America's New War in Iraq

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U.S. troops argue with ex-Iraqi army personnel in Baghdad

The mercury hits 110 degrees most days in Baghdad now, but for occupying U.S. forces the political-military climate may be even hotter. Thursday's mortar and rocket attacks that killed one American and a number of Iraqis were a continuation of a daily drumbeat of hit-and-run attacks. Although U.S. officials have reported killing more than 100 fighters and arresting hundreds of suspects in raids this week on a suspected training camp and during searches of villages in Iraq's Baath party heartland, America has suffered an average of a soldier killed in combat every other day since President Bush on May 1 declared an end to hostilities in Iraq. The situation is getting so bad that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz on Wednesday told legislators on Capitol Hill that the U.S. now faces what he termed a "guerrilla war" in Iraq.

Though Iraq is mess right now, the U.S. does have a significant trump card in the country's divided political geography — a situation for which the Bush administration can thank the French (and the British). Iraq, like most of the nation-states conjured up with pencil and ruler on mapping tables in European capitals during the colonial era, comprises three distinct and often hostile ethnic groups. The Europeans did this to make such entities easier to rule from the outside and hobble their ability to unite against the colonial authorities. And the same dynamic may help the Americans.

So far, the armed rebellion against the U.S.-led occupation is confined to the Sunni Muslim population in the capital and to the north — the 15 percent of Iraqis who have governed the country from its creation after World War I until the arrival of the Third Infantry Division in Baghdad. Even the most stridently anti-American leaders of the country's Shiite majority have condemned the Sunni insurgency, denouncing it as "premature" and urging their followers instead to press peacefully for an early U.S. departure. As much as they chafe against the idea of a long-term U.S. occupation, the Shiites are unlikely to make common cause with a rebellion by the same Baathists that had routinely butchered previous Shiite uprisings. Without the support of the Shiites and the Kurds, the rebellion has a decidedly low ceiling — it can harass the U.S. forces and make their stay uncomfortable and costly, but it is unlikely ever to muster the national challenge that confronted the U.S. in Vietnam. And coalition commanders are hoping that the early capture or elimination of Saddam Hussein and other core Baathist leaders will speed the collapse of the resistance.

Guerillas in their midst

Still, while the U.S. military is a war-fighting machine without rival or peer, it doesn't do occupation very well. It fights and wins wars, but typically prefers to leave winning the peace to others — the Brits and other European and South Asian nations who have specialized in peacekeeping. The Pentagon recently even announced the closure of the peacekeeping institute at the Army War College.

Iraq, however, is right now neither a war nor a peacekeeping mission; it's a counterinsurgency operation — a low-intensity conflict requiring a delicate combination of combat, policing and civil affairs operations designed to isolate guerrilla forces from the civilian population in which they shelter, and then eliminate them. The remnants of Saddam's regime know they can never muster the firepower to beat an overwhelmingly superior occupying force. Instead they rely on stealth, speed and mobility to carry out hit and run attacks designed to stretch and demoralize their enemy and his supporters, and avoid concentrating their forces which makes them easy pickings for their enemy's vastly superior firepower. If, indeed, the Baathists took heavy losses at a training camp last weekend, the lesson they will likely learn from the experience is to further disperse their forces.

The hard road ahead

Counterinsurgency is always a tough fight for the occupying army no matter how great its advantages in technology and firepower — as the Israeli experience in the West Bank and Gaza and even the current U.S. operations in Afghanistan testify. The enemy keeps on coming. And confronting a determined enemy sheltering in a supportive, or at least permissive, civilian population requires that the occupying power deploy thousands more troops than the guerrilla formations. Their efforts to identify and eliminate enemy combatants hiding among civilians inevitably result in mistakes and miscalculations that alienate the local population, even generating sympathy for the guerrillas. The U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq has opted for large-scale sweeps, involving upward of 1,000 troops and air power, through territory in which anti-American forces are believed to be hiding. And while these sometimes yield handfuls of enemy combatants, in both places reports from the ground suggest they also rouse considerable local hostility. Which is exactly what the insurgents hope to achieve.

U.S. troops went to Iraq expecting to face dug-in Republican Guard units, eliminate them in an awesome display of firepower, and then head for home. They fought their way to Baghdad with lightning speed and efficiency, but instead of heading for home, many of the approximately 140,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq look set to stay awhile. One of the commanders of their British counterparts told a London newspaper last weekend that they'd likely be in Iraq at least four years. American GIs now find themselves peering through a 110-degree haze at an enemy who is essentially made invisible by the language and cultural barriers separating the troops from the local population. And the survival instinct requires that the soldier treat every crowd as a potentially deadly threat. Thus, for example, the killing of two Iraqis in Baghdad during a protest by former soldiers demanding to be paid, after U.S. officials said the crowd began throwing stones at American soldiers.

For the insurgency to sustain itself and attract new recruits beyond the existing cadre of die-hard Baathists — and, possibly, pockets of Sunni Islamists and disaffected former army officers who have suddenly found themselves with no source of income since the U.S. two weeks ago dissolved the Iraqi army — the U.S. would have to badly botch its efforts to win Iraqi goodwill. But therein lies the rub: Although the U.S. is a long way off from alienating the majority of Iraqis to the extent that they'd consider taking up arms against the world's most powerful military, it has not, thus far, managed to endear the majority of Iraqis to the occupation authority, either. It may be a relatively safe bet, right now, that the U.S. will ultimately prevail in the new phase of conflict in Iraq, but the cost and duration of that victory may be higher than most Americans had been led to expect.