The Iraqi insurgency has no Central Command

Source of graphic: The New York Times from data provided by Evan Kohlmann (click to enlarge)

I would have thought that this was obvious enough that it would pass without further analysis but, judging by this unnecessarily rude comment in response to my own comment on a post by James Joyner at Outside the Beltway, apparently that’s not so. It may help to define our terms. By “Iraqi insurgency” I mean anyone who dischargers a firearm at a member of the Coalition forces, sets carbombs and other IEDs, engages in suicide attacks, and otherwise opposes Coalition forces or the new Iraqi government in Iraq with force. By “Central Command” I mean a unitary command structure that has strategic responsibilities, operational control, and is responsible for logistical support for the insurgency.

Wikipedia characterizes the Iraqi insurgency as being comprised of at least a dozen different guerrilla organizations and as many as 40 different distinct groups. These groups may be one or more of the following:

  • Ba’athists
  • nationalists
  • anti-Shi’a Sunni Arab restorationists
  • native Islamists
  • foreign jihadis
  • communists
  • militant followers of Moqtada al-Sadr
  • criminals characterizes the Iraqi insurgency as being composed of former regime loyalists on the one hand and Islamic revivalists on the other. In this article Gen. John Abizaid is quoted:

On 14 November 2003 General John Abizaid, the head of US Central Command, estimated the number of fighters operating against US and allied forces at no more than 5,000, and said the insurgency remained a loosely organized operation. Abizaid said there “is some level of cooperation that’s taking place at very high levels, although I’m not sure I’d say there’s a national-level resistance leadership.”

Calling “some level of cooperation” a central command structure would be excessive.

On last Sunday’s ABC This Week Paul L. Bremer, formerly head of the Coalition Provision Authority in Iraq, is quoted as follows:

Bremer did not reject outright talks with the insurgency, if they are possible. But he described “a small, hardcore” number of terrorists who will continue to fight the burgeoning government and U.S. forces in the country.

“They’re going to have to be dealt with,” Bremer said.

He recalled that discussions with members of the insurgency were often fruitless given the lack of a formal power structure.

or, in other words, the insurgency in Iraq has no central command.

Kalev I. Sepp, a former special forces officer and an authority on counterinsurgency wars, said this in an interview with PBS’s Frontline:

The makeup and nature of the insurgency has evolved from the invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein to the present. This is natural in wartime. The insurgency has always been primarily a Sunni-sponsored resistance effort, with renegade Shi’a militias, foreign terrorists, and organized criminals adding to the violence. In the past three years, the insurgency has grown larger, more sophisticated and experienced, better organized, and more competent. Dexter Filkins’s reporting in The New York Times and Ahmed Hashim’s new book Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq describe the enemies of the new Iraq with singular clarity and accuracy.

The insurgents are not wholly unified, which presents the coalition and the Iraqi government with both an advantage and a disadvantage. On the one hand, the insurgents don’t have a common strategy or doctrine, and can’t act in unison to concentrate their strikes. However, there is no high command or single leader for the government to attack and capture, or centralized strategy to defeat. So there is not one battle, but a hundred separate and disconnected battles to be fought — what Dr. Conrad Crane of the Army War College calls a “mosaic war.”

In “Iraq’s Evolving Insurgency” Anthony Cordesman wrote:

The US was dealing with a mixture of Iraqi nationalism, Sunni resentment and anger, and popular opposition to any form of Western occupation. Theproblem was broad support, not a small group of “bitter enders.” From the start, there were many part-time insurgents and criminals who worked with insurgents. In some
areas, volunteers could be quickly recruited and trained, both for street fighting and
terrorist and sabotage missions.

As in most insurgencies, “sympathizers” within the Iraqi government and Iraqi forces, aswell as the Iraqis working for the Coalition, media, and NGOs, often provided excellent human intelligence without violently taking part in the insurgency. Saboteurs can readily operate within the government and every aspect of the Iraqi economy.

From the start, Iraqi and foreign journalists provided an inadvertent (and sometimes deliberate) propaganda arm, and media coverage of insurgent activity and attacks provides a de facto command and communications net to insurgents. This informal “net” provides warning, tells insurgents what attacks do and do not work, and allows them to coordinate their attacks to reinforce those of other insurgent cells and groups. As in all
insurgencies, a race developed between the insurgents and the Coalition and Iraqi Interim Government forces to see whose strength could grow faster and who best learns from their enemies.


The informal common fronts operate on the principal that the “enemy of my enemy” is my temporary friend. At the same time, movements “franchise” to create individual cells and independent units, creating diverse mixes of enemies that are difficult to attack.


The existence of parallel, non-competing groups of hostile non-state actors provides similar advantages and has the same impact. The fact that insurgent and Islamist extremist groups operate largely independently, and use different tactics and target sets, greatly complicates US operations and probably actually increases overall effectiveness.

and finally

The insurgency does not have a single face. Iraq faces a wide mix of active and potential threats, and the task that Iraqi military, security, and police forces face is anything but easy. It is still far from clear whether a combination of the Coalition and Iraqi government forces will be able to decisively defeat the various insurgent groups, and as the insurgency has developed, there have been growing Sunni Islamist effort to provoke something approaching civil war.

There’s an enormous amount more in this essential reference on the evolution, character, and methods of the Iraqi insurgency but the bottom line is that the insurgency does not have a central command structure.

It has been suggested that the use of suicide attacks in Iraq proves that there is a central command at work in the insurgency in Iraq. I’m not claiming that there is no organization whatever in the Iraqi insurgency. But Israeli intelligence has estimated that a conspiracy as small as a dozen individuals can carry off a successful suicide attack (I haven’t been able to locate the citation for this but I did read it somewhere—perhaps someone can direct it).

It has also been suggested that the discovery of bomb-making facilities suggests the existence of a central command structure for the insurgency in Iraq. I don’t believe that this is so any more than the existence of Lowe’s proves that all housing construction in the United States is centrally planned. Terrorists are as capable of entrepeneurialism as anybody else.

The foregoing does not absolutely prove there there is no central command for the Iraqi insurgency but I think it does provide a good prima facie case. Fortunately, the rules of argumentation don’t require that I prove a negative—the burden of proof is on those who claim that the insurgency does have a central command.

3 comments… add one
  • In fairness, it looks like you only got one rude comment from one of my recently acquired trolls…

    I don’t disagree that there are multiple groups operating with little coordination between them; I don’t think I said otherwise. I tend to distinguish the “terrorists” from the “insurgency,” although there is some tactical and strategic overlap.

    Success at hunting down terrorist leaders, though, is pretty substantial. Despite their relative small numbers, I believe al Qaeda is doing the most damage and scoring most of the propaganda points. If we get rid of them, we’re 90% of the way to beating back the “insurgency.”

  • I hope you didn’t take this post as a criticism of you, James. It certainly wasn’t intended that way. My point was that even if all the foreign jihadis are rooted out in Iraq there will still be a substantial insurgency going on there and our troops will remain. The commenter got my Irish up but I did my best to respond dispassionately and with evidence.

    I, too, rejoice in the hunting down of terrorist leaders. And distinguishing between “the insurgency” and “terrorists” has some uses. I do think that al-Qaeda in Iraq is probably responsible for organizing a lot of the suicide attacks there.  But it’s limited, too, specifically we’re not (as President Bush repeated yesterday and today) going to be leaving Iraq until the entire insurgency, homegrown and foreign jihadis, aren’t challenging the Iraqi government any more.

    I think we disagree about the role of al-Qaeda in Iraq. My own view is that probably the most significant source of the ongoing violence in Iraq are plain old criminals (an enormous number of which were released by Saddam from Iraq’s prisons during our invasion).

    These are guns for hire, robbing, kidnapping, and extorting the citizenry and collecting bounties on U. S. soldiers and setting bombs and other vileness.

    You might want to check out Cordesman’s report: he does some quantifying of who’s doing what.

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