Thursday, September 15, 2005

Command and Control Redux

This post was originally slated to be a Liberals Against Terrorism exclusive, but I'm going to bring it over here (with some touch-ups) because I think the story, as unfolding, is one worth taking notice of. The trajectory of these events, and the posturing of the players involved, could have a lot to do with the extent to which Iraq descends into bloody, brutal and destructive civil war (more widespread than the current levels).

A couple of weeks ago, in a post discussing the tragic stampede that killed many hundreds of Iraqis during a Shiite religious procession, I noted:

I have heard the argument made that Bin Laden has instructed Zarqawi to avoid targeting the Shiites and that Zarqawi has been complying. It's possible, but clearly someone hasn't gotten the memo.
This sparked an interesting and informative discussion between myself and Dan Darling. Dan offered the following reasonable explanation:

Downside of decentralization is that it makes it impossible to micro-manage the way you conduct the guerrilla war. So bin Laden may not want Shi'ites targeted and may be conveying that to Zarqawi, but given that he runs a coalition of at least half a dozen terrorist groups it makes it very difficult in practice to keep things under control. This is further compounded by the fact that the US has killed or captured a lot of Zarqawi's henchmen, this making command and control less than ideal and shifting the impetus to regional and local cells that may not share Zarqawi's ecumenism.
To which I largely agreed, but wondered if Zarqawi's own tenuous loyalty to Bin Laden, personal powerlust and well documented animosity toward Shiites might not be causing him to be somewhat more lax in implementing this aspect of Bin Laden's dictates. Dan responded:

Zarqawi is certainly a bigot as far as Shi'ites go, but at this point he's still financially as well as logistically dependent on the global al-Qaeda (particularly the European and Saudi networks) to support him in Iraq. Openly defying bin Laden as far as the Shi'ites are concerned, whatever his personal views, would provoke an inter al-Qaeda schism similar to what happened when GIA leader Antar Zouabri broke with bin Laden over declaring the whole of Algerian society takfir....The end-result was that bin Laden got the GIA's European leader Hassan Hattab to form the GSPC and, when combined with the government amnesty offer to FIS, the Algerian jihad was substantially weakened - though not before the GIA was basically annihilated by a combination of attrition and defections to the GSPC. Bin Laden is certainly aware of this and Zarqawi probably heard about it back in Afghanistan, which is why I think it's probably unlikely to occur.
[Yesterday], there was more evidence of sectarian violence targeting Shiites at the hands of either Zarqawi, or those aligned with him. According to CNN:

Insurgents launched more than a dozen suicide bombings, assassinations and execution-style killings in Iraq on Wednesday, killing at least 153 people and wounding more than 300.

Al Qaeda in Iraq, a group led by militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, apparently has said it is responsible, saying the attacks are in retaliation for the U.S.-Iraqi offensive in the northern city of Tal Afar. U.S. and Iraqi forces launched the operation last month to root out insurgents in the border city near Syria.

The claim was made on a Web site the group frequently uses, but CNN could not verify the authenticity of the posting.
Although the Web site claims could not be verified, the level of coordination in these attacks, and the use of Zarqawi's Internet real estate, leads me to believe that Zarqawi had at least some knowledge of their planning and execution - and perhaps some level of tacit support. If not, he has ceded control in a major way (big time decentralization), and this strain of the insurgency is beginning to resemble a rogue element. I'm reminded of this passage from Mark Danner's essay flagged by Praktike:

As Zarqawi described in his [January 2004] letter [to Bin Laden] and in subsequent broadcasts, his strategy in Iraq is to strike at the Shia - and thereby provoke a civil war. "A nation of heretics," the Shia "are the key element of change," he wrote. "If we manage to draw them onto the terrain of partisan war, it will be possible to tear the Sunnis away from their heedlessness, for they will feel the weight of the imminence of danger."
Despite this, Bin Laden allegedly overruled Zarqawi on targeting Shiites. But could it be that Bin Laden himself has changed courses to match Zarqawi's intentions? Or that Zarqawi is acting on his own initiative? No clear answers to these questions, but I would say all bets are off. The results are beginning to look the same regardless of whether or not Zarqawi is opposed to targeting Shiites.

I requested Dan's input, and once again he was on the spot to offer an insightful take:

This is why seeing the full transcripts of these things are important, dammit ;) What the press regards as newsworthy as far as quotes go often only gives you a brief window into what they're saying. I don't suppose anybody here has the 10K or so it costs to subscribe to the SITE Institute?

What it looks like to me is that Zark is splitting hairs here - the attack was because of what happened in Tal Afar, not because the good people of Baghdad are Shi'ites. That gives him cover, for lack of a better term, where he can reason with bin Laden that he had to hit back hard after Tal Afar and that if you blow stuff up in Iraq you're more likely than not to kill Shi'ites for demographic reasons.

Another point not to be missed is that Zark has the green light from bin Laden to target Shi'ites within the context of killing collaborators - in other words, he's allowed to kill them because they're working with the government rather than just because they're Shi'ites. Bin Laden's reasons as for why he doesn't want the Shi'ites targeted is because he views that as not being terribly productive towards his main goal of driving the US out of Iraq, since he probably figures that moving against the Shi'ites in a big way will push them into the arms of the Americans. Similarly...he didn't care that Antar Zouabri was a bloodthirsty lunatic who killed Algerian civilians by the hundreds but yanked his support of the GIA when he decided that his open declaration of intent to do so wasn't in the best interests of the jihad in Algeria.

One of the things that it is difficult to keep in mind is that for all their craziness is that al-Qaeda still operates on what we might call at least a pseudo-rational basis. For instance, Zarqawi has even employed Shi'ites to serve as mercenaries for him on occasion.
My reply (cleaned up for spelling and syntax):

Good points all, but I wonder if this:

Another point not to be missed is that Zark has the green light from bin Laden to target Shi'ites within the context of killing collaborators - in other words, he's allowed to kill them because they're working with the government rather than just because they're Shi'ites.
Won't end up providing Zark with the rationalization needed to continue a campaign of violence against mainly Shiite targets anyway. In the end, it might result in the same thing even if there is some PR gloss on it ala Bin Laden's truce with the Shiites write large.
To which Dan replied (slightly scrubbed for syntax):

Quite possibly, and I suspect that's at least how Zarqawi sees it, which may have been one of the reasons why it wasn't that big a deal for him to openly declare his allegiance to bin Laden to begin. But then bin Laden's never been too terribly concerned about how many people get killed by his minions to begin with because of his "ends justify the means" mentality. What he needs, rather, is plausible deniability so that he can claim to the Muslim world at large that he's above petty sectarian disputes and justify the deaths of any large numbers of Shi'ites who are killed by saying that they're collaborators with the new government.
All in all, not very encouraging. I think both Dan and myself think that Bin Laden wants to maintain what Dan terms "plausible deniability" so that he can avoid being tainted by the blood of the Muslim on Muslim violence that has been occurring in Iraq. Nevertheless, and despite the desire to preserve the appearance of aloofness, it seems that Zarqawi's tactics (and those of his underlings) are beginning to move more and more in the direction of an overt provocation of all out civil war premised on anti-Shiite animosity.

From Anthony Loyd in the Times (via Laura Rozen):

A TERRORIST mastermind has united insurgent groups in Baghdad to target the Iraqi Shia Muslim community with the aim of bringing civil war to Iraq, The Times has learnt.

According to US military intelligence sources, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the man responsible for the bloodiest acts of terror in Iraq over the past two years, now commands thousands of fighters from various rival groups and is set to order further waves of bombings.

Yesterday the self-styled 'emir' of Iraq was blamed for a dozen co-ordinated bombings in Baghdad that killed 152 people, the single worst death toll in the city since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Most of the dead were poor Shia labourers killed by a huge car bomb in a busy square.

"The al-Qaeda organisation in Mesopotamia is declaring all-out war on the Rafidha [a pejorative term for Shias], wherever they are in Iraq," said the 38-year-old in an audio message released on an Islamic website. He urged Sunni Muslims to "wake up from your slumber" and joint the fight.[...]

His organisation is believed already to have gained domination of smaller resistance groups in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province in western Iraq and a centre of gravity for the Sunni insurgency. An Iraqi resistance insider there last week told The Times that al-Zarqawi's men had already caused thousands of Shia to flee the city over the past six weeks.

"His men announced through leaflets that all Shia should leave Ramadi or face 'the iron fist'," the Ramadi resident said. "At first local Sunnis didn't want anything to do with it. But they know how powerful Zarqawi's group is, that it doesn't hesitate to kill and is not afraid to die."

"They control Ramadi now. They have the best weapons and the most money, and more and more men. They walk openly on the streets when the Americans aren't around. So the Shias left, by their thousands." [emphasis added]
Not. Good. Things are moving in a very disturbing direction. If Zarqawi continues along this path, it will truly test the heretofore remarkable restraint shown by the Shiites. Full scale reprisals could be in the cards - more than the low level militia activity. At that point, chaos.

(Please Note: there are more comments on the LAT site to this post if you are interested in following the discussion there)

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