Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq, by Ahmed S. Hashim. Cornell University Press, Ithaca and New York, US, 2006. Pp: 482. Hbk: $29.95, Pbk: $14.95.
Four years after the fall of Baghdad and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by US-led coalition forces, the Iraq war has become etched into people’s minds as a byword for military disaster. The fact that the Iraqi armed forces did not put up much of a fight in the face of the invading coalition troops gave rise to a premature feeling of euphoria in US decision-makers. Carried away by a false sense of omnipotence, an ebullient US president George W Bush landed May 1, 2003, on the aircraft-carrier USS Abraham Lincoln to stand under a banner reading “Mission Accomplished” and deliver a speech in which he declared that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”
But this intoxicating euphoria proved fleeting. A few weeks after Bush’s “victory” speech, it became apparent that a host of errors of judgment, mistakes, and miscalculations – rooted in hallucinations of grandeur coupled with an arrogant dismissal of social and political realities in Iraq – was beginning to take a heavy toll. Arguably, Bush administration officials were nowhere more wildly off the mark than in their underestimation of the prospect of an escalating insurgency that could inflict severe damage on US forces in Iraq.
In his outstanding book, Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq, Ahmed S. Hashim, a professor at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, USA, sets himself a difficult task that he performs superbly: to study the evolution of the Iraqi insurgency. He begins his detailed excursion into the insurgency by looking into the structural, organizational and societal weaknesses that prevented Saddam’s armed forces from making a stand “against the vastly better-trained and equipped Coalition forces” (p. 3). Some of these weaknesses, which “stemmed from the Ba’thist regime’s policy of putting civilian overseers in charge of the military and giving military rank to civilian relatives of Saddam and then positioning them in important commands or posts,” undermined the cohesion, morale and professionalism of the Iraqi armed forces (p. 5). But the chaos and massive looting that erupted after the collapse of the Ba‘ath party regime provided an environment conducive to anti-occupation attacks and sabotage activities, born mainly out of “the reaction of the Sunni Arab community to the collapse of the regime and of their paramount position in the political configuration of Iraq. That minority group’s grievances, including the threat to their identity in the new post-Sunni Iraq, our [i.e. the US’s] mistaken assumption that they would accept their loss of status and privileges ‘lying down,’ and certain ‘muscular’ aspects of the US response to their discontent fanned the flames of violence” (p. 18).
Much as rapid and unsustainable increases in subterranean pressure lead to cataclysmic volcanic eruptions, this crisis of identity disrupted the Sunni Arab community’s world to the extent that “the shock and resultant anger, as well as Coalition policies that struck at the Sunni Arabs’ identity and self-worth, have contributed to the emergence and perpetuation of the insurgency” (p. 68). Hashim sheds light on a host of motives – including political and material grievances; nationalism; societal notions of honour, revenge and pride; tribal solidarities; and religious sentiments – that appeared in the Iraqi Sunni Arab community to drive the insurgency. As Hashim observes: “while it is true that Iraqi insurgents come from a wide variety of ethnic and sectarian backgrounds, … the insurgency is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab, with substantial Sunni Turkmen input in the isolated and poverty-stricken town of Tal Afar, in the westernmost reaches of Nineveh Province” (p. 130). By dint of being a largely single-community enterprise, along with the political empowerment of Shi‘a Arabs and Sunni Kurds as a result of the fall of Saddam, the insurgency has effectively exacerbated latent communal prejudices and tensions, militating against the development of the insurgency into a war of national liberation and so far reducing it to a more localised affair in terms of popular involvement.
Hashim’s account of the Iraqi insurgency attempts to plumb the depths of the complex and evolving modus operandi adopted by the insurgents, focusing mainly on the organisation of the insurgency and its way of warfare. He observes that the intricate landscape of the Iraqi insurgency has exhibited features of both hierarchical and decentralised organisational types, “with larger, more geographically extended insurgent groups made up of former regime elements tending towards the hierarchical mode, and tribal or neighbourhood insurgents tending towards the decentralized” (p. 155). The author also provides a list of nationalist/tribal and religious insurgent groups, reflecting the increasing fusion of nationalist and religious sentiments among Sunni Arabs. One cannot but appreciate the difficulties involved in attempting to provide an accurate and exhaustive typology of insurgent groups, caused by the fluidity of the insurgency’s landscape. It is true that, “Some [groups] come and go, some change names and some claim to have merged with one another to form larger and supposedly more effective networks” (p. 170). Yet one cannot but marvel at how some major groups, such as the 1920 Revolution Brigades (Kata’ib Thawrat al-‘Ishrin) which appeared in the early stages of the insurgency (circa June 2003), have escaped the eagle eyes of the author.
Particularly valuable for the generalized and more general reader is Hashim’s attempt to dissect the phenomenon of the religious radicalization of the Sunni Arabs, which has contributed to the rise of Salafism of the takfiri type (from takfir, Arabic for excommunicating Muslims), which currently predominates in Iraq. His discussion of Salafism focuses mainly on the process of ‘Islamisation’ started in the 1990s by Saddam. There was an obvious streak of Machiavellianism in Saddam’s turn to religion. Hashim notes that, “Despite its original allegiance to militant secularism, Saddam’s regime began in the early and mid-1990s to promote the re-Islamization of Iraqi society to buttress its legitimacy. Saddam implemented an official policy of religious revival so that the regime could control the rising tide of faith” (p. 110). He further argues that the regime of economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait “promoted the return to religion among the Iraqi population,” and quotes an Iraqi sociologist at Baghdad University who had told an American journalist in 2001: “when a society is in crisis like we are, with the embargo and all, religion plays a greater part in soothing the psyche of the people and giving the people greater strength to face the crisis” (p. 111).
Hashim’s account of Iraqi Salafism suffers from a number of noticeable historical omissions. This deficiency is not really the author’s fault. There is barely any published research or solid investigative study documenting the history of contemporary Iraqi Salafism. Suffice it to say that the genesis of modern Iraqi Salafism pre-dates the tide of religious feeling that swept Iraq in the nineteen-nineties. A more complete narrative of Iraqi Salafism should look into the role played by Saudi Arabia in promoting Salafi thought by flooding Iraq with Salafi literature during the rapprochement between Baghdad and Riyadh because of the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s. At a time when many religious books, Sunni and Shi‘a alike, were banned in Iraq, government censors turned a blind eye to the distribution and sale of salafi books from Saudi Arabia. But despite its ostensible toleration of the spread of salafi ideas and literature, the Ba‘ath regime did not hesitate on a number of occasions to resort to brutal methods to remind the Salafis of who was really in charge. One such episode that points to the early penetration of Salafism into Iraqi is the arrest and execution of the so-called “al-Fayez” group, named after its leader, in the early nineteen-eighties. At least one member of this three-man group used to work in the Iraqi Atomic Energy Agency. Other repressive campaigns that targeted Sunni Islamists, including the Salafis, were launched in 1994 (during which Iraqi Islamic Party leader Muhsin Abd al-Hamid and other party-activists were arrested and tortured), 1996 and 2000.
In addition to this, Hashim’s work suffers from a more serious flaw from an analytical standpoint: the lack of discussion about the transformation of Iraqi Salafis from reformist (islahi), non-violent Salafism to takfiri, jihadi Salafism after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Iraqi Salafism before the invasion was predominantly reformist. Two main features characterised Iraqi Salafism at the time: firstly, its aversion to centralised, nationwide organisation; secondly, its commitment to non-violent methods. The invasion spurred an internal debate among Iraqi Salafi circles on the legitimacy of taking up arms. For the Iraqi Salafis, the invasion of their country by foreign troops was like the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century. Interestingly, most Salafis in central Iraq invoked the edicts (fatwas) on ‘defensive jihad’ (jihad al-daf‘i) issued by Ahmad Ibn Abd al-Halim Ibn Taymiya al-Harrani (1268-1328 CE), the famous Salafist jurist who lived at the time of the Mongol invasion and personally participated in military campaigns against the invaders.
Although other jurists have dealt with defensive jihad, Ibn Taymiya’s articulation of the concept was more detailed. He argued that whenever enemies attack and occupy Muslim lands, repelling them becomes a duty for all those under attack, and that it is other Muslims’ duty to help them. Jihad under the conditions of occupation requires neither an established leadership (la yushtarat fihi amir) nor an organisational structure (see, for example, his fatwas on jihad in al-Fatawah al-Misriyyah). But the Manichean view of the world embedded in Salafism paved the way for expanding the scope of violence to include not only foreign troops but also other sectors of Iraqi society. This transformation was mainly evident in central, western and north-central Iraq. For instance, Salafists in the southern Iraqi province of Basra continue, for the most part, to subscribe to a reformist conception of Salafism.
A closely related question is that of the role played by foreign insurgents in Iraq. Hashim is highly suspicious of the Bush administration’s claim that “regime dead-enders and foreign infiltrators are behind the attacks”. He rightly maintains that the foreign element in the insurgency is “minuscule” (p. 139). Numbers of insurgents arrested by the American and Iraqi forces since the early stages of the insurgency support this conclusion. Yet, though few in numbers, there is no doubt that foreign insurgents have played a disproportionate role in major attacks, particularly suicide car- and truck-bombings.
Hashim is highly critical of the American counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq, which he blames for playing “a key role in the outbreak and perpetuation of the insurgency.” He accuses the “rigid and inflexible ideological approach” adopted by US decision-makers of undermining the chances of implementing policies vital in any successful counter-insurgency strategy, such as measured reactions and minimal use of force, the primacy of political responses, integrated civil-military operations and rectitude towards civilians and prisoners. Such essential elements of counter-insurgency have been largely absent from the US efforts to suppress the insurgency in Iraq, which concentrate on the killing of insurgents, show callousness towards civilian casualties, and turn a blind eye to cultural sensitivities. Hashim attributes the “US military’s failure to have an effectively prepared counter-insurgency strategy … primarily [to] the organizational or military culture, defined here as those values or beliefs that promote a conventional-warfare mindset to such an extent that little or no consideration is given to the study and effective preparation for the prosecution of small wars” (p. 275). While this is true, there is another point to consider in this regard. In Iraq, the US military found itself fighting a post-modernist insurgency (defined mainly by the use of urban combat and asymmetric warfare tactics, suicide bombings, and the effective employment of modern communications modalities and strategies) by resorting to a counter-insurgency strategy and tactics steeped in a modernist military doctrine (inspired mainly by its Cold War experiences in Asia and Latin America).
An American of Turkish-Egyptian descent, Hashim, who served three tours of duty as an advisor to the American authorities in Baghdad and Tal Afar after the overthrow of Saddam, is well placed to take stock of the effects of the insurgency on inter-communal relations in Iraq. He seems to be more prescient than his superiors in Washington in anticipating the ensuing intensification of ethno-sectarian violence that has engulfed Iraq and threatens to spread throughout the Middle East. He maintains that “reality – which the faith-based believers in the Iraq enterprise disdain – has the depressing habit of intruding on wishful constructs. People from the various Iraqi communities are increasingly seeking succour, support and security within their own. People who are not of the same faith or ethnicity are seen as the outsider” (p. 352).
In attempting to look for a way out of this spiral of inter-communal antagonisms, Hashim argues that “there is much to be said for” the option of a “managed partition” of Iraq. He defines this partition as “a process that could be mediated by the Coalition and the international community in negotiations with the major ethno-sectarian communities in Iraq” (p. 360). Obviously, this option is fraught with the risks involved in the dismemberment of states. Foremost among these risks is the possibility of ‘upgrading’ the discord between Iraq’s ethno-sectarian communities into a multi-layered conflict between warring statelets. But that does not matter for Hashim, because managed partition “is the option that can allow us to leave with honor intact” (p. 360).
Seamlessly and eloquently written, this book by Ahed S. Hashim is a “must-read” for anyone interested in fathoming the nature and development of the insurgency that is now raging in Iraq (and certainly continue until the Americans and their allies withdraw). He has done an excellent job of researching the subject and produced the best published analytical work on the Iraqi insurgency to date. In his search for answers about the causes of the insurgency, its evolution and possible future directions, Hashim opens new vistas for further research on this insurgency, as well as on irregular warfare in general. Because of the author’s wealth of sources and field research, his work is not only a good book to read but also makes a good reference book.