May 18, 2011
An Outlier, Not a Trend: The Coordinated Attacks in Iraq
In Iraq yesterday militants carried out 42 separate attacks - an inauspicious start to the holy month of Ramadan. So far, over 80 people have died from those attacks, with some still in critical condition. In a piece headlined, "Threat Resurges in Deadliest Day of Year for Iraq," New York Times' columnist Michael Schmidt opines that "After hundreds of billions of dollars spent since the United States invasion in 2003, and tens of thousands of lives lost, insurgents remain a potent and perhaps resurging threat to Iraqis and the American troops still in the country." Only time will tell if Schmidt is right or wrong, but his analysis rests on some very faulty assumptions.
First, Schmidt is drawing a trend from only two or three data points. His logic goes: On Sunday (and for weeks prior), few attacks occurred. On Monday, many attacks occurred. Therefore, the likelihood of attacks is generally higher now. This logical fallacy is tempting because the most obvious and widely reported data we get on terrorist activity relates to the number of their attacks and their corresponding death tolls. Based on an extrapolation from these data alone, it does appear that more attacks are coming, perhaps many more. If we draw a straight line from the 14 attack per day average over the last year, through the 42 yesterday, and into next week, we can expect well over a thousand attacks a day with multiple thousands killed per day by the end of the weekend!
Schmidt doesn't go this far, but he does suggest that insurgents and terrorists have stepped up attacks to a new level. That suggestion rests on Schmidt's second flawed, implicit premise, that a particularly active day of insurgency and terrorism reflects not exceptional activity levels of relatively small and weak groups, but the average activity levels of relatively large and strong groups. He misunderstands that groups can flex, but then must retreat to ground and avoid detection while plotting future activities. The militant groups that carried out Monday's attacks did not suddenly grow in number or capacity in the days before the attacks. Instead, they geared up to spend a lot of their assets all at once. Some of those assets -- ammunition, bombs, suicide bombers (in three cases), time, and emotional energy -- can be replenished, but not overnight.
Finally, Schmidt is confusing operational success for strategic success. Many people were killed and a lot of property was destroyed on Monday. But that does not mean the attacks make the various insurgent and terrorist groups responsible stronger in the medium- or long-term. Strategic success in asymmetric warfare depends on militants' ability to hold their ranks together, recruit new followers, and use their larger enemies' strengths against them. These attacks may have only achieved one of those objectives. Attacking on the first day of Ramadan could have fortified hardcore supporters who see these missions as sanctioned by God, but pulling men out of a Mosque during prayer to execute them in the street -- as occurred in one attack apparently carried out by Al Qaeda in Iraq -- probably only fuels Iraqis' already widespread disgust with the group.
Whether these attacks provoke the U.S. and Iraqi Security forces to behave in strategically counterproductive ways remains to be seen. Some have suggested that the attacks are meant to send a message to the U.S. that it needs to leave. Others surmise that they are intended to keep the U.S. in the region so that Al Qaeda will have a battlefield in Iraq. It is possible that the attacks were carried out because they can serve either strategy. Al Qaeda can claim a victory if the U.S. withdraws or remain relevant (if only to itself) if the U.S. stays.
In any case, we can expect that Al Qaeda's propagandists will attempt to use U.S. reactions as evidence of their victory. But to respond in a way that minimizes the efficacy of the attacks, U.S. and Iraqi leaders must first understand who they are up against. It probably is not -- as Schmidt and others have suggested with alarm -- a larger, stronger, and ascendant version of the group that seemed anemic and unpopular only weeks ago.