Iraq: Shock and Awe II

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Good News, Bad News and President Bush's 'Filter'

A month ago, President Bush was on a crusade against the media "filter" that he believed was stopping the American people getting the good news on Iraq. Now, it appears, the President himself has been the victim of a "filter" — in the form of Vice President Cheney and the Rumsfeld crowd at the Pentagon who have kept the bad news from Iraq off his desk. Indeed, it was to make an end-run around that particular "filter" that a bleak CIA assessment of U.S. operations in Iraq was leaked to the media. The analysis, written by the CIA's Baghdad station chief from reports compiled by some 270 operatives on the ground, makes nonsense of the administration's sunny attempts to measure progress by schools rebuilt and electricity supplies, and also of its tendency to characterize the escalating insurgency as the last hurrah of Baathist "dead-enders," al-Qaeda carpetbaggers and other assorted losers.

The CIA warns that a growing number of Iraqis see the insurgency as legitimate resistance to occupation, and is coming to believe that the U.S. can be driven out by the guerrilla campaign. The insurgency, they say, is growing, and the Iraqi Governing Council on which the U.S. had relied to represent Iraqis has no support among them. It warns that if the growing hostility to the U.S. in the Shiite community erupts in violence, all could be lost. So, it appears that while the White House was telling Americans to look at electricity supplies and reopened schools, Iraqis were paying more attention to stuff blowing up around them. Perhaps the President ought occasionally to read a newspaper on Iraq. Because it turns out that the media's picture about which he complained so bitterly is a lot closer to the unsentimental conclusions of the CIA's people on the ground than are Condoleezza Rice's History Channel fantasies about Iraq being a rerun of postwar Germany.

Shock and Awe II

The clearest evidence that the U.S. is actually fighting a war in Iraq is not simply the fact that its Army commander on the ground said as much on Sunday, it's the fact that the U.S. fixed-wing warplanes have conducted a number of bombing raids over the past week. It's not that the Pentagon believes it can vanquish a near-invisible guerrilla army from the skies — the first rule in the guerrilla manual is avoid concentrating your forces and offering a target to your enemy's air power. No, the object of the latest U.S. air strikes was not necessarily even to kill enemy fighters — the residents of some of the houses that were struck from the air were actually warned to evacuate ahead of time. Dropping 500-pound bombs on empty houses and buildings, and the use of gunships and helicopters in some operations against suspected meeting places and other sites used by insurgents appear designed, instead, to send a message to the local population about the combat capability the U.S. is able to bring to bear against its enemies. The goal is to intimidate those among the local population who have made the area notoriously permissive to the insurgents.

The U.S. forces had to do something, of course. The insurgents' Ramadaan offensive has seen three U.S. helicopters shot down, a daily dose of ambushes and audacious and high profile guerrilla and terror strikes, and upward of 60 coalition troops killed within the past two weeks alone. No military force is going to absorb upward of 30 attacks a day week after week without hitting back hard in order to reassert its deterrent capability. The problem facing U.S. troops in Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle, however, is that the enemy is largely invisible, and unless the civilian population is willing to blow the whistle, he's notoriously hard to find. (Just ask the Israelis. Or the Russians who served in Afghanistan. Or any Vietnam vet.) And as Milt Bearden, former CIA liaison to the Afghan mujahedeen (back in the days when Osama bin Laden was still in the "freedom fighter" column) wrote last week, there may be four or five family members ready to sign up with the insurgency to avenge each Iraqi fighter killed. Hence the high-explosive message sent to warn the locals off supporting the bad guys.

The danger, of course, is that the locals — particularly those further away from the targets — take a rather different message from the air raids than the one intended. The continued use of air power suggests there's a war on, and that means that the outcome is not yet settled. And the CIA warns that it is precisely a sense that the outcome could yet go the way of the insurgents that is contributing to the lack of faith among ordinary Iraqis in the ability of the U.S. forces to impose their will — and reinforcing the insurgency.

Guerrillas, after all, conduct most of their military actions with a view to sending a message — they can't hope to beat their enemy head-to-head on a battlefield, so they try to sap his will to remain on their turf. The reason they killed 17 Italian carabinieri at Nasiriya on Wednesday was not because they believed the Italians are integral to the coalition's combat capability; it was to send a message that the U.S. and its allies are not safe even in the supposedly tranquil Shiite south of Iraq — and that message appears to have had an instant effect on the intentions of other U.S. allies, with Japan postponing its plans to deploy troops to Iraq in December, and South Korea capping its own commitment at less than a third of the number requested by the U.S.

U.S. commanders on the ground in Iraq right now will be hoping that their own high-explosive message will prove more persuasive than that of the insurgents. Because right now, if the CIA analysis is to be believed, the local population remains up for grabs — and in some parts, at least, the insurgents may even be having the better of the battle for their hearts and minds.