AQ-Iraq’s counter counter-insurgency manual

All Iraq-watching eyes are quite naturally focused on the election results which continue to dribble in, with some hope of final results soon.   There’s plenty to watch: Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya list edging ahead of Nuri al-Maliki’s State of  Law, a six vote difference between the Kurdistan Alliance and Iraqiyya in Kirkuk, escalating complaints of fraud, the taunting of prominent individuals who performed badly in the open list voting system.  We’ll have to wait even longer for the final results to be processed through the complex reallocation of votes from losing lists to those over the threshold.  But in the meantime, I’ve been mulling over an interesting document which I just found on the forums:  A Strategic Plan to Improve the Political Position of the Islamic State of Iraq.   Call it the jihadist version of David Petraeus’s FM 3-24, a counter-counterinsurgency manual and a frank lessons-learned analysis by an adaptive and resilient organization which has not given up in the face of setbacks.   How does al-Qaeda in Iraq’s umbrella organization hope to rekindle the spark of jihad?

The 55 page document, published under a pseudonym, is a remarkably frank “lessons learned” analysis which does not shy away from identifying where the ISI’s strategy went wrong.   It’s not an “official” document, whatever that means, but it’s fascinating nonetheless and demonstrates some deep thinking about the fortunes of the Islamic State in Iraq.    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.

Building upon a lengthy post-mortem on the Awakenings and the media campaigns, the Strategic Plan sets out a detailed agenda for the coming years during and after the U.S. withdrawal.   It calls the coming war “a political and media war to the first degree”, with the winner “the side that best prepares for the period following the withdrawal.”  It recognizes that the Islamic State can not control all of Iraq through military force alone, and that only a wise political strategy can succeed.  It then offers a detailed five point plan, including a process to unify the ranks of the jihad, in part by reaching out to the old nationalist resistance and convincing them to return to the fold;  detailed military preparations, including recommendations to conserve men and resources until the right time; and an enhanced media operation designed to rebut the most damaging charges against the Islamic State and carefully tied to a coherent political strategy.  Perhaps its most striking concept is a detailed plan for creating “Jihadist Awakenings”, mimicking the U.S. engagement of the tribes to create broader popular support.

This is one of the more interesting documents from the Iraq-focused forums I’ve come across in a while — pragmatic and analytical rather than bombastic, surprisingly frank about what went wrong, and alarmingly creative about the Iraqi jihad’s way forward.   I’ve said often that I find a resurgence of the Sunni insurgency unlikely at this point, for many reasons, and this document does little to change that assessment.  Unifying the former insurgency is easier said than done, the Iraqi political process and state capabilities have changed dramatically, and the damage to the image of the Islamic State isn’t fading.   But this is a reminder that the insurgency was adaptive and resilient, is capable of adjusting its strategy to new conditions, can learn from its mistakes, and will try to take advantage of any Sunni frustrations in the coming years.    Even if the insurgency isn’t on the brink of resuming, and Iraq isn’t yet unraveling, this is the sort of thing to which I hope the right people are still paying attention.

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