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ROBERT MALLEY AND PETER HARLING

The enemy we hardly know

ON THE third anniversary of the US invasion in Iraq, the United States is still fighting an enemy it barely knows. Washington relies on crude, broad-brush identifications -- Saddamists, Islamofascists, and the like. Rather than analyze the armed opposition's strategy and objectives, it assumes them. Rather than listen to what the insurgents say, it dismisses it. All of which is mystifying and, of far greater importance, self-defeating.

For months, the International Crisis Group has probed the armed groups' communications since the insurgency's inception. The electronic and paper trails are bountiful. The lessons are both highly instructive and deeply disturbing. For the United States to ignore the insurgents' discourse -- at a time when they evidently are paying close attention to what Washington has to say -- is to wage the struggle with one hand tied behind your back.

Figuring out who the insurgents are, what they are trying to achieve, how they have evolved, and what their vulnerabilities are is not a guessing game. They haven't concealed it. They've broadcast it on websites, Internet chat rooms, magazines, leaflets, videos, and audiotapes. Given conditions under which insurgents must operate, it's safe to assume that these represent a significant part, maybe even the bulk, of their communications, whether directed at one another or at Iraqi and Muslim populations.

To pore over them is to be offered a real-life glimpse into the themes insurgents consider most apt to mobilize activists and legitimize their actions, to witness their internal debates and level of coordination, and to assess their tactical or strategic shifts.

Several conclusions emerge:

The insurgency began as scattered, erratic, and chaotic, not organized by Saddam Hussein and his henchmen, but by a cacophonous set of groups divided between jihadists and nationalists that sought to outdo one another with the gruesomeness and savagery of their operations. No more. Today, it increasingly is dominated by a handful of large groups that enjoy sophisticated means of communication. They are well organized, produce regular publications, react to political developments, and, to a surprising degree, coordinate their words and deeds. Over the past year, they have tried to shed any outward appearance of disunity, converging around a set of relatively homogenous practices and discourse that blend Islamist Salafism and Iraqi patriotism and dilute what once were considered rigid distinctions between foreign jihadis and Iraqi combatants.

Their methods continue to be brutal, but a notable evolution has been demonstrated. As shown by their internal communications, and as they have become more coordinated and streamlined, insurgent groups have shown greater awareness of public opinion. They systematically and promptly respond to accusations of moral depravity or blind violence. All -- Al Qaeda in Iraq included -- strenuously, if disingenuously, reject accusations of waging a sectarian campaign. They publicize, in words and images, their purported efforts to protect or aid civilians. They have discarded some of the more gruesome and locally controversial practices, such as beheading hostages or attacking people going to the polls. And they systematically accuse the United States and its Iraqi allies of conducting a dirty war in coordination with sectarian militias, engaging in torture, fostering the country's division, and showing insensitivity to civilian life.

The insurgents have proved surprisingly adept at adjusting their tactics to fit their enemy's. Their Internet postings, chat discussions, and publications exhibit implicit self-criticism and overt tactical fine-tuning. Having initially opposed elections -- going so far as to physically harm those who dared associate with them -- they changed course, sensing that their approach had backfired. On the ground, they have answered the US strategy of ''clear, hold, and build'' with one of their own: recoil, redeploy, and spoil. Rather than confront the enemy head on, as they had sought to do, they are taking advantage of military flexibility, the limited number of US troops, and the fragility of Iraqi security forces to attack at the time and place of their choosing.

But the insurgents' communications tell another, more worrisome story: After three years of fighting, they are more optimistic and convinced of their victory. Confidence is often propaganda, and it would be surprising if the insurgents didn't display it. But whereas yesterday's self-assurance was expressed in terms of an open-ended jihad against an occupier, today's belies a conviction that victory is at hand, America's withdrawal is within reach, and the collapse of Iraq's postwar institutions are within sight.

Of course, the insurgency is neither infallible nor unassailable; its discourse demonstrates its vulnerability. Televised confessions in Iraq of captured insurgents and accusations of sectarianism, brutality, and depravity, as well as the various elections held in 2005, all had a visible impact on the armed opposition, shaking its confidence and bringing about tangible changes in its behavior and rhetoric.

But the central message is this: The coalition's most effective tools have not been of a military but rather of a political nature. The insurgency depends heavily on its legitimacy, which essentially relies on opposition to the occupation, anger at its specific practices, and the feeling shared by Sunni Arabs of being under siege.

That the insurgency has survived, even thrived, despite being vastly outnumbered and outgunned, suggests flaws and limitations of the current counterinsurgency campaign. The insurgents' discourse may be dismissed as rhetoric, but they appear to have effectively reached agreement on core operational matters, grown in self-assurance, and exhibited greater sensitivity to Sunni Arab opinion.

The trend remains fragile -- the surface homogeneity probably conceals deep-seated tensions; the confidence may be short-lived; and the sensitivity has its obvious, and visible, limitations. But the United States needs to take these into account if it is to understand the insurgency's resilience and learn how to counter it.

An effective counterinsurgency campaign will require grasping the insurgents' political dimension, taking their discourse seriously, and directing efforts at the sources of their popular support. That means mainly controlling the behavior of Iraqi security forces, curbing the use of torture, halting resort to collective punishment and other methods that inflict widespread civilian harm, and ending reliance on sectarian militias.

It means, too, making clear that the United States will withdraw as soon as the newly elected government requests, and agreeing in the interim to negotiate, openly, the terms of its presence and its rules of engagement. US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has recently struck a candid and useful tone but more proactive measures are needed.

The United States and its allies cannot be expected to establish a monopoly over the use of force. But they can and should be expected to establish a monopoly over the legitimate use of force -- which means establishing beyond doubt the legitimacy both of the means being deployed and of the state on whose behalf force is being exercised. That, at a minimum, is required to get a handle on an insurgency that is telling us what the administration is refusing to hear.

Robert Malley, a former adviser to President Clinton, is Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group. Peter Harling is a senior analyst with Crisis Group.

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