Iraq

Insurgency Economics

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In a depressing front page article in Sunday's New York Times, reporter Richard A. Oppel Jr. outlines the massive amount of money stolen from Iraq's Ministry of Oil and diverted into the hands of the insurgency. The Baiji oil refinery, one military commander tells Oppel, is "the money pit of the insurgency." According to Iraqi officials $50,000 to $100,000 is skimmed from the Baiji facility per day. Revenues are pocketed, oil trucks are stolen, crooked officials are intimidated. It's an interesting, if not entirely predictable, problem. What Oppel also notes—in a related point, but one, I think, that amounts to a buried lede—is that, contrary to administration claims and popular perception, the insurgency isn't made up primarily of jihadist dead-enders, but rather of disaffected Iraqis that find lucrative work in the country's terrorism industry. The evidence presented isn't overwhelming, but it is strengthened by the number of military officials who, on the record, support this view. The relevant paragraphs:

"It has a great deal more to do with the economy than with ideology," said one senior American military official, who said that studies of detainees in American custody found that about three-quarters were not committed to the jihadist ideology. "The vast majority have nothing to do with the caliphate and the central ideology of Al Qaeda."
[…]
Capt. Stephen Wright, who works at the refinery with Captain Da Silva, is concerned about whether there may be unseen problems looming, like the sort of fatigue that ruptured a propane unit in January. "If something happens to this refinery from neglect, you won't have fuel for eight provinces," he said, "and we'll have 6,000 unemployed Sunnis, who are people we definitely don't want unemployed."
[…]
But there are officers in the American military who openly question how much a role jihadism plays in the minds of most people who carry out attacks. As the American occupation has worn on and unemployment has remained high, these officers say the overwhelming motivation of insurgents is the need to earn a paycheck.

Nor do American officers say they believe that insurgent attacks are centrally coordinated. "As far as networked coordination of attacks, we are not seeing that," said a military official familiar with studies on the insurgency. Opposition to the occupation and fear of the Shiite- and Kurdish-dominated government and security forces "clearly are important factors in the insurgency," the official said. "But they are being rivaled by the economic factor, the deprivation that exists."

Maj. Kelly Kendrick, operations officer for the First Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division in Salahuddin, estimates that there are no more than 50 hard-core "Al Qaeda" fighters in Salahuddin, a province of 1.3 million people that includes Baiji and the Sunni cities of Samarra and Tikrit.

He said most fighters were seduced not by dreams of a life following Mr. bin Laden, but by a simpler pitch: "Here's $100; go plant this I.E.D."

"Ninety percent of the guys out here who do attacks are just people who want to feed their families," Major Kendrick said.

Full Times article here. For your entertainment, check out Noah Feldman's mind-bogglingly stupid article on sharia law in the Times Magazine. A sample: "Today, when we invoke the harsh punishments prescribed by Shariah for a handful of offenses, we rarely acknowledge the high standards of proof necessary for their implementation. Before an adultery conviction can typically be obtained, for example, the accused must confess four times or four adult male witnesses of good character must testify that they directly observed the sex act."

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  1. …but rather of disaffected Iraqis that find lucrative work in the country’s terrorism industry.

    Is this a novel observation?

  2. “Ninety percent of the guys out here who do attacks are just people who want to feed their families.”

    We need to get a whole mess of people working on translating books (or pamphlets) on Game Theory and airdropping them.

  3. To all the hawks out there who dare to call themselves libertarians:

    Congratulations, assholes! You turned Iraq from a shitty but stable place to live to a place where terrorism is a way to earn a paycheck. You actually made the place even worse. You should be so fucking proud of yourselves for cheerleading this mess.

    Sorry, big body counts make me cranky. I know I should be more respectful in my posts, but people who have elaborate justifications for big body counts just piss me off.

  4. Ayman Al-Zawahiri is a gay man… not that there’s anything wrong with that!

  5. I’m all for helping the Iraqis help themselves. I’m not sure how interested they are in helping themselves. That’s where I have a problem.

  6. six more months

  7. thoreau,

    I’m not defending this administration going to war, or handling thereof, but how many years must go by before we can start blaming those who are failing to rebuild their own country? It seems to me that as long as Iraq acts like a handicapped kid, we’ll keep sending the money. At what point can we end that game?

    Sure, the current state has some to do with our failures in handling the post-war situation, granted. But a this stage, a few years after liberation, the problems in Iraq have far more to do with the Iraqis, than us.

  8. I like how Moonbeam Feinstein made a big stink about this. It’s been a problem for years. Shows all the politicians get their news of Iraq from the front pages of NY Times, Washington Post, etc.

  9. The “Ministry Of Oil” sounds like a government entity that shouldn’t exist anyway, so the fact that it’s being skimmed to such an extent sounds like a good thing. The fact that the abolition of the ministry is never talked about as an option is the bad thing.

  10. You turned Iraq from a shitty but stable place to live to a place where terrorism is a way to earn a paycheck.

    Like in Saddam’s Iraq, state terrorism wasn’t a way to earn a paycheck.

  11. R.C. Dean,

    Are you stating that Iraq has gone from one frying pan to another frying pan?

  12. Accross the board, the majority of Iraqi’s see the root cause of the violence to be differing responses, whether they be economic, political, or “jihadist” to the foreign occupation.

    It may actually be true that if we pull out now, things will be no worse than if we stay. This is bitter medicine for conservative hawks to swallow, but there it is.

  13. My country may be shitty, but at least it’s stable!

  14. thoreau, yours is a common mistake. Iraq was Shi’itey not shitty.

  15. Let those who want to continue the occupation pay for it. Shouldn’t be too hard to raise $500 billion a year, a blog campaign on Instapundit and RedState out to be able to cover it.

  16. Before an adultery conviction can typically be obtained, for example, the accused must confess four times or four adult male witnesses of good character must testify that they directly observed the sex act.

    thats just dandy, wow sharia law is great!

  17. Does anyone behind me find it (morbidly) funny that the military commander interviewed uses the term “money pit” to mean something that is the exact opposite of a “money pit” (at least in the common usage)?

    Perhaps he’s to blame for the idea that the Iraq campaign would pay for itself:

    “Guys, Iraq is going to be a total money pit for the DOD!”

  18. About the author of the Sharia law article in the Times Magazine –

    Noah Feldman, a contributing writer for the magazine, is a law professor at Harvard University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

    Apparently he believes that religious courts can sometimes be a positive thing compared to secular law. Perhaps a few years in Malaysia might change his mind.

    In spite of his impressive academic and professional resume, Noah is a really stupid fucking moron.

    But I haven’t been to college, so I’m probably talking out my ass.

  19. “…or four adult male witnesses of good character must testify that they directly observed the sex act.”

    So…In the Islamic world, being of ‘good character’ includes getting together with at least 3 other ‘good character’ types to watch someone else have extra-marital sex.

    That clears it up for me.

  20. In spite of his impressive academic and professional resume, Noah is a really stupid fucking moron.

    Lot’s of those around. While I like NPR, I get nauseous every time I hear Robert Reich.

    What a waste of air.

  21. So…In the Islamic world, being of ‘good character’ includes getting together with at least 3 other ‘good character’ types to watch someone else have extra-marital sex.

    And yet they still think porn is bad. I’m so confused.

  22. What’s wrong with the article in the Times Magazine? It makes some very sensible points. For example, are you denying that as recently as 700 years ago civilised countries like Spain used torture? In geological time, that’s just a blink of an eye. And in some of the most cultured parts of the US like in the northeast states, just 400 years ago confessions were used to convict people for witchcraft. In fact if we had kept those laws in place, perhaps the witchcraft conviction rate wouldn’t have dropped so badly. And now look at the mess we’re in. According to highly placed political figures, witches are in danger of taking over the country!

  23. RC Dean wrote: “Like in Saddam’s Iraq, state terrorism wasn’t a way to earn a paycheck.”

    The barriers to entry were higher.

    And it’s not like we would have minded any terrorism in Iraq that was by an Anti-Saddam insurgency.

    At least, not after he got on our bad side. Before that, in the 80s, we probably would have helped him track down and kill any anti-Saddam insurgency.

  24. rechoboam, while your points are somewhat valid, I do hopethey were meant ironically.

    Since the periods you mention, we’ve gone through the age of enlightenment, the industrial age, the scientific boom and the information age.

    After all that progress, to make apologies for the plainly unjust aspects of Islamic jurisprudence is just as backward as supporting highly placed political figures who assert that witches are in danger of taking over the country.

    No defense of culture or religion makes the destruction of lives on the basis of falsehoods – whether they be supersitions or outright lies – right or just.

    The crime here isn’t that Sharia law does or doesn’t support justice. The crime is that for most of the observable populations that live by Sharia, the desire for justice is as cheap as the lives that are ruined.

  25. I don’t find sharia law requirements for conviction any more stringent or reliable than Louisiana’s.

    thoreau: if you want to get really pissed off, hie thee to slate.com and read Hitchens going on about how he wasn’t wrong on Iraq

  26. I don’t know about Louisiana’s but it’s definitely on par with Mississippi’s

  27. madpad: I meant Mississippi, thanks.

  28. RC Dean seems to lack the stomach to stick around for this thread.

  29. “”Ninety percent of the guys out here who do attacks are just people who want to feed their families,” Major Kendrick said.””

    Thats not really comforting.

  30. madpad: I can assure you that my comments were meant to be taken absolutely seriously and that there was not even the merest hint of irony present, especially the bit about witches. I meant that literally. In fact I had an irony bypass last week (I mean that literally too).
    🙂

  31. oh and madpad I realize you yourself picked up on the irony, my last point came out a bit harsh

  32. yeah…I got that…lesser talents might have been offended but I actually dug the ‘irony bypass’ line.

    Don’t be surprised if I steal that one. And don’t be offended if I fail to give you credit…at long last, the rest of us will know…

  33. Thats not really comforting.

    I don’t know…it’s kind of nice to know that the vast majority of folks ‘supporting’ terror would just as soon hang it all up if a better opportunity presented itself.

    And it’s kind of nice to know that in the end, ideology doesn’t mean shit if you can’t pony up some drachmas.

  34. Richard A. Oppel Jr. outlines the massive amount of money stolen from Iraq’s Ministry of Oil and diverted into the hands of the insurgency.

    Another good reason for our government to leave Iraq. If they weren’t there, they wouldn’t be targets of the insurgency.

  35. Douglas Grey,

    It may actually be true that if we pull out now, things will be no worse than if we stay.

    Then again, if we leave things much get much much worse.

    And no matter how it goes. there are lots of people who are going to self-righteously bitch. I guess they think they’re accomplishing something, so I won’t be the one to give them the bitter pill.

  36. e,

    Let those who want to continue the occupation pay for it. Shouldn’t be too hard to raise $500 billion a year, a blog campaign on Instapundit and RedState out to be able to cover it.

    If you let me opt out of paying for socialized medicine and the “save Gaia” carbon tax (or whatever other monstrous demon they dream up), then I’ll let you opt out of paying for Iraq.

    Everybody else on this thread: I’ll bet you e’s bills are going to be way bigger than mine in the long run.

  37. PS: I’ll also bet that the casualty count in Iraq will NOT exceed that of fully socialized medicine.

    If you really really want to bitch about something, there are way better targets.

    Just in case nobody noticed….

  38. Actually the article has the reasoning wrong, but it is easy to see how they got there. The authors, and I might add this is a common problem with people trying to analyze insurgent activities worldwide, are looking at this as an “we’re unemployed and need money” type of problem from a Western viewpoint. It isn’t.

    Sure, the lure of jihadism is there, as is the actual need for money, but this is really about how Arabs tend to look at things.

    First, most of the people involved in the IED and death squad business are doing this kind of work because it is simply what they do. It isn’t about jihadism, but it really isn’t about the money either. It is simply their profession and many of them were doing this kind of thing before the war for Saddam’s government. Granted they weren’t using IEDs for the most part, but the million or so Iraqi civilians that Saddam slaughtered during his regime didn’t up and die by themselves. Someone had to do the killing. This was often outsourced to the tribes in Iraq as a way of providing them money in exchange for not undermining the government as they were pseudo-autonomous anyway.

    Frankly, this kind of behavior has gone on for a very long time in the Middle East in a variety of countries. You don’t hear about it much as it is one of those topics that International Relations types and Middle Eastern scholars don’t like to think about as it really undermines their multi-cultural world view. It also points out just how screwed up Arab culture is. Killing for money in their society isn’t an alternative to starvation, it is a career path.

  39. Tom

    I don’t really get your comment. It sounds like you’re saying Arabs blow shit up but not for money, nor for Allah, but because there is nothing better to do?

  40. Yah, corruption is a bigger problem than violence now.

    Unfortunately, even as far back as the Romans there was bitching about how corrupt the region is. That one’s going to take a while.

    First, most of the people involved in the IED and death squad business are doing this kind of work because it is simply what they do.

    Exactly. Really, what do people think all these thousands of Sunnis that tortured and murdered for Saddam’s glory are doing now? They aren’t becoming doctors or engineers, or selling vegetables at the souk.

    Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen — they all have entire classes built around abusing people to keep their masters in power.

  41. Eric S.,

    What I am saying is that when you have a group of people in a society who are used to control other portions of that society by means of violence sooner or later the people doing the violence look upon what they are doing as their work.

    This is hard for most Westerners to get their heads around as our societies, WWII and similar periods excepted, are basically free of widescale government backed violence against their own citizens.

    In our society we look at people who main and kill others as criminals, because this behavior is so rare as to be considered aberrant.

    In other places where this behavior is routine, you need people trained in this stuff to make the behavior routine. When a society is routinely killing large numbers of its population you need a class of people in place to do this or the killing doesn’t get done.

    To most people this sounds incredibly screwed up, because it is.

  42. “””First, most of the people involved in the IED and death squad business are doing this kind of work because it is simply what they do. It isn’t about jihadism, but it really isn’t about the money either.”””

    Yeah, who am I going to believe? Tom or a General on the ground in Iraq.

    I must point out that both sides, the ones that previous controlled, and the one that were controlled, are contributing to the violence.

    “””Yah, corruption is a bigger problem than violence now.”””

    It’s always been a bigger problem than the violence, but violence plays better in the news, regardless of the country.

  43. Trickyvic,

    Actually, I was in Iraq twice. Once pre-surge and once during the surge. I also spent some time there doing terror reporting.

    In general you have a couple of different groups of idiots at play in the country: jihadis – who are mostly foreign born Sunnis, there aren’t many of them but the attacks they make tend to be rather spectacular; Iranian backed goons – these are mostly Shia in the southern part of the country (Mahdi Army types, etc.) and they tend to engage in a fair amount of death squad work, but they primarily target Sunni insurgents or suspected insurgents when they are not fighting with other Shia groups for control of a given area; finally you have alot of what we would label criminal activity – these are the folks who seem to be killing the most people, primarily these people are made up of folks who were formerly associated with the Iraqi security apparatus.

    The final group is a fairly diverse lot. They are made up of former Bath party members, tribesmen, generic criminals, former soldiers and others.

    The final group is in this for financial reimbursement. The thing is, they are only using the skills they developed under the old regime. Which goes back to my earlier statements about certain classes of people existing in Arab culture. From a certain standpoint they are into this to create chaos, from another standpoint it is about money, but in the end it is simply a relection of what they do.

    Along those lines, the situation in Iraq is less relfective of a civil war and more reflective of a society that is caught up in a proxy war between Saudi backed jihadis and Iranian backed militias.

    The operative thing here is that the oppotunists doing most of the killing are only able to get away with it because of the money coming in from the outside. If rich Saudis and the Iranian government were not paying for all of this violence not much would be going on.

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