possibilities, and the government and American forces occupied that space.”

  2. Well, three years ago I predicted in print that the Surge would fail, and it didn’t. Of course, it wasn’t the Surge so much as the Awakening that turned the tide. What really threw off my calculation, however, was the Sadrists suspending their armed resistance at the end of August 2007.

    That said, the Surge did alot more than AQ is admitting. Without the Surge, the Awakening probably would not have spread beyond Anbar province, and might not have beaten AQ even there. We, after all, provided the guns and money the Awakening needed. AQ says little about the Surge because where they met American troops, they were outfought. To them (though they wouldn’t say it out loud) defeat in the field is a disgrace — basically a commentary on their manhood (and particularly since they were beaten by “infidels”).

    “Public perceptions of their atrocities?” Trust me, AQ committed plenty of heinous acts. We may have publicized their atrocities, but they were and are very, very dirty guys.

    In any case, even if AQ and the Sunni nationalist resistance join forces again, they’re not a threat to topple the government or even bring about violence on a scale like that of 2006-7. Iraq is a Shiite state now, and will remain so. When we’re gone Iran will be Shiite Iraq’s big brother. The Sunnis ain’t never coming back to run the show; certainly AQ in Mesopotamia will never be more than a terrorist movement, and a fringe one at that.

    The really interesting thing in Iraq right now is the apparent electoral success (reported in today’s NYT) of the Sadrist movement. An Islamist Iraq, if such emerges, will be a Sadrist Iraq. I would say that if a new Iraqi civil war ever breaks out, it will be between Shiite factions. But I don’t believe Iran would allow this.

    The Iraq war, as I’m sure we agree, was one of the greatest strategic blunders in American history, second only to Vietnam. The Surge, however, was a necessary operation, given that withdrawal in early 2007, with Iraq in chaos, would have been a strategic disaster, not to mention deeply dishonorable. But, sad to say, the fruits of the Surge will prove bitter, for Iran and not the US was the real gainer. In time this should become quite clear.

  3. Jon, this post reflects your unbearable whiteness of being. It is self-contradictory to speak of the Sadrist’s dominance/emergence and Iraq as a puppet of Iran.

    Our news is so sophistic they seldom covered the key feature of the Sadrist movement (a movement we never embraced; likely due to this very reason) the Sadrists are radical nationalist. We should have embraced them, however we were more comfortable with the compromised Chalabi, and Allowi.

    The first directive of our foreign policy is to not allow any nationalist leaders in resource rich countries. These people would demand fair compensation for their resources, fair trade and a collegial relationship. Perhaps you miss this, this is the PRIMARY THRUST of our foreign policy.

    Before the surge, the “awakening” or bribing of regional strongmen and the advanced and completed ethnic cleansing and partitioning of Iraq had been complete. To credit the surge is flatly absurd. The “surge” didn’t increase the number of troops on the streets, the surge didn’t increase patrols, the surge did nothing.

    How can you forget that during the surge we sat hunkered in our remote remote bases and in the green zone. Jon, you really let yourself get spun here.

    It’s not clear the Sadrist will lead, or be allowed to do so. It seems to me we had no plan, no idea what was really going on in Iraq. When a bunch of venal Jews who have paranoid, messianic fantasies represent the best advisers in our “think-tanks” it’s no wonder we’re so confused and blind.

  4. I never used the word puppet. I said big brother. There’s a helluva lot of difference between the two.

    Before the Surge, the Awakening was victorious in Anbar, though that victory was helped by our dollars and arms. The extension of the Awakening was coterminous with the Surge.

    It’s quite true that the sectarian cleansing of Iraq was almost complete before the Surge commenced. That, however, has nothing to do with what I said. You must find my prose quite opaque.

    Our troops were not simply “hunkered down in the Green Zone” during the surge. I can introduce you to some mothers and widows who can explain the reality to you. Try studying the monthly casualty figures from 2007, instead of giving us your pet version of history.

  5. The Sadrists are anti-Iranian. They are pro-Iraqi. That can’t be said about Maliki, who’s continuation in his post is far from certain. That’s my quibble and “little brother” is not appropriate either.

    The fact remains that Sadr is unacceptable for some reason. What is it? Is it his independence? Is it religious orientation? He had earned the respect of the Sunnis. We had our guy, one was compromised before we got to him the other, Allowi is compromised for our side.

    We are playing rank colonial games and it undermines our security as certainly as our Israeli alliance. Either we play it more straight, or we fail. We literally tried to murder this guy.

    That sticks with people. My wife still remembers the murder of Bou-Diaff right after his election. I can’t remember that clown who’s out dispelling “conspiracy theories” by conflating Obama’s Birth certificate, that 9/11 truthers think Bush and Cheney planned the event. The Birthers are nutty and so is anyone who ever read a history book beyond high school text books.

    There are many conspiracies which are quite real from Teapot Dome, to AbScam, to Iran Contra, to the Great Recession to the utter corruption of the political system.

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