What if official military estimates about the size and impact of al-Qaeda in Iraq are simply wrong? Indeed, interviews with numerous military and intelligence analysts, both inside and outside of government, suggest that the number of strikes the group has directed represent only a fraction of what official estimates claim. Further, al-Qaeda's presumed role in leading the violence through uniquely devastating attacks that catalyze further unrest may also be overstated.
....In a background briefing this July in Baghdad, military officials said that during the first half of this year AQI accounted for 15 percent of attacks in Iraq....Yet those who have worked on estimates inside the system take a more circumspect view....spectrum of estimates, ranging from 8 percent to 15 percent....But even the low estimate of 8 percent may be an overstatement.
....How big, then, is AQI? The most persuasive estimate I've heard comes from Malcolm Nance, the author of The Terrorists of Iraq and a twenty-year intelligence veteran and Arabic speaker who has worked with military and intelligence units tracking al-Qaeda inside Iraq. He believes AQI includes about 850 full-time fighters, comprising 2 percent to 5 percent of the Sunni insurgency. "Al-Qaeda in Iraq," according to Nance, "is a microscopic terrorist organization."
....The view that AQI is neither as big nor as lethal as commonly believed is widespread among working-level analysts and troops on the ground. A majority of those interviewed for this article believe that the military's AQI estimates are overblown to varying degrees. If such misgivings are common, why haven't doubts pricked the public debate?
Golly, it seems to me that maybe...just maybe...we're giving arms to Sunni groups so they can accomplish two goals.
(1) Kill people in their own areas they don't like with the U.S. looking the other way and whistling...after all the victims must be Al Qaeda right?
(2) Arming them so they can have a chance to kill a whole bunch of Shiia someday...just like we've armed the
Iraqi militaryShiias to kill a whole bunch of Sunnis.
Of course, if they don't get a chance soon enough and we're still there after they've killed all the locals they don't like...well, that's what Kevlar is for, right?
UPDATE: Juan Cole, who certainly knows more than me about most things (but I bet I have him beat in important categories like "Football Trivia" and "Swearing") elaborates:
The sheiks are not democratic or elected. But they are certainly important. And they also, not surprisingly, have their own political agendas. These Sunni tribal sheiks were one of Saddam Hussein's central constituencies. They supported him, provided him with manpower and officers, and benefited hugely from his largesse. They and their constituencies were the ones who suffered most from the fall of Saddam, the rise of Shiite power, the growing Iranian influence, the Kurdish efforts to recover claimed territory, the adoption of a national constitution that failed to take account of Sunni interests and the looming possibility that they will be denied what they would consider a fair share of future oil revenues. And to top it off, radical Sunni Islamists were challenging their traditional authority, and the American army was decimating their population and landscape.
So the Sunni sheiks appear now to be doing what the Shiites and others have done: find ways to bring the US to support their objectives...
To now compete, the Sunnis can offer the US to fight the radical al Qaeda types in their midst, a truce in their armed resistance to the US army, and undying opposition to the "Persians." In exchange, they receive weapons, training and "reconstruction teams." But it is the arms and training that count, to be used now against radical Islamist elements, but later to help recover the status and power they lost when Saddam was overthrown. We also should not assume that by making "nice" today, the Sunni sheiks will not in their good time turn on us.