Small Wars Journal

From the Advisors -- Bombs in Baghdad

It has been an interesting few weeks here in Baghdad. Myself and the other advisors felt that a comment on recent developments might be in order. It is still early days for Fardh al-Qanoon (a.k.a the "Baghdad Security Plan") and thus too soon to tell for sure how things will play out. But, though the challenges remain extremely severe, early trends are quite positive. Counter-intuitively, the latest series of car bombings includes some encouraging signs.

On March 17th Al Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI) set off a truck bomb, including chlorine gas canisters, in a Sunni marketplace. Though everyone affected by the gas walked away, there were about 250 injured, and the attack happened on the 19th anniversary, to the day, of Saddam's use of poison gas against the Kurds at Halabja. Local Sunnis were appalled and furious.

Think about that for a moment. If insurgents are the fish, and the community is the sea in which they swim, then AQI just showed an incredible level of desperation -- attacking its own potential constituents, applying a uniquely repellent form of attack, and emulating Saddam on the anniversary of one of his worst atrocities, into the bargain. What were they thinking?

Or consider another recent attack, where extremists bombed a Sunni moderate mosque because its Imam dared to suggest that maybe it's time to stop fighting, that there is an honorable path of resistance through political participation and the ballot box rather than pointless violence. Many Sunnis were killed -- again, extremists targeting moderates for fear that they are about to lose the influence conferred by intimidation.

Both of these attacks were political "own goals" for the terrorists - the mask is slipping, and people are seeing the real face beneath.

With this kind of inept political action by the insurgents, it's small wonder that in al Anbar, where only one out of 18 major tribes supported the Iraqi government a year ago, today 14 out of the 18 tribes are actively securing their people, providing recruits to the Iraqi police and hunting down al Qa'ida.

And then there are the car bombings in market places. Since the cooperative coalition-Iraqi effort to secure Baghdad's population, extremists have continued trying to target Shi'a communities, particularly markets. But efforts to harden market places and public areas have paid dividends -- almost all the recent bombs exploded at checkpoints well away from their intended targets, killing far fewer people than intended, and far fewer than in similar attacks last year. And several failed to explode at all, showing a loss of skill as key bomb-makers are taken off the streets.

To cap it off, this week coalition forces captured the leader of the Rusafa car bomb network, the AQI organization responsible for some of the most horrific recent bombings in East Baghdad. Along with captures of bomb-making gear, explosives, and a vehicle rigged as a bomb, this puts a severe dent in the network's capabilities.

What does this all mean? Well, as I have previously said, car bombs -- in terms of size and frequency -- are not a good indicator of progress since it will always remain possible to pull off an attack, even when all other aspects of security have developed fully. So as professionals we need to be wary of rushing to judgment, either positive or negative, here. But events of the past few weeks tend to suggest that the extremists have begun targeting their own potential supporters, indicating a degree of political desperation, and a likely drop in support. And the attacks -- though still atrocious -- have become less effective. Both of these are significant indicators, independent of the bombings themselves.

Though we still need to be extremely cautious and realistic about progress, these are positive signs. We are into the fifth year of the war, and only the fifth week of this operation - so it is still very early days. Tough times and setbacks undoubtedly lie ahead. But the general trajectory of the campaign seems to be changing, in subtle ways that may yet prove decisive.

David Kilcullen is Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor, Multi-National Force -- Iraq. These are his personal views.


Graycap (not verified)

Mon, 04/02/2007 - 9:10am

Dear Col. Kilcullen,

First of all thank you for your attention. Your reply is never late. We are following your work and I hope for you (and for us!) all the best.

My ideas about sectarian killings in past days had been based upon news agency communicates.
Like the following:

source ANSA ( one of the more important press agency in Italy.

15/03/2007 15 bodies found
17/03/2007 17 bodies found
21/03/2007 31 bodies found
24/03/2007 26 bodies found

In my opinion MNF-I and Iraqi Government are tying to form a sort of alliance to fight a single enemy: al-Qaeda in Iraq. Every different problem is taken aside with the hope that an al-Qaeda debacle could give a moral boost. This could be useful to forge a future alliance to stabilize Iraq against any single menace could endanger the status quo. Something similar with the post-Taif situation in Lebanon.

A political leadership has to show a significant success to become credible. Defeating al-Qaeda could be the glue to make the Iraqi Government more effective and more credible for his enemies.

Am I completely wrong?

Thanks again for your attention.


KingsleyS (not verified)

Sat, 03/31/2007 - 9:22pm

Dear Col Kilcullen - Like many I have been delighted with the reduction in sectarian death squad type violence but the suicide bomber problem still seems very challenging. Can we realistically expect to make a signifcant drop in these without getting Syria's cooperation ( forced or voluntary) to cut down how many suicide bomnbers enter Iraq in the first place? Will the efforts of COTW, ISF and now the Anbar Salvation Council be enough to dry AQ up in Iraq albeit taking perhaps some time?

kind regards

Kingsley S ( nailgun on other sites)

Dave Kilcullen (not verified)

Fri, 03/30/2007 - 2:47pm

Mark, Claudio --

sorry for the slow response, I've been working out on the ground for most of the last few days.

Claudio, I think the data you are seeing may not be the same as those I have been seeing. We currently see a very significant drop in Extra-Judicial Killings (EJKs) in most districts of Baghdad, down around 80% in some places, more in others. We don't see large scale death squad activity, and JAM is keeping fairly quiet.

Is Baghdad safer? In general, yes. Four days ago I walked unarmed with a small group on Haifa Street, in broad daylight, talking to local people going about their business. (Two months ago fighter jets were strafing targets, and major gun battles were being fought on that very spot). Two days ago, accompanying a patrol in a joint US-Iraqi controlled neighborhood, I bought a ball from a busy local shop and played soccer in the street with twenty kids as their parents laughed and looked on. (Two months ago, in some of these areas, fifteen corpses would turn up every morning. The current rate is about one a fortnight).

So I don't think the situation is quite so bad on the ground. But there are still extremely severe challenges, we are seeing a backlash (as in Shalal market, Tal Afar and other places) and it's still extremely early days and too soon to know how it will turn out.

Mark, I agree completely with your take on AQI. They certainly don't care about the Sunni population other than to prey on them. But this, in my view, is their cardinal error - they still need popular support to survive, and the Sunni population is waking up to their exploitative nature and turning against them.

markg8 (not verified)

Wed, 03/28/2007 - 11:00pm

Col Kilcullen,
I don't think AQI cares about the ocean they swim in. They're not interested in converting the 20% Sunni population to their cause. They're interested in martyring them. Keeping the Shia and Kurds enraged and engaged in reprisals is their short term goal. Fomenting a greater Shia-Sunni regional sectarian war is their longterm goal. That weakens all their enemies, the US, Iran, the Saudi government etc.

Graycap (not verified)

Sun, 03/25/2007 - 7:38am

Dear Col. Kilcullen,

Thank you for your direct informations about Baghdad ops. I'm following "Fadr al Qanoon" for an italian webzine where i write about the "Baghdad battle" every three weeks.
No need to say that your observations are one of the most importants source of info and insights.

You have written about car-bombs and their impact in operation "metrics".

I'm more concerned about the reappear of mass kidnapping and torture and the steady flow of killed body in the Baghdad streets.
Is this true? Isn't it a more important and immediate problem for coalition since its political implication in iraqi government?

It seems that death squads are back in action. I've read that coalition is trying to separate JAM in different parts. Is this reappearing of mass torture a direct consequence since nobody control JAM anymore?

Thanks in advance for your observations.


Brit (not verified)

Sat, 03/24/2007 - 6:27pm

I agree that tips are an excellent and most informative metric, but also one of the most jealously guarded by MNF. Last time I heard figures was in Aug 2006, I think, when they were sharply down. I'd love to know how tips trend since the surge began. That's one numerical metric that's got to be meaningful in this battle.

Reports I have seen indicate that IED attacks on our troops are down significantly. There are probably several reasons for this but I think having the troops staying in the neighborhoods is primarily responsible. Most of the IED attacks have been against convoys coming or going from Forward Operating Bases. I assume that there are fewer trips with the troops staying in Baghdad neighborhoods.

While some express concern about the troops being more vulnerable in small groups in the city, so far that has not proved to be the case. The enemy has always avoided direct contact with the troops because he perceives he is disadvantaged in a firefight. He also finds it difficult to mass troops even against small units without risk of detection and destruction. I think he will eventually try a large truck bomb attack against the place where the troops are staying, if he thinks he can get one close enough.

I believe that the most obvious effect of the surge is the stand down of the Shia death squads, to date. I have always thought that their primary target was the Sunni insurgents and not the government. With their stand down what we are left with is the Sunni unicycle of violence.

It appears that working in the neighborhood has resulted in an increase in one of my favorite metrics for success tip line activity. This increased intelligence has led to the destruction of several car bomb operations.

I still think that the showdown with al Qaeda is likely to be in Diyala.

Great work, Dave. Thanks for the report.

Brit (not verified)

Sat, 03/24/2007 - 5:38pm

Actually, I would like to say one more thing. I don't doubt you're right that the latest attacks by the Islamic State in Iraq are politically counterproductive.

I just hope that nobody in the Iraqi Govt identifies that trend and decides to help it along with a few disguised attacks of their own, as the Algerian security forces did when the GIA began massacring villages.

I just hope someone's keeping an eye out to ensure that doesn't happen.

And thanks again for your time and your openness. I'm still amazed that I can go on the Internet and get the goods straight from the horse's mouth, as it were. It's absolutely unprecedented and quite remarkable.

Brit (not verified)

Sat, 03/24/2007 - 5:06pm

Cheers to you too. I won't pretend to be this war's number one fan, but I admire your forthrightness in setting out your views in an interactive public forum like this. I do believe it's a first in the history of of the better precedents set by the Iraq war.

Dave Kilcullen (not verified)

Sat, 03/24/2007 - 3:50pm

I think it's pretty much a given that we're going to see an insurgent backlash sooner or later. What is essentially happening here is that, for the first time, we are getting in at the grass roots level and competing with the insurgents for influence with the population. The desperation shown in recent insurgent attacks highlights their concern about this trend, so we have to expect some kind of come-back.

On casualty figures, we need to be wary of using them as the sole metric (either positive or negative) so to be perfectly honest I'm not quite sure where I stand on that issue just yet -- I'm working through it carefully, but I still think it's a bit too early for either jubilation or doom. We need to see how this thing plays out over months, and maybe we'll see definite trends only after they emerge.

COIN is like economics in that sense -- you get all your key trend indicators in arrears, so that you never know what the insurgency *is* right now, only what it *was* over the preceding reporting period. So, for that reason, and also perhaps because of my anthro background, I always prefer qualitative indicators (a feel for the environment based on multiple interactions analysed in conjunction with each other) rather than simply using traffic-light style numerical metrics.

I know that's not an answer to your question - I don't really have one just yet. But I'll keep you posted. cheers, Dave K

Brit (not verified)

Sat, 03/24/2007 - 3:32pm

Col Kilcullen,
I find this a reasonable assessment of encouraging early signs, and like you I've noticed, if not an air of desperation, at least a tendency to shoot themselves in the foot in some recent insurgent attacks.

But I can't help feeling that the early days of the surge are nevertheless being misrepresented by MNF.

Everyone in the US seems convinced that casualties are down. I don't think the figures bear that out.

Iraqi civilian casualties are on course to be the same as last month. US military casualties are on course to be somewhat higher than last month. Iraqi military and police casualties continue to climb steeply, and have been doing so all year. I understand that over 20 Iraqi policemen were killed today.

It may well be there are underlying positive trends under all of this, but whoever is allowing the US public to think that casualties are falling risks a backlash when the facts emerge.

I realise that MNF operates in an environment where information is a weapon, but I can't help feeling there is something dishonest about spokesmen playing up the fall in sectarian "extrajudicial killings" while failing to note the offsetting rise in insurgent violence. It's too reminiscent of the dodgy death-accounting that led to a sudden collapse of confidence in Operation Forward Together.