What Are They Fighting For?

One of the most unsatisfying aspects of the ongoing coverage of the Iraq war: The failure of the media to make more than a token stab at explaining and exploring the insurgency. Generally, you get one of two types of approach in most stories: a simple gloss over — we can’t tell you who these people are or why they’re doing what they’re doing, but we can tell you they set off six more car bombs today; or a gloss over that follows the “coalition” line on explaining the insurgents — they’re thugs, murderers, enemies of democracy.

They may be all of these things. But it’s hardly acceptable to leave it at that. Our leaders have given us the gift of Iraq, and it’s one of those gifts that keeps on giving. Unless we think we can kill everyone who’s disinclined to go along with us over there, we better start figuring out the more complex reality driving the violence.

The New York Times had a story Saturday — “The Mystery of the Insurgency” — that’s the first attempt I’ve seen in the mainstream press to directly raise the question of what lies behind the insurgents’ tactics:

The insurgents in Iraq are showing little interest in winning hearts and minds among the majority of Iraqis, in building international legitimacy, or in articulating a governing program or even a unified ideology or cause beyond expelling the Americans. They have put forward no single charismatic leader, developed no alternative government or political wing, displayed no intention of amassing territory to govern now.

Rather than employing the classic rebel tactic of provoking the foreign forces to use clumsy and excessive force and kill civilians, they are cutting out the middleman and killing civilians indiscriminately themselves, in addition to more predictable targets like officials of the new government. Bombings have escalated in the last two weeks, and on Thursday a bomb went off in heavy traffic in Baghdad, killing 21 people.

This surge in the killing of civilians reflects how mysterious the long-term strategy remains – and how the rebels’ seeming indifference to the past patterns of insurgency is not necessarily good news for anyone.

There are no answers in the story, really. But beginning to explore the questions the insurgency raises is a start.

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