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In Their Own Words: Reading the Iraqi Insurgency

Excerpt of the Executive Summary:

In Iraq, the U.S. fights an enemy it hardly knows. Its descriptions have relied on gross approximations and crude categories (Saddamists, Islamo-fascists and the like) that bear only passing resemblance to reality. This report, based on close analysis of the insurgents' own discourse, reveals relatively few groups, less divided between nationalists and foreign jihadis than assumed, whose strategy and tactics have evolved (in response to U.S. actions and to maximise acceptance by Sunni Arabs), and whose confidence in defeating the occupation is rising. An anti-insurgency approach primarily focused on reducing the insurgents' perceived legitimacy -- rather than achieving their military destruction, decapitation and dislocation -- is far more likely to succeed.

Failure to sufficiently take into account what the insurgents are saying is puzzling and, from Washington's perspective, counter-productive. Abundant material -- both undervalued and underutilised -- is available from insurgent websites, internet chat, videos, tapes and leaflets. Over the past two years such communication has assumed more importance, both among insurgent groups and between groups and their networks of supporters or sympathizers. This report, the first exhaustive analysis of the organized armed opposition's discourse, seeks to fill the gap, and the lessons are sobering.

Textual analysis has its limitations. The information by definition sheds light only on those who choose to speak, and only about that which they discuss in public. Wartime communication is part information, part propaganda; insurgents highlight their nobleness, tactical exploits and ingenuity while downplaying brutality and setbacks. Without knowing more of the groups' inner-workings, it is hazardous to speculate on the reasons behind specific communications.

Still, the discourse offers a window into the insurgency. It tells us about themes insurgents consider best to mobilise activists or legitimise actions, and gives us information on internal debates and levels of coordination, and about shifts in tactics and strategy. This war, U.S. officials concede, will be won as much in the court of public opinion as on any battlefield. The U.S. administration faces an increasingly skeptical domestic audience; Iraq's authorities suffer from a serious credibility deficit at home; and insurgents must contend with accusations of sectarianism and barbaric violence. For the U.S. to ignore, or fail to fully take into account, the insurgents' discourse -- at a time when they are paying close attention to what Washington is saying -- is to wage the struggle with one hand tied behind its back.

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International Crisis Group