August 15, 2007

Horrific Nineveh Bombing Shows Counterinsurgency Working

Hatched by Dafydd

Contrary to the line many elite media are taking, the coordinated quadruple suicide bombings in Nineveh yesterday -- which appear to have killed between 250 and 500 Yazidis, making it the single worst terrorist attack of the entire Iraq war -- have not "dealt a serious blow" to the claim that the new counterinsurgency strategy is working.

In fact, they emphatically demonstrate that it is.

Geography lesson

Consider where the bombing occurred:

al-Qaeda bombing of Yazidi Kurds at Syrian Border

Al-Qaeda bombing of Yazidi Kurds at Syrian Border

The red dot marks the approximate area of the four explosions. This is about as far as one can get from our counterinsurgency and still remain in Iraq.

We're fighting heavily in Anbar province in the west; in Najaf in the southwest; in Diyala and Baghdad in the east; and we have a lot of forces in Sulaymaniyah in the northeast, hard up against Iran. The Kurds are very strong in Kirkuk in the north; and the Brits have not yet left Basra in the southeast.

Just about the only place left for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to operate with any degree of impunity is in the northwest, in the remote desert inhabited by a smattering of Yazidis. In fact, even the New York Times has noticed this geographic reality, though they try to spin it into a negative:

All three towns [Sinjar, Amerili, Tal Afar] lie north of the main areas affected by the increase in American troop strength that began in March, supporting the notion that, as in numerous earlier American offensives, insurgents have moved from where they are being attacked and restarted their operations elsewhere....

Asked why insurgents would pick such simple villages in the desert for such a colossal attack, General Bergner said: “Perhaps their vulnerability. Perhaps they were a target that they could attack.”

The Times wants readers to believe this shows that the "surge" is a failure. After all, al-Qaeda is simply moving "from where they are being attacked" and "restart[ing] their operations elsewhere."

But that is precisely what the counterinsurgency aims to do: Unlike the previous "attrition" strategy, we don't just attack higgledy-piggledy following the terrorists, allowing them to set the operational tempo; instead, we began by defining an area of control -- the "white" area, using the terminology of French Lt.Col. Galula in Algeria, one of the recent architects of modern counterinsurgency theory. Then we expand from the "white" areas into the adjacent "pink" (contested) areas.

As we invest pink areas and turn them to white, that automatically makes what had been adjoining, enemy-controlled (red) areas into contested pink areas. That is, rather than chase al-Qaeda up and down Iraq, we start in one or two spots and expand outward -- like oil expanding across troubled waters.

"Victory" occurs as we push the enemy farther and farther away from the military, political, and economic centers of the country... which is precisely what we see happening in Iraq today. This attack is a perfect example.


Even more interesting about the geography of this attack: It's virtually on the Syrian border, over which AQI has been smuggling weapons, fighters -- and suicide bombers -- for several years. From the AP story linked above:

"This is way out by the Syrian border, an area where we do think in fact some suicide bombers are able to come across the border. It's an area that is very, very remote - quite small villages out there - and it was disheartening for us, too, obviously," [Gen. David] Petraeus told The Associated Press in an interview.

In the past, prior to the Coalition's new offensive strategy, al-Qaeda had little trouble smuggling suicide bombers across the Syrian border -- either in Anbar or Nineveh provinces -- and then transporting them to Baghdad, or any other location in central Iraq, where the blasts can be more spectacular (and, they hope, visible to the American elite news media parked in the Green Zone) and affect far more mainstream Iraqis. But in this bombing, while they likely got the murderers across from Syria, they were unable to move them very far. So instead, they tried to make lemonade by bombing a tiny sect that lives right at the border: the Yazidi.

I'm absolutely certain that al-Qaeda in Iraq would much rather have killed 250 people in Baghdad (capital of Baghdad province), Ramadi (capital of al Anbar), or Baqouba (capital of Diyala), where our counterinsurgency is actually focused... rather than a pair of villages in Nineveh so tiny, they're not even represented on most maps of Iraq. For that matter, al-Qaeda would almost certainly have rather blown up Kirkuk or Mosul... which, while not being part of the "surge," are at least major cities in the north and eponymous provincial capitals.

The only thread AQI can hang their rampage on (other than "that's the best we could do") is the infamous Yazidi stoning on April 7th, 2007. On that day, between one and two thousand Yazidi men stoned to death a 17 year old Yazidi girl, Du’a Khalil Aswad, for the crime of loving a Moslem boy and planning to elope (and possibly convert to Islam; that part is unclear). After Aswad was murdered, her body was burned and buried with the remains of a dog.

In "retaliation," AQI launched a reprisal massacre of 23 Yazidi men on a bus 13 days later... but that was in Mosul, the capital of next-door Mosul province. Since then, the Yazidi have not been singled out by AQI.

Again, I find it very unlikely that this was planned all along for two obscure Yazidi villages. We know the plan is at least a week old, because AQI distributed leaflets warning about it; but that was likely after they had already smuggled in the bombers... and realized they couldn't move them anywhere where an attack would be more visible and intimidating.

The overwhelmingly likely explanation is that the target was picked primarily for propinquity: The bombers could get to those villages; they could not get even as far as Mosul, let alone Baghdad... the American Army and Marines were in the way.

Religious profiling

Another reason the Yazidi are a curious target is that they are not, in fact, considered Islamic. They are an offshoot of an offshoot of an amalgamation of the pre-Islamic Middle East, archaic Levantine (descended from Crusaders) and Islamic religions, Kurdish culture and language, and bits and pieces of Sufism. They seem to me to occupy a similar position in the Middle East to the Mormons here... I don't mean the mainstream, late 20th-century Mormonism of Mitt Romney; I'm referring to the violent, polygamous version of Mormonism in the 19th century -- the Mormons that initiated the Mountain Meadows massacre, for example.

Those Mormons were driven from pillar to post in the United States; typically, they tried to immigrate west, out of the country (which did not yet extend "from sea to shining sea;" there was a big gap of wilderness in between Missouri and California). But as America kept catching up to them, they found themselves more and more in conflict. Christians tended to consider them heretics back then; some remnant of that prejudice exists today, with many otherwise ecumenical Christians angrily asserting that even present-day Mormons are not Christians.

Similarly, as AP puts it:

Some Muslims and Christians consider an angel figure worshipped by Yazidis to be the devil, a charge the sect denies. The Islamic State in Iraq, an al-Qaida front group, distributed leaflets a week ago warning residents near the scene of Tuesday's bombings that an attack was imminent because Yazidis are "anti-Islamic."

Why is this significant? Because typically, AQI wants to target its ghastly and spectacular bombing attacks against mainstream Shiite targets... such as the al-Askari "Golden Dome" mosque in Samarra. In a pinch, they may punish "rebellious" Sunni tribesmen in Anbar or Diyala. But what impact would result from bombing an obscure, non-Islamic sect that most Iraqis only associate with the stoning of Ms. Aswad? Iraqis (even mainstream Kurds) will likely just shrug. And the distance from there to the nearest front in the war is so great that it will be hard even for Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI, 100%) to argue that this constitutes a failure of Gen. Petraeus's strategy.

Bottom line

Again, I think this shows that AQI is reduced to striking whatever target is nearest to hand, out by the Syrian border, where they're hiding; and they must take "pot luck" when selecting victims. More than anything else, this reminds me of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, where rampaging bands of black and Hispanic youths burned down a thousand buildings -- almost all locally-owned and run businesses in their own neighborhoods. Why? Because those were the only buildings they could get at. Buildings in Beverly Hills, the west side, Palos Verdes, and even many Korean-owned stores and restaurants were too heavily guarded by homeowners and shopkeepers.

This is not to say that AQI will never get lucky again with a terrible attack on an important target in the heartland of Iraq. But such attacks have become fewer and fewer as the counterinsurgency continues:

The number of truck bombs and other large al-Qaeda-style attacks in Iraq have declined nearly 50% since the United States started increasing troop levels in Iraq about six months ago, according to the U.S. military command in Iraq.

The high-profile attacks -- generally large bombs hitting markets, mosques or other "soft" targets that produce mass casualties -- have dropped to about 70 in July from a high during the past year of about 130 in March, according to the Multi-National Force - Iraq.

In 2006, AQI destroyed the al-Askari mosque; in April of this year, they bombed the Iraqi parliament; in June, they knocked down the two remaining minarets of the al-Askari mosque (which few realized were still standing anyway). And yesterday, they bombed an obscure pre-Islamic sect of Kurds living right on the Syrian border, in the extreme northwest corner of the country.

In the counterinsurgency war we're fighting, that's exactly what victory looks like.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, August 15, 2007, at the time of 6:23 PM

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The following hissed in response by: wtanksleyjr

Good post, although a bit over the top headline... Hope you made some leftys squirm. It's interesting to see how hard the leftys work to say we're losing.

My reading in the past indicated that the Yazidis were pretty well known in Iraq and pretty universally hated; as you indicated, they're called devil-worshippers. I don't think their selection was as random and accidental as you imply (although it certainly had to be forced!); I think AQ is rethinking their strategy. To test my theory, let's see if they continue attacking unpopular fringe groups. (I have to add: I don't think they've got any chance with that strategy either.)

Either way, I'm glad to agree with your main thesis -- the map makes it very clear that they're being forced into new and disadvantageous tactics.

On the other hand, you said: "some remnant of that prejudice exists today..." Please, please don't start religious flamewars. Mormons aren't Christians, Muslims aren't Christians, and Christians aren't Jews. Each of those groups claims to have the true version of the other's faith (which mysteriously "went bad" in the original), but that doesn't make them the same faith. It's not prejudice to claim doctrinal distinctions that actually exist.

It would be prejudice to claim that a given Mormon person was worse than a given Christian person without knowing anything aside from his or her profession of faith... But that's not what you were talking about.

The above hissed in response by: wtanksleyjr [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 16, 2007 8:17 AM

The following hissed in response by: Xanthippas

Juan Cole has a different take:

The operation resembled the horrific bombing of the Shiite Turkmen of Armili on July 2. Note that first Shiite Turkmen were targeted and now Kurdish Yazidis. They have in common not being Sunni Arabs. My suspicion is that these bombings are not just an attempt to spread fear and intimidation, but are actually part of a struggle for control of territory. The Sunni Arab guerrillas face powerful challenges from Kurds and Shiites with regard to the future of provinces such as Ninevah, Diyala and Kirkuk. A lot of Kurdish police and troops have been deployed in Mosul not far from Tuesday's bombings, and they are seen as among the deadliest enemies by the Sunni Arab guerrillas. Sooner or later, my guess is that the Sunni Arabs will wage a major war with the Kurds over the oil fields of Kirkuk.

For what it's worth, I've seen nothing that says Al Qaeda claims this attack, though perhaps that's prudence on their part.

The above hissed in response by: Xanthippas [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 16, 2007 12:00 PM

The following hissed in response by: Terrye

My guess is Juan Cole did a jig when the news of this came out.

The above hissed in response by: Terrye [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 16, 2007 3:32 PM

The following hissed in response by: Xanthippas

And that's not exactly a substantive response to his take on events, is it Terrye?

The above hissed in response by: Xanthippas [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 17, 2007 6:41 AM

The following hissed in response by: Ymarsakar

Attacking a border town is probably not an indication of fired up strength.

The above hissed in response by: Ymarsakar [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 25, 2007 10:10 AM

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