To Get Out of Iraq, the U.S. May Have to Get Deeper In

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Nobody, not even the President, denies that the U.S. is confronting a major problem in post-Saddam Iraq. George Bush put it bluntly on Tuesday: Rebuilding Iraq would require a "massive and long-term" commitment and would demand further sacrifice of American lives and treasure. That's because for all the reasons the Bush Administration went to war in Iraq, retreat is not an option. The implications of the President's commitment may have been clarified in reports Wednesday that his viceroy in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, has asked Washington to send more troops and civilian administrators to Iraq to help turn around the security and infrastructure crises there. Key senators from both parties have been warning in recent weeks that success in Iraq will require more troops, whether sent by the U.S. or by its allies.

Fixing the problems in Iraq, of course, requires that they be accurately diagnosed. One question Administration officials are increasingly fielding is whether the U.S. forces are facing a guerrilla war. At a Pentagon briefing earlier this week, one journalist read out the definition of guerrilla warfare from the Department of Defense's own dictionary of terminology: "Military and paramilitary operations conducted in enemy-held or hostile territory by irregular, predominantly indigenous forces." That, the reporter observed, sounds a lot like the current situation in Iraq. Rumsfeld was barely coherent in his response, talking about "five different things that are going on that are functioning more like terrorists." (Guerrilla insurgencies, of course, are typically labeled "terrorist," although it should also be noted in Rumsfeld's defense that the DOD definition of guerrilla warfare is not exactly precise.)

Determining a political pattern in the violence in Iraq is certainly difficult. But when a U.S. armored vehicle is taken out in the streets of downtown Baghdad by a rocket-propelled grenade fired from the sunroof of a passing SUV — and the event is considered commonplace — there's plainly an insurgency at work. U.S. forces in and around Baghdad are under constant attack, and when there are no American casualties those attacks often go unreported. While attacks have come in the form of sniper fire, roadside bombs and mines, ambushes and close-range gunfire, the weapon of choice among those seeking to kill American soldiers in Iraq appears increasingly to be the RPG-7 rocket launcher. The cheap, portable, recoilless Soviet-designed rocket launcher has long been a favorite of guerrilla armies everywhere, because it evens up the odds against more heavily armed and armored enemies. The Afghans and Chechens have used them to devastating effect against the Russians, and Somali militiamen used one to down a U.S. Blackhawk helicopter in Mogadishu. And they may be an even more attractive option in Baghdad because of the fact that, as one commentator has noted, "superbly effective and light bullet-proof vests and helmets make the U.S. and British soldier almost as well protected as the medieval knight.".

That there is an insurgency in Baghdad and in the Sunni triangle to the north is undeniable, but whether the attackers are part of a single coherent political command structure — or even a variety of different structures — remains to be seen. There is certainly a level of professionalism in some of the attacks on U.S. forces, suggesting the involvement of members of Saddam's security forces. But others have been crude hit-and-run attacks and in some cases even Quixotic charges by lightly armed men on armored vehicles. Rumfseld is probably correct in asserting there are a number of different elements at work. But the Defense Secretary may also be a little too inclined to blame the problem exclusively on die-hard Baathists and criminals. (It is certainly difficult to imagine what motive criminals would have for attacking U.S. forces, since they have been among the greatest beneficiaries of the breakdown in security that followed Saddam's collapse, and they presumably have far more lucrative and less dangerous options open to them right now than taking potshots at the world's most powerful army.) But focusing primarily on criminals and former Saddamists may lead the U.S. to underestimate the nature of the problem. After all, nobody likes criminals, and the Baathists were not exactly most Iraqis idea of a good time.

In fact, Rumsfeld may have inadvertently hit on a significant analogy when, to dismiss "quagmire" fears, he compared Iraq with Eastern Europe in the wake of communism. Saddam's Iraq was certainly more akin to a Stalinist regime than any Arab autocracy. But the difference between it and post-Soviet Russia is that Iraq right now is wholly owned by the U.S. If the U.S. military had been occupying Russia in the wake of communism's collapse, the situation might have been quite different: Like post-Soviet Russians, Iraqis suddenly find themselves enjoying unprecedented freedom to speak their minds. But like those post-Soviet Russians, they also find themselves in the throes of a socio-economic catastrophe. In many cases their jobs have simply disappeared, gangsters are helping themselves to the nation's treasures and such basic services as electricity and potable water are suddenly no longer reliably available. The difference, is that the Russians had no one to blame; the Iraqis have the U.S. occupation authority.

And that gets to the heart of the problem: Most Iraqis do not support the insurgency, but they are increasingly estranged from the occupation. Opinion surveys, to the extent that these are reliable in a society where expressing contrarian opinions has been to court death, find that a majority want the Americans to stay, but they can't understand why a power that was able to vaporize Saddam's regime within three weeks has been unable to guarantee the electricity supply to Baghdad. They want their immediate problems addressed, and they want to see a clear timetable and program for restoring their country to Iraqi rule. While Bremer has prudently avoided prematurely transferring power to an interim government dominated by pro-U.S. exiles, his decision to appoint an Iraqi consultative body rather than allow a governing structure to emerge from a national assembly is facing mounting criticism from all sides. The most serious blow came this week in the form of a 'fatwa' by Iraq's leading Shiite cleric denouncing Bremer's plan and insisting that Iraqis chose their own leaders. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is considered a moderate who has encouraged Iraq's Shiite majority to work with the occupation forces; his fatwa will make it extremely difficult for Bremer's plan to win popular acceptance.

The U.S. military mission in parts of Iraq looks set to increasingly combine reconstruction with counterinsurgency, which according to the DOD's dictionary describes "those military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency." And textbook counterinsurgency prioritizes the political and administrative aspects over combat — the insurgency depends on the support or, at least, consent of the local population; the authorities work to isolate and destroy the insurgents by winning the loyalty of the local population through providing good governance and protection from intimidation. The U.S. hopes to get help from allies, hoping to recruit two or even three divisions of assorted Europeans and south Asians to help provide security. It's not yet clear how forthcoming these nations would be, but even if they provide upward of 30,000 troops, the load on the U.S. military may not lighten significantly.

The problem facing the U.S. mission right now is its failure, after two months, to make a favorable impression on large sections of the Iraqi population by creating security and restoring normalcy — because that potentially acts as a force multiplier for the insurgents. Tuesday's explosion that killed nine people at a mosque in Fallujah shows why. Indications are that the explosion was caused by explosives being handled inside the mosque, presumably by would-be insurgents, but the overwhelming inclination among Iraqis is to blame the U.S., regardless of the facts. And the tendency of many Iraqis who have no truck with the insurgency to nonetheless believe the worst rumors about the U.S. ought to be deeply worrying to U.S. officials. The problem even extends to some Iraqis working directly with the U.S. to restore security, as the Washington Post reports.

Massive sweep operations such as Operation Desert Sidewinder certainly help root out insurgents. But their ability to do so also depends primarily on good intelligence, which in turn requires the goodwill of the locals. And the very nature of the sweep operations often functions to alienate the local population, which at best makes the U.S. forces' job more difficult and at worst grows the insurgency.

Defeating the insurgency and winning the peace in Iraq is a battle that will be won or lost politically, in the hearts and minds of Iraqis. And Iraqis will judge the U.S. first and foremost on its ability to deliver security and restore the basic functioning of a society free of Saddam's chokehold — a mission the insurgents will, undoubtedly, be doing their utmost to disrupt at every turn. It may be premature to say the battle is being lost, but nor is it possible, yet, to claim that it is being won. Which may be why Washington's only viable exit strategy from Iraq, right now, may require increasing, rather than decreasing its commitment of U.S. personnel there.