October 13, 2004 | Op-ed

The Sunni Strategic Surprise

By: Andrew Apostolou.

The debate over the continuing violence in Iraq is missing an important element: an appreciation of enemy strategy and tactics. The presidential campaigns, and the media, are focused on what the US has, or has not done. The strange assumption underlying this commentary is that the war will be decided by the US alone—make the right decision inside the Beltway and there will be victory in Baghdad. Sadly, pundits and politicians alike seem to have forgotten the old US Army saying that in war, the enemy gets a vote.

In the low intensity conflict in the Sunni triangle, the largely Sunni Arab northwest of Iraq, the enemy has used his vote well, especially given the generally poor past performance of Sunni-led Iraqi forces in regular combat.

The Sunni Arab insurgency has three key strengths: strategic surprise, tactical adaptation and the assistance of foreign terrorists.

First, strategic surprise gave the insurgency an early advantage. US commanders knew that they had, as President Bush declared on May 1, 2003 “difficult work” ahead, such as “bringing order to parts of that country that remain dangerous.” What they did not anticipate was a Sunni Arab uprising. The Schlesinger report into prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan published in August has confirmed that the US war plan of October 2002 had failed to foresee a substantial guerilla-style response after the US invasion of Iraq.

To an extent, US planners had good reason to believe that Sunni Arabs would be unable to rise against US troops after the Iraqi army had been defeated in the field. After all, the original war plan foresaw 40,000 US and British troops entering northern Iraq through Turkey. Had Turkey granted US and Britain access, the Sunni triangle would have become a battlefield, not a refuge for elements of the Saddam regime. The Iraqi army and intelligence officers organizing the insurgency today would in April 2003 have been caught between the southern advance of the US 4th Infantry Division and the northward march of the US 3rd Infantry Division.

Still, the assumption that there would be no anti-US insurgency was odd. After all, the US had banked on some form of Iraqi insurgency in the event of US forces taking Baghdad in 1991. Justifying their decision not to oust Saddam in 1991, retired president George HW Bush and his former national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, argued in their joint 1998 memoir that: “Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land.”

Second, the Sunni Arab insurgents are learning from their mistakes and demonstrating tactical adaptability. At first the insurgents operated in large groups, seeking to engage US forces head on, a costly error. The US Army has inflicted heavy insurgent casualties in all large scale engagements, killing 27 in a battle near Balad in June 2003 and another 54 after simultaneous ambushes on US forces in the Sunni town of Samarra in November 2003. US Marines then killed hundreds of Sunni fighters in Fallujah in April 2004. Today the insurgents generally operate in small and more mobile units.

Third, foreign terrorists have run a parallel campaign against the US. Terrorism and insurgency are different. Attacks on US forces, while certainly illegitimate given the UN mandate behind the US presence in Iraq, are low-level warfare, not terrorism. Kidnappings and beheadings, whether the captives are military or civilian, are by no stretch of the imagination insurgency or “resistance”, just terrorism.

The terrorists, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, use their meager resources well and display their brutality at every opportunity. They do not confront US forces head on. Instead, they take an indirect approach of increasing the burden on American shoulders by gradually depriving the US of international and Iraqi support.

The terrorists are systematically knocking away the props. They have bombed and driven out the UN and the Red Cross. Dozens of foreign companies, and hundreds of foreign troops, have also left Iraq. Reconstruction projects have stalled because foreign technicians have either left the country or fear to travel to Iraq. The terrorists also butchered an entire stratum of experienced, and pro-US, Iraqi Kurdish leaders in suicide bombings in February 2004. The Sunni triangle insurgents have used similar terrorist methods, murdering Iraqi women who clean US bases.

Having defied the US military so far, the next step for the enemy is to disrupt the January 2005 Iraqi elections. Iraq has never conducted free and fair elections and Iraqis have high expectations about the polls. The enemy cannot stop the balloting, but can make conditions so chaotic, and the turnout so low, that the results could be discredited and challenged. If, however, the Iraqi elections succeed, then the US will have used its vote and nullified the Sunni strategic surprise.

– Andrew Apostolou has been a historian at St. Antony's College, Oxford, and was Director of Customized Research at The Economist Group's Economist Intelligence Unit.  He is director of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. He has interviewed prisoners from an al-Qaeda affiliate group in Iraq.