What We Should Have Learned in Iraq

By David Malet - 19 March 2013
What We Should Have Learned in Iraq

David Malet suggests that interventions in North Africa will provide fertile ground for foreign fighters unless the international community learns valuable lessons from past experiences in Iraq.

The tenth anniversary of the Iraq War is a time to identify the lessons that are badly needed for the new interventions in West Africa being undertaken by the United States, France, and the African Union. The war, originally falsely cast as a new front in the battle against Al Qaeda, demonstrated the dangers of not paying attention to what really motivates insurgents once actual jihadis began to arrive from elsewhere. As we open the second decade since the war with interventions in new countries – including the US trying to arm only ‘the right people’ in Syria and opening a new drone base in Niger – it is worth revisiting the real reason that the foreign fighters came to Iraq, and why they ultimately left.

The thousands of foreign fighters, hailing from both nearby Muslim countries and Western nations, constituted less than ten percent of the insurgents, but they carried out more than ninety percent of the deadliest attacks. As in Afghanistan, Coalition forces presumed that foreign fighters were more dangerous because they were uniquely well-trained and connected to the international leadership of Al Qaeda and its affiliates.

When the tide began to turn against the insurgency in 2007, credit went first to US General David Petraeus’s troop surge, and later to the realignment of Sunni tribes in Anbar province with the United States against the foreign jihadis who they now saw as oppressors. While hailed as a counterinsurgency (COIN) innovation, this development was merely good timing. The Anbar Awakening was just a little bit of history repeating.

Examine foreign fighters both before and since Iraq and you will find the same trajectories of involvement. Moreover, the pattern holds not only for violent Islamists and Al Qaeda affiliates, but also for a variety of other types of foreign fighters. These range from ideological recruits like the American Communists in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War to ethnic cohorts like the Diaspora Jews who volunteered in the Israeli War of Independence.

As in Iraq, outmatched insurgencies sought to tip the balance of forces by recruiting transnationally. They promoted the conflict to members of a shared identity group (fellow Muslims in Iraq) by arguing that the battle was no distant local concern, but one front in a larger war against their entire community. Presented with what insurgent recruiters paint as an existential threat, and without the restraint of concern for the safety of their own families in the war zone, foreign fighters have historically been disproportionately aggressive in their approach and successful on the battlefield. But these fervent ideologues invariably alienate the more pragmatic local populations they are supposedly there to defend, with results ranging from bar fights to fire fights. It happened with American volunteers for Texas in 1830s Mexico, and it is happening today with American volunteers with Al Shabaab in Somalia. The tribal Awakening Councils in the Sunni Triangle were later called the Sons of Iraq to distinguish them from the transnational jihadis.

From the Anbar Awakening to the Gizab Good Guys in Afghanistan, and the as-of-yet unalliterative split between Touareg tribesmen and Arab jihadis in Mali, the implosions among insurgents that are key to their defeats have had little to do with flipping COIN. Instead, the very strategy that enables insurgent groups to attract foreign fighters who battle more aggressively than locals do plants the seeds of their inevitable estrangement.

The African Union is preparing to join NATO countries in expanding the pursuit of jihadi militants, now across West Africa. The United States is enlarging its network of drone facilities in the region as well as in Eurasia. The drones have come under criticism because the freedom to use them without risking pilots or more expensive aircraft has led to their use for quick, rather than sure, strikes that have produced numerous civilian casualties and claims of unaccountable power. Regardless of the merits of these charges, however, American strategists and senior government leadership believe that the approach has proven effective in eliminating targeted Al Qaeda leaders.

But it is also one that demonstrates to potential recruits that there is a tangible threat, particularly when civilians are killed by imprecise explosives. Policymakers should consider the alternative strategy of offense by precision implosives – strategic communication efforts to highlight the divisions between the interests of foreign fighters and those of the local communities that sustain the insurgencies. They should also target foreign fighter countries of origin with efforts to dissuade populations of potential recruits from the notion that their people face an existential threat and that they bear the responsibility of waging a war of self-preservation.

By 2009, foreign fighters were leaving Iraq for the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre, and in media reports the jihadis indicated that they were simply following departing Coalition forces to continue the fight in a new arena. The conventional wisdom, however, became that the Awakening caused the foreign fighters to leave, stabilizing conditions enough to permit the Coalition to withdraw with a degree of success.

The fact that the foreign fighters pursued their enemies to yet another (for most) unfamiliar arena indicates that they viewed themselves as part of a global struggle, and one that required ultimate victory for security. When South Asia again became the locus of confrontation between the West and the Al Qaeda network and its supporters, as it had been before the Iraq War, the high profile of Coalition forces there took renewed precedence. In effect, it was the opposite of the stated ‘flypaper’ strategy of COIN that US General Ricardo Sanchez had articulated for Iraq. Instead of drawing insurgents into a controlled setting in which they can be eliminated, the presence of Western forces in any new zone of contention is used by jihadis as effective propaganda to demonstrate an expanding global war against their supporters and to invite swarming attacks.

To be sure, many jihadis remained in Iraq to consolidate power, and a number of them have since travelled to Syria to fight against the Assad regime. But the Syrian struggle is one in which a narrative of threat against the community can be made (the Alawite regime and its Shiite and Christian allies repressing a Sunni majority). In the other struggles of the Arab Spring, foreign fighters were conspicuously absent. This was particularly true of Libya, which was the country of origin for many foreign fighters in Iraq.

Some form of meaningful identity cleavage and a credible threat for propaganda purposes are necessary to recruit foreign fighters for what they believe to be a defensive cause. The international community should take care not to provide such pretexts when other methods for conflict mitigation might be tried.

The failure to understand why foreign fighters come to distant war zones, why they fight more ferociously than local insurgents and then fall out with them, and why – except for jihadis not permitted to do so – they nearly always fold their tents and return home, has repercussions reverberating from Algeria to Pakistan. Let us use this anniversary to look at the bigger picture and gain some benefit from the error of Iraq.

David Malet is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Melbourne, and author of Foreign Fighters: Transnational Identity in Civil Conflicts (Oxford University Press, 2013).

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