The Elephant

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“ ‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!


So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

I originally set out to comment on Dan Darling’s post on the Iraqi insurgency on Winds of Change but I quickly realized that I had enough to say that I needed to say it in a post of my own. Is the Iraqi insurgency winning? In its death throes? Digging in? What? Dan writes:

There seems to be something of a debate raging amongst the blogosphere as to whether the insurgency is in its “death throes” or whether the sky is falling and it’s only a matter of time until the US is thrown out of Iraq by the kind of mass revolution that a lot of the more short-sighted opponents of the administration were having wet dreams about during the height of the Sadr Uprising.

I myself tend to be in something of a middle ground on this, in large part because I think that a lot of the Iraqi insurgency should be seen within the context of a broader regional campaign that includes events in Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and even Pakistan.

In my view a possibility that needs to be considered is that the insurgency in Iraq is sufficiently complex that everybody might be right in their judgments of its status but that everybody means something different.

This has been the prevailing wisdom among the Iraqi bloggers for some time:

The Mesopotamian

As I said right at the beginning (of my blogging), the battle with the stubborn peasants opposing change in our country was going to depend on the balance of intimidation as I called it then. The basic error was in allowing this balance to tip in favor of the enemy through inadequate security measures coupled with underestimation of his ability to subvert and cripple civil life. The enemy should be well known by now as being an alliance of former regime elements with the Bin-Ladenists, if we may coin this new term; not to mention the motley assortment of petty criminals and mercenaries. The basic ideas and strategies of this enemy are broadly laid out in that famous Zarqawi document. Unfortunately, his plan has been implemented more or less successfully so far. I have always insisted on the paramount importance of that document, which I believe to be authentic. Careful reading of it could shed much light on what has been going up to the present time. He clearly states that one of the most important elements of his plan is to gain control of the Sunni areas and incite the people therein against the rest and majority of the population namely the Shiaa, the Kurds, Christians etc., thereby creating the conditions that would lead to civil war of the worst kind: religious and sectarian conflict. Thus and in pursuit of this vile scheme, the most heinous barbaric crimes have been committed, especially against the Iraqi people, and I do not think we need to enumerate these.

Iraq the Model

Talla’far’s name has been repeated more often recently and the news I heard confirm that the town has become an exclusive haven for the Baáth party where the party’s members gained full control of the streets to the degree that no one would dare to say a word against Saddam in public.

The Baáth formation there reminded me of Saddam’s days; the same old pyramid structure of units and ranks has been reformed but the most important is that the command center for this structure lies in the Syrian city of Al-Hasaka and the chief commander is, “Ahmed Younis Al-Ahmed”, a member in the former “Revolution Command Council”, and who’s believed now to be the secretary of the reformed organization in Iraq and this man is well supported by the Syrian government who provided shelter for a whole lot of mid-ranking party officials who escaped Iraq and still ranting with slogans of making a come back and re-controlling the country.
In Fallujah the situation is totally different where control is in the hands of the radical Islamic groups together with Arab fighters from across the borders. The latest information I received indicate that seven major “armies” have united their efforts; the “armies” are: Mohammed’s army, Al-Farouq’s battalions, the Salafies, Ansar Al-Sunna and three other groups I couldn’t get their names.

Given the time and the inclination I could probably produce two dozen such posts from a dozen different Iraqi bloggers over the past year and a half all analyzing the composition of the insurgency and coming to slightly different but related conclusions.

Without doubt the insurgency is composed of Ba’ath remnants, former Iraqi military, foreign jihadists, real Al Qaeda members, street thugs, and who knows what else possibly with some coordination among the varying groups but probably with no coordination at all. I’ve even read reports every so often of Syrian and Iranian regulars involved in the fighting.

Unfortunately, the reality is that each of these different groups probably will need to be dealt with separately and differently. In all probability the Ba’athist remnants and former Iraqi military (which I think can reasonably be called “the real insurgency”) can be eliminated by bringing them into the political process. There are even signs that that’s exactly what’s happening.

Actual Al Qaeda probably will have to be killed or captured to the man.

The movement of foreign jihadis (and Syrian and Iranian regulars if any) across the Iraqi border will require the cooperation of Syria and Iran. I suspect that it will be necessary to make non-cooperation sufficiently painful before this can be achieved. Perhaps it will be possible to negotiate a more positive outcome but experience in this area to date has not been particularly encouraging.

Street criminals have always been present (in every country) and probably always will be. Vigorous police action can reduce this somewhat but probably won’t eliminate the problem. Increasing opportunity in legitimate activities will also reduce the attractiveness of kidnapping and general thuggishness.

What I think should concern us is the possibility that we’ll grab onto one part of the elephant, control it, and declare victory. It won’t be nearly that easy.

Other posts of interest:

Belgravia Dispatch
Belmont Club
UPDATE: Kevin Drum

ANOTHER UPDATE: the structure and status of the plan for dealing with the insurgency is discussed in my more recent post, Seeing the elephant.

6 comments… add one
  • And of course, maybe there can’t be any victory in Iraq for us. You owe it to the kids your policy are sending into the meatgrinder to consider that one.

    How long will it take for the liberal hawks to admit they were wrong on this war and continue to be wrong about it?

    Someone should start a pool.

  • Alaa’s (the Mesopotamian) most recent post contains the following assessment that may be of interest:

    Nevertheless, the “Lightening Operation” is already beginning to show results, and the terrorists are under real pressure in Baghdad. It remains to be seen if this operation can expand to include the other trouble spots.

    I am personally convinced that the “insurgency” is not strong at all and that its continuation is mainly due to vacuum, ineptitude, errors and lack of serious effort. Any determined and sustained campaign based on correct strategies can produce astonishing results quite quickly.

    An earlier post expressed the opinion (which I have seen repeated on several Iraqi blogs) that if we simply hold the course, the eventual outcome of this “meatgrinder” never in doubt.

    Of course, he’s over there on the ground. What does he know?


    Conservative Hawk 🙂

  • Robert Meffert Link

    I am writing a book on the Civil war–in particular space–and have always been fascinate dby the way the mental map, perception alter and modify the cognitive map of the battlefield. The topic specifically is battlespace.

    So a question: why did you select the poem? Where are you going with it?


  • Specifically, my point (this post was written almost a year ago) was that every commentator seems to mean something different by “the Iraqi insurgency” and, strangely, the definition of the insurgency, what’s actually going on, and whether the insurgency is winning or losing always seems to support the political position of the commentator.

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