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The Shi'ite-Sunni Divide and Escalating Violence
My friend Jeff Stein had a deeply disturbing op-ed piece in the New York Times a few days ago on the inability of senior law enforcement and intelligence officials, along with senior members of Congress-all dealing extensively with the Islamist terrorism issues-to tell Sunnis from Shi'ites.

Many could not say for certain if bin Laden and al Qaeda were Sunni, or whether Iran and Hezbollah were Shi'ite or which group the majority of Iraqis belong to.

He wasn't even asking basic theological differences, rather, just for a basic understanding of who was where on the chess board. This is akin to fighting a war against Christianity and not knowing, several years into the conflict, whether the Pope is Catholic or Protestant.

Before 9-11, what little most of us knew of Islam led us to believe it was all one big ball of wax with few differences of any importance. Hence the Clinton administration was willing to aid the most radical (Sunni) Islamists fighting in Bosnia, not understanding yet what _wahhabism_ was or the dangers it represented. There are countless other examples.

But, five years after 9-11, carried out by Sunni Islamists, and facing a possible nuclear threat for a Shi'ite Islamist state (Iran), while trying to rebuild a nation torn asunder by armed militias from both camps in Iraq, it would seem that such ignorance within the upper reaches of government is unforgiveable and perhaps the product of thinking that our enemy is 1) monolithic and 2) stupid.

This ignorance drastically reduces the ability to conceive of operations that could exploit the deep divisions and hatreds between the two groups and sects within each group. It also greatly reduces our chances of understanding the different enemies that exist with the possibility of developing a nuanced response geared not at "Muslims," but specific branches is radical Islamists that believe fundamentally different things, have different vulnerabilities and different points of access.

In the war in El Salvador in the 1980s, the United States never understood the differences within the FMLN, viewing it as a monolithic Marxist structure, rather than five organizations struggling with internal dissention on an ongoing basis. Senior U.S. officials acknowledged later they had no clear understanding of the differences within the guerrilla front and never seriously tried to exploit the schisms.

After the war senior FMLN commanders said that at least two of the factions, including one of the biggest, had sought overtures to the U.S. and would have been receptive to a separate peace, something that certainly would have shortened that war. But, despite fighting the FMLN for 10 years, it was never understood.

The same appears to be tragically true in the war against Islamists. There are books written on the differences between the two main groups of Islam and their different tendencies. It is impossible to understand Iraq without of why the different groups are killing each other, and factoring that into what the U.S. role could and should be. The same holds true for the entire region. History matters.

It would also greatly help to understand that the international Muslim Brotherhood is the one Islamic organization that can bridge the divide, and that ability is one of the great strengths and weaknesses of the organization. But we can't tell even the main players at this point, when the game is already well underway and has been for years.
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