Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Extinguishing an insurgency

Firefighters traditionally use a triangular diagram to illustrate how they attack a blaze. At the three corners are the three vital ingredients of a fire: heat, fuel and air. Remove any one of these three and the fire dies out. It struck me recently that the same diagram can be applied to counter-insurgency. An insurgency depends on three key ingredients: insurgents - to do the fighting; weapons - for them to fight with; and sympathy from the local population in which they operate. Take away any of them and the insurgency begins to dwindle.

We can see how this is happening in northern Iraq. The number of insurgents is apparently ebbing. The Times yesterday reported the contents of two letters that had been seized in recent raids, and have now been made public by the US military. If true, they point to a crisis within the insurgents' ranks caused by infighting, defections, and a lack of volunteers. This last factor, claims General Petraeus, is due to countries barring young men from flying to the Syrian cities of Damascus and Aleppo on one-way tickets.

Petraeus rather grudgingly acknowledged that the fifty per cent fall in foreign militants entering Iraq was partly due to Syrian intervention, presumably along the notoriously porous Syria/Iraq border, and this may have had an effect on the constant supply of weapons that the insurgents need to fight their guerrilla war, particularly if you count suicide bombers as a weapon, since half of these were estimated recently to come via Syria. The weapons used by the insurgents have come from two sources: the disbanded Iraqi army (the glut of AK47s was so large after the 2003 invasion that the price dropped to as little as $10 a rifle) and from Iraq's neighbours, Syria and Iran, both of whom have had a strong interest in seeing the United States bogged down since they were identified as likely future targets of American action. If Syria is now making some effort to stop the insurgency, that is likely to help deny the insurgents the weapons they need. It is interesting that there has been noticeably less criticism of Syria of late.

Finally there is some evidence that sympathy for the insurgents is diminishing. Sympathy, as TE Lawrence noted, is critical to the success of any insurgency. Across Anbar province, previously the most dangerous area outside Baghdad, "Awakening Councils" of local Sunni tribesmen have been springing up, fuelled by US money, and determined to root out the guerrillas whose indiscriminate tactics have caused widespread revulsion. As the despairing tone of the letters displayed by the US military suggest, this is perhaps the most important development. Note though, from the BBC's two polls in March and September last year, that Sunni opposition to the US presence simultaneously increased during this period.

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