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Critique of pure Reasoner

Essays and commentary related to topics in Tom Reasoner's "Truth and Beauty" blog

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Insurgents not getting along

At my job we call unclassified media reports "OSINT" for Open Source Intelligence. Though they call their collectors "correspondents," mass media are intelligence services of sorts and frequently have information us secret-squirrel types don't. Unfortunately, after reading a few thousand reports from various sorts of sources, it can start to blur together in your head what came from where. It's apparent, though, that the story of anti-Coalition forces fighting one-another has hit OSINT in a big way, so I think I can at least talk about my perceptions in general terms.

The media occasionally bothers to devide the insurgency into a number of subgroups, the boundaries of which can be fuzzy without being arbitrarily delineated. Early on we heard a great deal about former regime elements (FREs) as well as the more general "mujahadeen" (literally "those who practice Jihad," but overuse has reduced it to meaning something like "members of the resistance"). At some point "Foreign Fighters" (FFs) became prominent in the discussions of who attacks the Multi-National Forces (MNF). The first two are (broadly) Iraqi, while the last depends on outsiders who travel to Iraq to fight the infidels (though occasionally under considerable duress).

Indigenous rebels frequently have ideological reasons for fighting, or cultural ones (it can be hard to distinguish in Iraq's tribal society), but they are also usually fighting from a sense of communal defense against marginalization of one sort or another. Alienating their own constituency or inciting the enmity of powerful neighbor tribes is a real danger of collateral damage.

Foreign fighters, on the other hand, tend to be part of global terrorist networks with recruiting operations in every country in the world with a notable population of Islamic extremists. Their "community" is essentially composed of a heirarchy of terror bosses and the media organs which carry a large percentage of their Information Operations (IO) campaign. Collateral damage certainly creates hostility in the local community, but it also compels compliance much of the time. Not many people are willing to risk the kidnapping and beheading of family members that can result from vigilante action.

But Iraqi insurgents are well-armed, at least semi-trained and organized, and have already taken measures to protect their families (or have already lost them). They are also community-based; when the MNF conduct operations to root out terrorists who have set off some huge car-bomb, killing scores of civilians in a neighborhood, they are presented with a dilemma: attack the people fighting against the group that just blew up their friends and family, or undertake the revenge prescribed by traditions of tribal honor. Even from a nationalist perspective, foreign fighters cause special aggrevation: while American presence is an unbearable insult, at least we're building up the country, whereas terrorists never do anything but blow stuff up and behead people, most of whom are Irqi Muslims. And I shouldn't forget drug trafficking and kidnapping to raise money.

It also helps that just about anyone is easier and safer to target than US troops.

So the rise of insurgent vs terrorist fighting doesn't much surprise me. Neither has the rise of anti-insurgent vigilante groups (which are not automatically pro-Coalition). People are tired of their country being the playground of armed yahoos of all types, especially now that there's an embryonic political process.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Update from Tal Afar

Those slices of free time which I cut from sleep or the gym I generally use to keep in touch with my girlfriend and family rather than write about geopolitics, Iraq, or any other non-personal topic, but sometimes I have a little more leeway. When I do, I frequently check Lancelot Finn's blog to get a (generally conservative) view of Iraq from the States.

Lancelot and I, of course, disagree on a lot of things, but we're both interventionist Libertarians - something many would regard as a contradiction in terms, but it springs from a deep-seated similarity: we both believe in moral absolutes. Further, we both are of the opinion that a Western-style constitutional democracy combined with its undergirding capitalist* economic organization is a fundamentally better social system than anything on offer in the Middle East. It's not just that we're richer monetarily - and in some cases we're not, e.g. Saudi Arabia - it's that we're free to enrich our lives to suit ourselves and our ambitions in a scarier but more satisfying way.

As corny as it sounds, we believe the American Dream (qua the aspiration to material and social satisfaction as well as independence achieved through hard work) should everyone's dream. That's not to say every people's instantiation thereof should look the same, but there are main ingredients that are not optional: property rights, freedom of employment, freedom of worship, equal (and substantive) protection before the law, strong personal liberties, and legitimately democratic governance.

The whole world (publicly) respects democratic governance, excepting a few people like Zarqawi who are not well liked almost anywhere. However, not everyone respects the rest of the ingredients and some even consider them anathema. In many cases they're correct, too. The American Dream destroys as it creates: as American women approached parity in economic prospects with their male counterparts, divorce rates rose and society went through a period of turbulence as everyone tried to readjust to the fact that women's fortunes were no longer identical to that of their spouses.

In Iraq the same sort of new freedoms threaten to break down traditional structures in similar ways. As rule of law and freedom of movement grow, the need to rely on the largess and protection of tribal Sheikhs declines. As freedom of worship becomes more real, then spiritual adventurers will drift farther afield from the traditional sects to more and more varied alternatives. Social cohesion will likely suffer in the same ways it has in the United States, though for reasons unique to each individual society.

Still, there are many real reasons to fear these changes: especially the older members of society have invested their whole lives based on assumptions that will no longer hold true. Personal achievements for which they've worked their whole lives may be swept away or devalued, and things they have been taught to despise their whole lives may come to dominate. Ultimately, the greatest fear is of alienation. When the world changes so disorientingly, we often feel like our very existence is threatened by the swift corrosion of what came before; for things we have loved are the substance of our spiritual identity.

Americans marching around on the streets puts the most problematic possible face on change - we are not (generally) Arabs, or traditional allies, or Muslims, or tribesmen, or from the desert, or speak the same languages... the list goes on. Why do such a large percentage of even Sunni Arab Iraqis cheer the (mostly Shia and Kurd) Iraqi Army when they enter towns and villages, while most Iraqis have an almost comical amount of distrust of the Americans accompanying and protecting the selfsame IA soldiers? Is it just propaganda? If so, why would they believe anti-US propaganda before pro-US propaganda?

We are immensely unpopular amongst all but the Kurds - Even the Shia dislike us by at least a 2:1 margin. Yet at the end of the day, we'll get covert requests from community leaders that US soldiers accompany IA troops during house searches to prevent theft.

I predict that once we (mostly) leave and the threat is not so immediate and alien, then Americans may be remembered in a very different light by much of the populace. The toys we brought and the mistakes we did our best to make amends for and the infrastructure we built and the aid we provided will come into pespective. Once the shadow of American control - real or imagined - no longer falls over the Iraqi government, more people can relax and be excited by the opportunities presented by change rather than its dangers written in the foreign faces and on the weapons of alien occupiers.

That said, we can't be leaving just yet. Though not the paper tiger it was last year, the Iraqi Security Forces are by no means suffiently staffed, trained, equipped or disciplined to take on all stability operations by themselves. Hopefully the US will be able to scale back starting a couple months after the December elections so that by the end of next year we'll only be watching the ISF's back and providing help in a pinch rather than planning and executing the majority of the operations. We'll probably need to keep MI soldiers like myself in longer, since Iraq won't be able to mount anything comparable to our technical abilities for years, but we're very low-profile and less offensive because of that fact.

Prognosis? I think Iraq will be an independent, frequently disagreeing, excellent friend of the United States in ten years.

Unfortunately, we still have a major situation on the Korean Peninsula from which our Iraq engagement draws a great deal of logistical and intelligence resources. Let's hope that doesn't come to a head any time soon.

*I say this despite that fact that our capitalism is terribly incomplete and flawed, but "pursuit of happiness" was, after all, chosen as a sort of code-phrase for "property." Constitutional democracies are all about property rights and restrictions of government power in consciousness that private (corporate) institutions would fill all other control roles.