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Two Sides of the COIN in Iraq Proving Grounds Theory

One of the popularly noted negative affects of the war in Iraq has been that it would be a training ground for jihadists to gain real-world terrorist experience that would enable them to return to their home countries more lethally trained. This, of course, is true for those that make it out and back to their original homes (or next stops abroad.) But, as Europe is now realizing, fewer of its own are getting in - much less making it back out - and far fewer than feared are making it back to European soil. In short, the fear was overblown and now "Europe's fears subside."

Now, as members of the cell are awaiting a verdict in their case, French and other European intelligence and law enforcement officials are adjusting their analysis. They say their fears of young would-be fighters from Europe traveling to Iraq and returning more radicalized and better trained were overblown.

The logistical challenges and expense of reaching Iraq have been one deterrent, they said, particularly since Syria has made episodic efforts to halt the use of its territory as a transit route. Compared with the thousands of European Muslims who joined the fight in Afghanistan in the 1990s through networks in Britain , the numbers of fighters going to Iraq has been extremely small, according to senior French intelligence officials.

Another factor, the officials say, is that European Muslims lacking military training and good Arabic-language skills are neither needed nor welcomed by Iraqi insurgents - unless they are willing to be involved in suicide missions.

The last point is critical - most European Muslims that could be said to ''crawl from the woodwork' to join the jihad lack the bare essentials of both language skills and prior 'military' training to be of basic utility in Iraq. Therefore, their tickets have largely been one-way.

Consider also that the vast majority of foreigners entering Iraq for the jihad have come from Saudi Arabia, Libya and Morocco (with the majority of the latter two as suicide bombers), and this leaves Europe with a relatively small gene pool of returning antagonist terrorists. This does not mean that Europe's terrorism threat has been lessened per se, but rather means that the Iraq experience is not paying the direct dividends to the terrorists in their midst as once expected and feared.

Insofar as the 'breeding ground' argument goes, it must also be considered that it is impossible to have a war zone where combatants do not gain experience. And within that equation, the calculus also applies to our own skillsets, abilities and experience levels. The mental and physical tasks of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism inherent within the Iraq war have made the forces involved - from American to British to Iraqi - incalculably more able to conduct operations. And the knowledge gained (about al-Qaeda in particular) is not locked in the mind of Corporal John Smith in Fallujah, but shared and valuable across the board throughout different agencies - at home and within Iraq.

The other side of the coin (pardoning the COIN pun) remains that Iraq has also become a counterterrorism and counterinsurgency proving ground for our own forces, services and agencies, with the experiences paying off in future theaters within this same conflict.