Increased Violence in Iraq – Adam Silverman

The recent increase in violence in Anbar Province is not an aberration and will likely continue.


Three quick caveats: 1) I've been home from Iraq since end of last OCT and 2) I was stationed and worked to the South and East of Baghdad, not to its West, and 3) I spent enough time with both tribal Sunnis and Shia, including the elites leading the local equivalent of the Sawha/Awakening, to have a properly informed understanding of the dynamic at play.  

The increase in violence in Anbar Province can be attributed to four things:

1) The Awakening folks, and their supporters generally described as the tribal or traditional Sunnis, did not capture a majority of seats in the provincial government during the last round of elections despite what was supposed to be record turnout (ie no boycott).  The turnout, in fact, was actually less than during the boycotted 2005 elections,[1] which itself raises questions about the ability of the various political parties and movements to mobilize their supporters.  Initially the results indicated that the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is the local version of the Muslim Brothers and has no real indigenous constituency, maintained their majority and control of the provincial government.  While these results were eventually changed as a result of protests and investigations of fraud allegations,[2] the final result only gave the Awakening Movement two more seats than its main rival in the IIP.[3]  This is a major deprivation issue: the belief that one is entitled to something that has been withheld.  In fact it led to immediate threats of violence[4], which are what ultimately led to the official reconsideration of the electoral outcome.  These muddled and confused outcomes are partially the result of the Iraqi High Electoral Committee and the US being rolled on the manner and format of the provincial election laws (open list/proportional representation), which meant that even if you got more of the vote, if you ran alone you could still loose to someone on a party list.  Since this type of electoral format is opaque, hard to follow, and has a demonstrated track record of not working well, it should be no surprise that it led to problems and that the confused Iraqis would be upset by them.  And just a note here: it wasn't just the Iraqi's confused by this system, some of the really sharp PRT personnel I worked with didn't understand this system either.


2) In May 2009 David Rose[5] reported that the Sunnis who would become the Awakening in Anbar tried to work out a deal with the US as far back as 2004 and were cut off by Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz (he announced they were all NAZIs and closed down the contacts).  Based on the failure of those negotiations, the establishment of the Sons of Iraq (SOI) in late 2007 and early 2008 (remember it took over a year from the time of the Awakening in Anbar until a formalized arrangement took place with Coalition Forces and the Government of Iraq), and what has happened or threatened to happen since we've turned control of the Sons of Iraq over to the Government of Iraq (GOI) and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), we are perceived as somewhere between a not very smart or nor very responsible or not very faithful ally.  And this is important.  One of the elites I interviewed while in Iraq was a retired Iraqi Army Brigadier General of Special Forces.  Highly educated, fluent English, former professor at their War College, and the leader of the awakening in the area where I was assigned.  In fact our interview was, essentially, a 2 plus hour retelling of the clearing of the qada – starting well before Coalition Forces had a presence in the area through to when a brigade (the one before mine) was finally stationed there.  Moreover, this sheikh was Sunni, but his mother was Shia – like so many Iraqis with ties to both denominations, familial, tribal, personal (all the near relationships).  He told me that until 2007 "Coalition Forces didn’t listen to good friends, rather they mistakenly listened to the bad ones".  The worry for the Sawha, and that includes the Shia involved with them (and I've met and interviewed over a dozen Shia leaders and members of the Sawha/Awakening/SOI) is that its an "us versus them" thing.  "Us" being the Iraqis that care about Iraq, Sunni and Shia, and "them" being the GOI and ISF which is dominated by Iranian proxies and the Kurds, neither group being interested in Iraq as Iraq or for Iraq.  With the US pullback from the cities at the end of June 2009, with GOI and ISF dominating the operational relationship because of the Security Agreement, the Sawha folks have been wondering if they have to take things into their own hands and occasionally doing so.

3) The last point leads to this one: in OCT of 2007 the Anbar Sawha leadership made it clear in an interview with (if I remember correctly) reporters from McClatchy that they were biding their time and waiting for the US to pull back inside Iraq and then out of Iraq so that they could settle up with the Iranian backed Shia controlling the GOI and ISF.  They indicated that as soon as we left they were going to go to Baghdad and the streets would run red with blood.  As we pull back and prepare to pull out, and as we provide less and less support to the Sawha we allied with during the Surge, and as the GOI and ISF continues to assert more and more control in advance of the national elections, just as they tried to do in advance of the provincial elections, the Sawha/Awakenings/SOI are going to take matters more and more into their own hands.  

4) The final point is that the Sawha/Awakenings/SOI guys are taking matters into their own hands for several reasons: to settle scores, to establish dominance with the societal structure and hierarchy, to defend themselves against actual and perceived actions of the GOI/ISF, and to get our attention.  Please remember that Iraqis are high context communicators.  They're not going to come to a meeting, walk up to the USMC Regimental Commander, shake hands, say hello, and then lay out the list of things that actual bother them and then present a list of things they want done to remedy the situation.  Rather, they're going to communicate their displeasure and their intentions in symbolic ways.  In this case they're going to blow stuff up because they've learned that we'll respond that kind of communication.

Finally, a lot of this could've been avoided had the US used its leverage, when it had it as both the official occupying power and the strongest actor in Iraq, back in 2007 and early 2008, to foster a reconciliation process.  Instead the previous administration focused its attention on getting an unrealistic Status of Forces Agreement and then a Provincial Elections process.  The US failed in both those endeavors, leading ultimately for failures in dealing with Iraq and poorer outcomes for the average Iraqi.  As a result the reconciliation process never occurred, the GOI always indicates that they have a plan for doing that and they'll do it their way and in their own time.  As a result reconciliation is much more likely to look like cleansing of areas and score settling, which in turn will lead to greater fragmentation of Iraqi society and a greater potentiality for a Kurdish break away and an internal struggle between Dawa and ISCI/BADR to float the Shia south free as a congery that can align with Iran.  And this is itself compounded by the failure of the Coalition Provisional Authority, and subsequently the Iraqi Transition Assistance Office, to get the power working and the water flowing. 


When the root cause of your sectarian disputes is access to scant resources (, the inability of the official occupying power (based on ideological stupidity and Green Zone blinders) to increase those resources, contributes to a social climate that is inauspicious for reconciliation, but fertile for renewed hostility and violence.


Adam Silverman



Adam L. Silverman, PhD served as the Field Social Scientist and Team Lead for Human Terrain Team Iraq 6 (HTT IZ6) in 2008 and was then the US Army Human Terrain System Strategic Communications Advisor.  The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Army Human Terrain System, the US Army Training and Doctrine Command, or the US Army.

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16 Responses to Increased Violence in Iraq – Adam Silverman

  1. JohnH says:

    “The root cause of your sectarian disputes is access to scant resources.”
    I’m glad to see that the Colonel is accepting a Marxist interpretation of the conflict. This one seems well founded.
    You don’t have to be Marxist to see that economic competition is a key driver of conflict.

  2. Stanley henning says:

    This was the kind of information we should have been considering and addressing all along, but as soon as I saw the name Wolfowitz among others I understand why things have gone the way they have.

  3. jr786 says:

    Excuse the pedantry but sahwa, not sawha.
    Interesting. I like the notion of ‘high context communicators’. Different country, same idea; I deal with them all day long.

  4. turcopolier says:

    john H
    I never said that. I am not an economic determinist and would never say that. On the other hand I do not seny the importance of econpmic interests. pl

  5. David Habakkuk says:

    Arguments between ‘idealists’ and ‘materialists’ about causation in social affairs can be productive, but can easily get very silly.
    Most commonly, self-interested motivations and commitments to ideals and ideas and ideals are both at play. And, very often, they are intertwined in very complicated ways.
    “Interesting. I like the notion of ‘high context communicators’. Different country, same idea; I deal with them all day long.”
    So do I — indeed, in normal circumstances, I am one.
    Unfortunately, higher education as practised in the Anglo-Saxon world often obscures the way that communication characteristically works.
    Among the most depressing remarks in Adam Silvermann’s excellent post is his citing of Wolfowitz.
    It appears that all messages received by him — and one suspects, many other significant U.S. policymakers — are received in terms of a filter: Are the senders to be classified as Nazis or not?
    As the arguments of the European Thirties and Forties have limited relevance to the Middle East, this is clearly a short route to catastrophic misunderstanding.
    Posted by: jr786 | 15 October 2009 at 12:51 PM

  6. Jose says:

    I believe Dr. Silverman is from Florida, so he will understand the following analogy:
    Alligator mississippiensis (American Alligator) – lives in freshwater
    Crocodylus acutus (American crocodile) – lives in salt-water
    Caiman crocodilus (Spectacled Caiman) – has established itself along the Tamiami canal in Miami
    When they meet outside their habitats there is usually violence.
    Hopefully someone can learn from this and apply it to Iraq.
    Excellent post!

  7. JohnH says:

    Yes, “self-interested motivations and commitments to ideals and ideas and ideals are both at play” in Iraq
    I agree. My major point is that the emphasis in Washington, and at this blog, has been exclusively on the role of religion in the conflict. Economic interests have been downplayed, if not greeted with derision or howls of laughter. One economic interest that I have repeatedly highlighted is the role of oil, the prize in Iraq. Among various gangs in Iraq there has been intense competition for control oil smuggling, the major cash resource, but also something vital to daily life.
    In fact, when I raised the role of oil in the Iraqi context, I was dismissed for my “marxist thinking” and told to go back to academia, where I have not been for decades, and then only as a student.
    So, yes, let’s embrace the complexity of self interest and religious affiliation as drivers of conflict. Viewing the real picture, instead of the caricature portrayed by official sources, can only be helpful in developing realistic goals and policies. (Not something the neo conmen were interested in.)
    I applaud the Colonel for hosting Silverman’s piece.

  8. Walter says:

    John H., dont talk about oil, Lang will call you a marxist….nobody covets oil in Lang’s world

  9. Mark Gaughan says:

    WAFU = We Are Fucked Up

  10. Mark Gaughan says:

    What’s with the spirographs Pat?

  11. turcopolier says:

    I guess you just can’t tolerate people who don’t accept the party line. pl

  12. turcopolier says:

    Not sure what you mean. pl

  13. turcopolier says:

    Once again, a marxist analysis of history does not make you a Marxist, but that would not matter to you, would it?
    Your point is that I am a mindless denizen of the right. Is that not correct?
    Does that help in building a case for your IO operation? pl

  14. Walter says:

    pl, it is just that I have tried to voice my opinion in your comments section that the Iraq war has had making money from the huge amounts of oil as one of the major motivations for the invasion and it seems to me that you have disagreed with my opinion with a rather contemptuous tone and accused me of being a Marxist….Ive just been surprised by your tone on occasion. I apologize for my impolite tone earlier…I respect this cite and would like to continue participating but I would also like to be able to express my opinion even if it varies from yours. I still think the trillions of dollars of oil reserves has got to have been a huge motivation for Bush and Co. I dont think its Marxist to believe this….it just makes common sense to me that our foreign policy is often motivated by money and Silverman seems to be arguing this point that economics is a key motivating element of the conflicts in Iraq…makes sense to me….

  15. LeaNder says:

    David Habakkuk, the same thing caught my attention. Over here in Germany the use of Nazi, fascist or single people, like Goebbels (e.g. for Gorbatshev) has been the ultimate political fighting term for many, many years now. But both from the left and the right, which tended to be rather confusing. I think it started on the left and made its way into the right as “useful imagery”.
    But it admittedly set my head spinning in the US context. It’s not simply a useful term to slander whatever political opponent but rather a coherent narrative, that in the ME history repeats itself with Israel or “the Jews”/antisemitism providing some kind of danger barometer. It goes something like: if Jews are targeted, its a sign that there will be soon a threat to the whole Western society. Thus: History repeats itself. And antisemitism provides some kind of measurement for the health of society.
    It feels to me this misuse of the “clash of culture” (if I trust Stephen Walt) was much more important in the larger context than oil. Oil from the above perspective funds terrorism. In the lower ideological layers it is phrased this way: The Arabs/”camel drivers” sit on the world’s oil resources by sheer dumb luck.
    Wolfowitz suggested that the Iraqi oil would pay for the war against Iraq. Which ultimately would turn the US army into mercenaries. Thus there obviously must be resistance from within the army, it feels at least to this “curious nitwit”.
    But this doesn’t mean one must deny completely the danger scenario, only the coherent narrative. And no, I don’t think it is essentially about oil. But I would still like to be able to take a closer look at Cheney’s energy task force. Oil surely matters in the larger scenario.

  16. Walter says:

    pl, I dont have a “party line”. Im not affiliated with any party, just my own mind.
    I never thought you were a “mindless denizen of the right”….honestly…Ive been impressed that you have had the balls to criticize Israel….Im supportive of most of your positions and I love reading this site….I wouldnt read this site if I thought it was a mindless denizen for conservatives…..I just disagree with your position that money is/was not the key motivating force for the Iraq war….Greenspan, General Abizaid are not Marxist and they support my view that oil is the point over there…secure the oil for our use

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