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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Foreign fighters

In comments, someone pseudonymously criticized my advice to "pro-war" Democrats for the 2006 elections. I argued that Dems should remind everyone that George Bush himself "flip flopped" on the justification for the use of force in Somalia because the "mission changed." Now that Iraq isn't about WMD or Saddam Hussein's nonexistent operational ties to al Qaeda, Dems could reject the grand nation-building mission without fear of being labeled wimps.

My advice would fail, wrote the commenter, because Republicans would just point out that the US is in Iraq to fulfill the primary post-9/11 mission: "kick terrorist butt."

I offered a fairly detailed response, but wanted to add a bit of data about one key point.

Let's turn this into a question for the post-Saddam era: Who is America fighting in Iraq?

War supporters say that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror. Full stop. Terrorists are attacking American troops and innocent Iraqis, so the US needs to find them and kill or capture them.

War opponents emphasize the Iraqi nationalists who arguably constitute the lion's share of the insurgency. It is perfectly natural for people to resist foreign invasion and occupation. The President himself said as much. Pre-war, the Pentagon apparently screened "The Battle of Algiers" -- even if they didn't get the film's message.

Which view is more accurate?

The Pentagon says there likely aren't very many foreign fighters in Iraq. USA Today had a fairly good story about this last November 6:
Maj. Angela Hildebrant, a military spokeswoman, said the U.S. military estimates the number of foreign fighters by counting the number of foreigners killed in suicide attacks or captured by coalition forces in Iraq.

Only 3.5% of the 13,885 detainees held by U.S. forces in Iraq are foreigners...
Yet, the Pentagon asserts that these foreign fighters "are often behind the deadliest suicide bombings and provide financing and organization to Iraq's insurgency." I've seen no definitive data that support the claims, but there is anecdoctal support.

Obviously, if the US is fighting terrorists in Iraq, it helps legitimize the mission both at home (with voters) and inside Iraq. That fact should make everyone more skeptical about the Pentagon's claims. The Washington Post had a valuable story November 17:
"Both Iraqis and coalition people often exaggerate the role of foreign infiltrators and downplay the role of Iraqi resentment in the insurgency," said Anthony H. Cordesman, a former Pentagon official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who is writing a book about the Iraqi insurgency.

"It makes the government's counterinsurgency efforts seem more legitimate, and it links what's going on in Iraq to the war on terrorism," he continued. "When people go out into battle, they often characterize enemies in the most negative way possible. Obviously there are all kinds of interacting political prejudices they can bring out by blaming outsiders."
In December, Cordesman (with the Assistance of Sara Bjerg Moller) released a study (warning, pdf) estimating that between 4 and 10 percent of the roughly 30,000 insurgents are foreign.

A Post story from last May 15 revealed that US military analysts do not think the foreign fighters are major terrorists even if they are linked to al Qaeda:
Many of the suicide bombers appear to have been novices in warfare, attracted by the relative ease of access to Iraq and the lure of quick martyrdom. "This is not al Qaeda's first team," said [Col. Thomas X.] Hammes of the National Defense University. "These are the scrubs who could never get us in the States."
In short, the US government knows that the insurgency is overwhelmingly Iraqi, and some officials admit it (on or off the record). The November 17 Post story quotes a military commander in Iraq:
"The foreign fighters' attacks tend to be more spectacular, but local nationals, the Saddamists, the Iraqi rejectionists, are much more problematic," said Maj. Gen. Joseph J. Taluto, commander of the Army's 42nd Infantry Division. His unit, which lost 59 soldiers during its tour here, was based in the northern city of Tikrit, Hussein's home town, before transferring the region to the 101st Airborne Division this month.

Al Qaeda in Iraq maintains a presence in the region, he said, "but they're not having much of an impact. Their message is not resonating."
And from State, in the same story:
In Washington, a senior State Department official called foreign fighters "an important element to the insurgency," but added that "it would be a mistake to imagine that this isn't a largely Iraqi-based operation with critical support from foreign elements."

John Murtha's primary reasons for calling for withdrawal from Iraq are that the US troops are feeding the insurgency and the military is being destroyed by the prolonged engagement. Thus, even if the insurgency is boosted by key foreign elements, that does not mean that the best US foreign policy is built upon counterinsurgency and nation-building. It may be there are insufficient troops to win in Iraq. It may be that there are higher security priorities.

Moreover, even if the foreign fighters are providing critical support for the insurgency, there's bad news for the Republican administration buried in the data. Most foreign fighters apparently come from Saudi Arabia, an alleged US ally in the war on terror and a state very close to the Bush White House:
An NBC News analysis of hundreds of foreign fighters who died in Iraq over the last two years reveals that a majority came from the same country as most of the 9/11 hijackers — Saudi Arabia....The U.S. military also says Saudi Arabia and Syria are the leading sources of insurgents.
Reuven Paz, an Israeli expert on terrorism and Director of Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, published a report last March (warning, pdf) finding that 61% of the foreign insurgents killed in Iraq over the previous six months were from Saudi Arabia (thanks for the link to Evan Kohlmann of The Counterterrorism Blog).

The Cordesman/Moller study found a more varied array of foreign fighters.

Democrats who want to be anti-war in Iraq can nonetheless remain quite hawkish about other global terror and WMD threats -- by focusing more attention on Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. As loyal readers know, I've blogged repeatedly that the US is not doing much about the threats emanating from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Numerous national security experts agree.

I'll stand by my original point: Democrats should repeatedly point out that the "mission changed" in Iraq and that the Republicans really don't have an "exit strategy." As a result, America is bogged down in a quagmire that costs billions and doesn't markedly improve US security. The "real" war on terror should be fought on more important fronts.

That does not mean that Dems should allow the administration to change the subject to Iran.

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