Weblog: War Without End

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On Foreign Fighters in Iraq I
(Thursday, October 30, 2003)

It may be comforting to blame the violence in Iraq on foreign fighters inspired by the likes of Osama bin Laden, but it could also be self-deluding. To be sure, bin Laden has urged his followers to head for Iraq to wage jihad, and hundreds may have answered his call. It may well be that some of the suicide terror strikes on soft targets are the work of foreigners, the Baathists being a secular lot who prefer to live to fight another day (as their surrender of Baghdad six months ago amply illustrates). Nobody really knows precisely who is behind the terror strikes or the escalating guerrilla war against U.S. and coalition forces. Besides the spectacular suicide strikes, in the past week alone there have more than 230 attacks on U.S. forces and their allies, most of them hit-and-run ambushes using a growing range of different weapons and munitions — mortars, RPGs, antitank mines, remote-detonated improvised explosives, surface-to-air missiles and so on. U.S. commanders on the ground believe most of those attacks are carried out by Iraqis, be they loyalists of the old regime, or Islamists and nationalists who have made common cause with the Baathists.

U.S. commanders freely admit that they simply don't know very much about these attacks, and the relationships between the various forces that may be carrying them out. A force or group of forces capable of launching 33 attacks a day on American troops remains, for the most part, invisible to the coalition forces. And it's not that they're melting away into the jungle or the mountains; they're melting away into the civilian population. The civilian population of Baghdad and the Sunni triangle has proved sufficiently permissive to these fighters that they've managed to increase the scale of their insurgency. The frequency and intensity of attacks, and the range of munitions and tactics used suggest an insurgency growing in sophistication and confidence. This week they even managed to blow up an Abrams tank, killing two of its crew and wounding a third.

Pressing neighboring countries to seal Iraq's borders, and doing more to do the same from the Iraq side, could certainly help stanch the flow of jihadis into Iraq. But the deeper problem is inside Iraq itself. Foreign fighters wouldn't last hours in Iraq if the local population was a) sufficiently sympathetic to the U.S. occupation, and b) sufficiently confident in the ability of the U.S. to protect them if they blew the whistle. The same goes for local fighters. Instead, it seems, scores of fighters both local and foreign are able to live and move comfortably among ordinary Iraqis, at least in the Sunni population. And that's an indicator of the depth of the problem

On Foreign Fighters in Iraq II

Washington's efforts to expand the number of foreign fighters on its own side in Iraq have proved disappointing. Despite the new UN Security Council resolution, India, Bangladesh and Portugal have said no; Pakistan and South Korea have prevaricated, with the former increasingly unlikely to get involved. The best news on that front had been the decision by Turkey to deploy more than 10,000 troops, but then opposition from the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council appears to have stymied that possibility.

The Bush administration has now recognized that the key to resolving the security crisis in Iraq is to get more Iraqis involved. That, of course, is a position shared by everyone from the French and the UN to the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. The question is how to do it. Washington wants to accelerate the training of Iraqi security forces to get them out on to the streets, presumably still under the overall command of the U.S., in order to "put an Iraqi face" on the occupation. The IGC is composed of a variety of competing interests, and its members have different ideas about how to get the Iraqis involved in security. Some want a wholesale revival of the old Iraqi army disbanded by Ambassador Bremer's decree; others, particularly from the Shiite and Kurdish communities, want a greater role for the militias link to their own communities and political parties. And for the Europeans, the Arabs and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the key issue is sovereignty — the best hope for getting Iraqis involved in security is to put Iraqis in charge of the political process they'd be protecting — in other words, they're skeptical of the extent to which Iraqis will be willing to risk their lives to protect an order run by the Coalition Provisional Authority. Expect this debate to intensify in the months ahead.

The Bad News on Wolfowitz's Good-News Trip
(Monday, October 27, 2003)

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz's itinerary in Iraq was designed primarily as a PR exercise, intended to highlight the positive developments supposedly being overlooked by the media. But the men fighting the U.S. occupation from the shadows had a media agenda of their own, systematically spoiling Wolfowitz's PR party by a series of well-timed attacks on key locations and installations. Hours after Wolfowitz left Tikrit, insurgents using a rocket-propelled grenade downed a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter. Worse was to come: On Sunday, they fired a fusillade of rockets at the Baghdad hotel where Wolfowitz was staying, as if to show that even the most heavily guarded piece of real estate in the capital can't be adequately protected. The al-Rasheed hotel, where most coalition officials reside, has since been evacuated, and the spectacle of a shaken Wolfowitz vowing to fight on did little to reassure the folks back home. The attack on Wolfowitz's residence-for-a-night showed a nimble tactical ability on the part of the insurgents to improvise and time their attacks for maximum political effect. And they followed it up Monday with the bloodiest single day in Baghdad since the capital fell to U.S. forces, killing at least 34 people and wounding more than 200 in attacks on the headquarters of the International Red Cross and four Iraqi police stations around Baghdad. (Following the example of the UN before it, the ICRC has responded to the attack by preparing to withdraw most of its personnel from Iraq until such time as security improves.)

It's Security, Stupid

The administration's efforts to recast the American public's thinking on Iraq is focused on drawing attention to successes in rebuilding schools, restoring electricity supplies, launching a new currency and other basic improvements in the quality of daily life. But the latest wave of violence is a reminder that the critical issue on which all else depends is security, and on that front the news is not exactly encouraging. Rather than ebbing, six months into the occupation the attacks on U.S. forces are growing more frequent and more sophisticated. Twelve U.S. soldiers have been killed in the past 10 days, for example, and the number of wounded is far higher. (The total number of U.S. troops killed since President Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq on May 1 is now 112, and USA Today puts the total number wounded since that date, as of last Thursday, at 1,058.)

Managing the Media

The troubling security situation on the ground in Iraq also appears to have prompted a rethink in handling of the media. NPR's Deborah Amos reports that camera crews have been stopped from filming at the scene of ambushes on U.S. forces, sometimes being briefly detained or having their tapes confiscated. The military also no longer allows camera crews to film bodies arriving home in flag-draped caskets. The evident concern is to avoid generating troubling visuals — and the reasons are obvious: If the "Black Hawk Down" incident in Mogadishu is the defining military trauma of the past decade, it's worth noting that by the measure of combat fatalities in postwar Iraq has matched the Mogadishu death toll more than six times over. But it hasn't produced anything like that day's ugly visuals of American bodies being dragged through the streets by celebrating Somalis. There have, of course, been plenty of reports by Western print journalists of Iraqis cheering at the scene of ambushes on U.S. forces. And that's precisely the spectacle that the Pentagon may be looking to keep off the evening news.

Money Talks

The security situation is often cited as a major reason for the caution of European and Arab donors in making commitments to Iraq. But one dimension of the financial story mostly overlooked is the political implication of the fact that most of the donor pledges corralled by the U.S. last week came in the form of loans and loan-guarantees. Washington had already acceded to the reality that nobody outside its "coalition of the willing" is going to provide funds to be managed directly by U.S. viceroy Paul Bremer, so a separate fund was created under the supervision of the IMF and World Bank to attract grants. But loans, presumably, would be a different matter. Those who loan money to others expect to be repaid, and therefore they need to know that the entity undertaking to repay the loan will be in a position — legally and financially — to do so. That rules out Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority, the Iraqi Governing Council and even the World Bank-run fund. All of these are designed as temporary entities, and there would be no legal obligation on a future sovereign Iraqi government to repay any loans made by any of them. In other words, by offering aid to Iraq in the form of a loan, the donors are essentially requiring that a sovereign Iraqi government be put in place before any funds are forthcoming. And that appears to be a way of putting some muscle behind the demand for a speedy restoration of Iraqi sovereignty articulated by the Europeans and Arabs in the weeks preceding the latest UN Security Council resolution.