Assessing Iraq's Sunni Arab Insurgency

By Eisenstadt, Michael; White, Jeffrey | Military Review, May/June 2006 | Go to article overview

Assessing Iraq's Sunni Arab Insurgency


Eisenstadt, Michael, White, Jeffrey, Military Review


THREE YEARS after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein, confusion and controversy still surround the insurgency in Iraq's Sunni Triangle. Part of this is due to the nontraditional character of the Sunni Arab insurgency, which is being waged by amorphous, locally and regionally based groups and networks lacking a unifying ideology, central leadership, or clear hierarchical organization.1

The ambiguities inherent in insurgent warfare also make insurgencies difficult to assess. In conventional military conflicts, we can compare opposing orders of battle, evaluate capabilities, and assess the fortunes of belligerents using traditional measures: destruction of enemy forces, capture of key terrain, or seizure of the enemy's capital city.

Insurgents are often not organized into regular formations, making it difficult (even for their own leaders) to assess their numerical strength accurately. Usually, there are no front lines whose location could offer insight into the war's progress, and, at any rate, military factors are usually less important than political and psychological considerations in deciding the outcome of such conflicts. As a result, we need different analytic measures to assess the insurgency's nature, scope, intensity, and effectiveness.2

The Insurgency's Origins and Nature

Assumptions about the roots and origins of the Sunni Arab insurgency color assessments of its nature and character. Analysts and officials who believe that Saddam Hussein anticipated his defeat and planned the insurgency before the invasion of Iraq tend to downplay the complex array of factors that influenced its origin and development. No evidence exists that Saddam planned to lead a postwar resistance movement or that he played a significant role in the insurgency's emergence. However, prewar preparations for waging a popular war against invading Coalition forces in southern Iraq, or for dealing with a coup or uprising, almost certainly abetted the insurgency's emergence following the regime's fall. The first insurgents were also able to draw on relationships, networks, and structures inherited from the old regime, which helps account for the rather rapid onset of the insurgency in the summer of 2003.3

U.S. officials have also differed over the nature of the violence in post-Saddam Iraq, with some seeing it largely as the work of former regime "dead enders," and others seeing it as a multifaceted insurgency against the emerging Iraqi political order.4 Part of the confusion stems from the fact that Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) face a composite insurgency whose elements act on diverse motives. These elements include former regime members and Iraqi Islamists, angry or aggrieved Iraqis, foreign jihadists, tribal groups, and criminal elements, each of which draws considerable strength from political and religious ideologies, tribal notions of honor and revenge, and shared solidarities deeply ingrained in the population of the Sunni Triangle.

Among the factors driving the insurgency are-

* The humiliation engendered by the Coalition military victory and occupation.

* The sense of entitlement felt by many Sunni Arabs who consider themselves the rightful rulers of Iraq.

* Anxiety over the growing power of Shiite and Kurdish parties and militias.

* The fear that Sunni Arabs (some 20 percent of Iraq's population) will be politically and economically marginalized in a democratic Iraq.

* A potent brand of Iraqi-Arab nationalism that is deeply ingrained in many Sunni Arabs.

* The popularity of political Islam among sectors of the Sunni population.

* A desire to gain power-as individuals, as members of a dispossessed elite, or as a community.

Some senior civilian and military officials, at least early on, failed to grasp the protracted nature of insurgency and counterinsurgency warfare. On several occasions (after the December 2003 capture of Saddam, the June 2004 transfer of authority, and the January 2005 elections), a number of officials expressed confidence that these events presaged an early end to the insurgency. …

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