The logic of violence in irregular warfare

Much have been said about the character of particular conflicts as « civil war » or « sectarian bloodshed ». Iraq wars since 2003 have been presented as a mix between insurgency and civil war, the two forms of violence feeding each other until 2007/2008. Indeed, sectarian violence is commonly understood as a move by salafists insurgents to cause a civil war against the Shias, provoking retaliation to produce three strategic effects: the elimination of the Shias as a political force threatening the sunni dominance, the withdrawal of Americans unable to manage the loop in violence, and the tightening of communal links among Sunnis around AQI. In this case, violence is the result both of strategic choices made by political entrepreneurs and of the deepening of ethnic cleavages. To be sure, it is a significant departure from the common wisdom of « eternal ethnic cleavages » in Iraq. But it obscures the role played by American actions in reactivating several identity clashes. Following this framework of analysis, military success since then has been presented as the result of a new strategy of co-opting the Sunnis in order to stop insurgency and sectarian hatred alike. Success is commonly attributed both to the Petraeus’ strategy of « Anaconda » (alternatives narrations underline the role played by the campaign plan designed by gen. Odierno) and to the Field Manual FM 3-24.

Actually, it seems that one could add two points in order to balance this assessment. First, there were no such strategy as co-opting the Sunnis. Commanders on the ground were confronted to a « tribal revolt » caused by three factors. Tribes or community leaders (following the informal authority structure represented by sheiks, imams and government representatives) were alienated by AQI’s disregard of « traditional laws », many sheiks felt that the departure of the American would leave them in minority vis-a-vis Al Qaeda, and there was an internal shift of power between old leaders empowered by Saddam at the very end of the century and juniors ones that exerted real power on the tribes since 2003.  Consequently; commanders on the ground had to choose to support this move or to deny the sheiks any possibility to turn against their former allies. At the conceptual level, it is thus possible to underline what has resulted from this « bottom-up » agreements: the mobilization of several hundreds of fighters in « neighborhood watch » or militias that allowed to free US troops for subsequent operations, the marginalization of extremists inside the Sunnis.

Second, that must not obscure the fact that the deepening of ethnosectarian cleavages is mainly the result of US military and political actions and discourses since 2003. Indeed, the American invasion and the subsequent occupation have produced three significant effects with regards to the Iraqi society.

-the reactivation of ethnosectarian categories in dealing with the Iraqis

-the vacuum of the political power at every levels

-the alienation of the population through the indiscriminate use of force.

In other words, one has to nuance the « accidental guerrilla » model by a correct assessment of the role played by the US military’s actions in Iraq since 2003 until now.


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