Ahmed S Hashim, Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq

A review of Ahmed S Hashim, Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq  by Brian M Downing

Analyzing an ongoing war is dicey.  Most historians gladly and often wisely leave it to pundits and think-tank analysts until the years have made it less dangerous to their careers.  Amid the grinding war in Iraq, however, we are fortunate that Ahmed Hashim, a professor at the US Naval War College, has chosen to provide us with a look at the guerrilla movement there and efforts to stem it.  Hashim, who has spent considerable time in Iraq, focuses on presenting sound analysis – refreshing for an issue dominated by partisans better equipped with bullhorns than with analytic skill.

Insurgent motives include opposition to what they see as an American bid for imperial mastery and a threat to Islam.  However the main motive, upon which others perhaps rest, is resentment among Sunni Arabs.  The invasion of Iraq ended a tyrannical dictatorship, but many Sunni Arabs saw it as the unwarranted destruction of a stable and just social order that opened the nation to foreign dangers and plunder.  That order began in the 1920s, when the British sought to maintain their influence in the former Ottoman provinces by working with the Sunni Arabs of central Iraq.  Over the years – and a number of coups and other tumults – this group maintained its hegemony over the Shi’as, Kurds, and other peoples.  Sunni Arabs enjoyed their position, including the wealth drawn from oil fields in Kurdish and Shi’a lands, but the status and identity derived were more important.  Hegemony took on hues of justice and propriety, and a national identity was built on that.  They had protected the nation from foreign enemies and held in check the feral tribes and religious extremists with whom they had to share the country and whose loyalty to Iraq was suspect.

Saddam’s overthrow delivered a serious blow to this prestige and identity.  The Coalition’s dissolution of the Iraqi army (it did not fall away on its own, as sometimes alleged), the leadership and elite units of which were Sunni Arab, constitutes a significant case in point.  The men who to their way of thinking had defended Iraq in war and bettered it in peace were suddenly tossed aside by foreign powers and internal collaborators.  Dismissed and dishonored, sent packing without the monies and respect owed them, they brooded, planned, and struck back.

Hashim identifies five main insurgent groups: Ba’athist Party members, the army, tribal figures, religious leaders, and foreign jihadists.  The Ba’athist Party, through which Saddam had ruled, provides important organizational skills in the war.  It had existed secretly for many years since its creation in the forties and, out of paranoia or sound assessment of international dangers, retained underground structures and outlooks.  Ever fearful of an overthrow or foreign invasion, the Ba’athists maintained a network of cells that could serve as a basis for clandestine operations, especially in urban areas.  The army plays an even more formidable role.  Many officers long knew they were unable to defend Iraq conventionally against the US-led forces, but fortune offered the opportunity to repel them through guerrilla warfare and regain lost honor.  They bring organizational skill, command structure, and expertise in weaponry, especially in mortars and bombs.

The prevalence of tribalism ensures a ready supply of hostility toward outside authority.  Tribalism even caused considerable trouble for Saddam.  In 1995, several high-ranking army officers from the Dulaim tribe expressed criticism of Uday Hussein for which they were tortured and executed, offending tribal sensibilities and triggering an uprising in Ramadi.  Today, tribal sensibilities are outraged by American searches and detainments that take place without the consent of elders, who then channel anger, men, and the sanctity of honored tradition into the insurgency.  It is worth noting that, in addition to Ramadi, the Dulaim tribe is also prevalent in another prominent center of the insurgency – Fallujah.

Some of the religious sentiment upon which the insurgency rests was, strangely enough, encouraged by Saddam who, though a secularist, tried to win back support after Gulf War One by fostering the “Re-Islamization” of Iraqi life.  Religious sentiments were further strengthened after his ouster when many Sunni Arabs returned to Islam as a source of solace and guidance following the overthrow of the social order and the ensuing chaos.  Presently, the Sunni faith is an important source of bolstering and sanctifying resentments to a foreign and increasingly despised occupation.

Hashim finds no evidence of an appreciable foreign presence in the insurgency – a matter of some importance given the administration’s justification for the war as a distant battleground in the fight against al Qaeda.  Better to fight them there than here, the administration counsels us.  The evidence from dead and captured insurgents suggests they amount to no more than five percent of combatants – not inconsiderable, but far from the claims of many in Washington.  In an irony of enormous proportions, the author quotes a jihadist from Cairo who, convinced of American ambitions to take over the Middle East, proclaims it better to fight the Americans in Iraq than in Egypt.  The appalling implication merits reflection.

The author expresses suspicion that Ba’athist and army officials, seeing the Coalition invasion and certain defeat looming, prepared for guerrilla war by establishing weapons caches and money hoards throughout Sunni Triangle.  On other aspects of the insurgency, he speaks more authoritatively.  There is no single organizational structure: Ba’athist and army forces tend to have vertical, hierarchical structures, while tribal and religious forces rely more on de-centralized, horizontal ones.  Each operates successfully. The insurgency draws money from Ba’athist Party funds, Saddam’s extended family, wealthy Iraqis (especially in Anbar province) who had benefited from government contracts, and criminal activities such as kidnappings and extortion.  He sees no evidence of significant Syrian or Iranian financial backing.

The army by far has the most expertise in weaponry and tactics and is present in other insurgent groups – Ba’athist, tribal, and religious.  In the early months, however, there was little cooperation.  Over time, mainly at the behest of Ba’athist and army leaders, cooperation increased markedly.  Disparate insurgents now share intelligence, tactics, bomb-making skills, and even money, which makes for a highly adaptive, diffuse, and effective movement.  There is also evidence of joint operations against US troops.  Cooperation has not brought political coalescence.  There is no single political group that can become part of a coalition government or negotiated settlement.  Beyond the legitimizing ideology of Islam and nationalism and the goal of ousting Coalition forces, there is little common ground.

The latter and smaller part of Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency looks at postwar policies and counter-insurgency programs.  Major mistakes were made from the start, the first of which, already mentioned here, was the dissolution of the Iraqi army – an institution that might have ably served the Coalition and Iraqi authorities and provided an important symbol of legitimacy and continuity to all Iraqis.  Second, Coalition authorities entered Iraq with strong prejudices against Sunni Arabs and naive expectations regarding the Shi’as.  Unsurprisingly, the former were generally treated with disdain and excluded from postwar government, the latter overvalued and rewarded with too much influence.  These two errors naturally exacerbated Sunni Arab fears of disestablishment and fueled the insurgency.

Counter-insurgency programs were not immediately put into operation because of misconceptions, in Washington and Baghdad, of the nature of attacks on American and Coalition forces shortly after Saddam’s ouster.  The fighters were deemed dead-enders and jihadists (in the famous though inaccurate words of the administration), so there was no need for counter-insurgency programs.  The unpleasantness would surely go away in short order – and without dusting off old doctrines that had no bearing on Iraq and that the army disliked anyway.  Inept American bureaucracies spent more time with infighting than with establishing reconstruction programs.  Critical time was lost and the insurgency grew.

Other problems asserted themselves once the insurgency was finally recognized.  The US military is organizationally and doctrinally geared to conventional warfare using massive firepower – the American Way of War as it has been called.  The results in an urban environment are not productive; piles of rubble strengthen insurgencies.  There simply were not enough troops to drive out insurgents then hold the area while government services are built up.  Instead, our troops play out deadly reenactments of the Sisyphus story, pushing insurgents out then leaving, allowing them to roll back in.  Furthermore, counter-insurgency requires knowledge of neighborhoods and rapport with locals – a virtual impossibility given troop rotations even more rapid than those in Vietnam.

Critical problems plague the postwar Iraqi army and security forces.  Personnel motivated mainly by steady paychecks during hard times are not the stuff of effective units.  Tribal and religious fissures worsen matters.  Most army and security troops are Shi’as and Kurds, in part because many Sunni Arab men are in or sympathetic to the insurgency.  Sunni Arabs who wish to serve in government forces are treated with suspicion, with good reason – infiltration is a serious problem.  Operations by Shi’a and Kurdish troops in Sunni Arab areas are seen as, and in fact often are, acts of vengeance that harass and insult locals.  In friendlier areas, troops warn family and tribe members of impending sweeps or refuse to fight local militias.  In some regions, the army and security forces are on opposite sides of the sectarian fence and cooperation is negligible.

Tensions and even animosities exist between US and Iraqi forces.  Americans feel that they assume the bulk of combat operations – and casualties – while Iraqi troops idle in barracks or other safe places.  Iraqi troops, for their part, see themselves as highly vulnerable, devoid of much of the equipment that American counterparts have.  Many Iraqi soldiers are angered by the destruction US forces wreak in cities such as Fallujah.  Furthermore, Iraqi troops must live and operate amid people many of whom see them as traitors.  Gnawing at them is the fear that Americans will go away before stability is established, leaving them to the mercies of vengeful groups, in and out of the insurgency, whose work is already filling the streets and morgues.


Hashim also provides excellent sketches of the various Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and perhaps most masterfully Shi’a political groups vying to form a governing coalition.  His looks at Dawa, SCIRI, the Sadrists, and other political groups – their leaders, histories, and structures (including their militias) – are invaluable to understanding political events and possibilities there.  The author notes important centrifugal and centripetal forces but provides no conclusion about the likelihood of success in forming a meaningful government or in suppressing the insurgency.  However, few readers will find in his thoughtful analyses much to warrant hope for a political or military solution.

It is, as noted, a daunting task to write a book about a war before a pact is signed or the last helicopter takes off.  One need only look at the errors and passions that mar Vietnam-era books, daringly though heatedly penned before the dismal final act played out.  Hashim obviously does not have access to the material that future historians will in a decade or so, but Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency is free of the zeitgeist and moralizing that mark most books written in mid-war.  I suspect that the years will be kind to Hashim’s book and that it will long be considered a powerful analysis of an insurgency and a significant contribution to Middle Eastern studies, one that upon publication greatly aided the understanding of ongoing events.


Ahmed S Hashim, Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).  xxviii+482; $29.95 (cloth).

Copyright 2006 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs.

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