March 20, 2005

The Iraq Front

This strikes me as good news:

The top Marine officer in Iraq said Friday that the number of attacks against American troops in Sunni-dominated western Iraq and death tolls had dropped sharply over the last four months, a development that he called evidence that the insurgency was weakening in one of the most violent areas of the country.

The officer, Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, head of the First Marine Expeditionary Force, said that insurgents were averaging about 10 attacks a day, and that fewer than two of those attacks killed or wounded American forces or damaged equipment. That compared with 25 attacks a day, five of them with casualties or damage, in the weeks leading up to the pivotal battle of Falluja in November, he said...

...He said that several hundred hard-core jihadists and former members of Saddam Hussein's government and security services were still operating in Anbar Province, but that the declining frequency of the attacks indicated that the rebels' influence was waning.

"They're way down on their attempts, and even more on their effectiveness," General Sattler said.

Yes, "(w)e still have a lot of work to do" as General Sattler put it. But it is increasingly clear that the Iraqi insurgency is under real pressure and is getting push backed quite effectively of late. On a strategic level, I suspect the successful elections played a large part in helping bring this about. The prospects of hard core jihadists, terrorists and fundamentalists widening their base of support to include, say, large swaths of nationalist Sunni (or Shi'a) hasn't worked out. To the carnage of suicide bombings, beheadings and kidnappings the man on the street sees political governance structures being cobbled together that are manned by Iraqis (not Americans or Brits). This puts the lie to much of the jihadist fanaticism and propaganda about Crusader-like foreign interlopers raping and bespoiling the country.

To be sure, there are plenty of potential pitfalls and challenges ahead. But can one hope the worst may have passed, that we survived a rocky post-major combat stage (with too few troops in theater making the going tougher that it likely needed to be) and are now poised for better days ahead? Probably, yes. And while I don't wish to be accused of being overly sanguine about the prospects of a civil war going forward--my money is still on Iraq getting through the next difficult years without degenerating into full-blown civil conflict. There will be inter-communal strains. Flashpoints like Kirkuk will cause headaches. But I think the country can and will remain a viable, unitary polity with an effective central government (with provision for local autonomy in certain areas like the Kurdish north).

P.S. You might have thought the linked New York Times piece would be front page news. It wasn't, alas, as I found out whilst thumbing through the paper edition today. Imagine the placement of the story if the insurgency had worsened since the elections. Much more prominent, one suspects, eh?

Posted by Gregory at March 20, 2005 12:19 AM | TrackBack (32)

". . . with too few troops in theater making the going tougher that it likely needed to be."

OK, OK, Greg. Could we give this meme a rest, just once?

One significant consequence of so many Iraqis being exposed to so many Americans--who have done so much, committed so many acts of kindness and heroism, that have directly benefited the population collectively and individually--is that it make it impossible in the future for the Islamo-facists to demonize Americans--at least amongst Iraqis, but, I suspect, also amongst ordinary citizens in other Arab countries. In Iraq, they have seen the enemy and it's not US!

It took a war, but if the outcome you suggest can be achieved, the bridge building among peoples is likely to last, and the final outcome, IMO, is likely to be exactly what the 60s liberals hoped to accomplish internationally--people to people diplomacy. Rather ironic . . . but a source of hope.

Posted by: ricksamerican at March 20, 2005 01:43 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Is it not at least theoretically possible that "too few (American) troops" might have just a little bit to do with the accelerated pace at which Iraqis are taking responsibility for their security?

Is it not equally (theoretically) possible that lots more American troops might have bred lots more occupation-resentment as well as continued dependency on American troops?

Just wondering...

Posted by: Randall at March 20, 2005 01:52 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

...and I'd like to differ, strongly, with the notion that greater security provided by a larger American force would have been a good thing.

The point of this exercise was and is a free, independent, non-tyrannical Iraq -- an Iraq with a real government of its own, capable of growing out of dependence on American forces. Had the U.S. provided perfect security from day one, flooded the place with troops that prevented looting, etc. etc., there would have been no reason and no incentive for Iraqis to take charge of their own destiny.

I don't think Sistani realized that at first, which is why he held back for so long. As things were he, and others, were receptive to the notion that Iraqis had to provide their own security, that Americans could help but couldn't do it for them. Thus we saw things like the Fallujah Brigade (which failed,) Iraqis trying to take over their own destiny. That led to Iraqis feeling confident both that they could vote and that the vote meant something.

It's possible that a larger American force would not have suffered so many casualties, but really, in the context of war our casualties throughout have been incredibly light, and I'm not convinced that there would have been fewer with more force. More troops means better security, yes, but it also means more targets. It's not clear which effect would be preponderant.


Posted by: Ric Locke at March 20, 2005 02:32 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Gentlemen, calm down. All insurgencies ebb and flow. They are not short-term affairs. They usally last years, along with puppet regimes organized by occupation forces. Remember, the Iraqis were occupied by the British for years after World War I before the British were forced out. The point is they left Iraq. The Americans will too.

Secondly, Sistani did what he did in the interest of Shias, not Americans or democracy. He knew that if his people came to power electorially, in elections the U.S. imposed, the U.S. would not nullify the results when his people took power. If the U.S. did, its hypocrisy would be showing.

Posted by: Munir Umrani at March 20, 2005 03:04 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The previous poster is somewhat correct in his assertion that insurgencies ebb and flow, however he is not taking into account the historical context of those insurgencies. The Brits tried to set up a puppet monarchy with an unknown but respected king who died before he could shape the institutions of the country into stable pillars. The French in Algeria smashed out the insurgency only to see it flare up a couple years later because they used strictly military methods. The current insurgency in Iraq is backed up by Baathists and foreign fundamentalists who can't offer much more than blood, fire and nebulous promises of martyrdom against a majority Shia population who want to stand on their own two feet and prosper in peace. Game, set and eventual match to the Shia and the Kurds.

Posted by: Chris at March 20, 2005 03:20 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It is easy, in hindsight, to say the Administration had too few troops in Iraq for the post-invasion period. What none of us non-Pentagon planners are accounting for are the effective limits of the US force structure, especially in maintaining an effective deterrent force against the NoKors. Additionally, comments above allude to what Administration personnel were referring to pre- and immediate post-invasion as a "small" US footprint, i.e., not the massive post-WWII occupying forces in Japan and Germany. Now, clearly, the lighter/smaller footprint may have been window dressing in service of the deterrent levels necessary on the Korean Peninsula, or from the beginning it may have been a policy objective in its own right. The point is, none of us really know, do we? While I think Bush should have sought to expand the military, especially the ground forces, by 20 to 25% immediately following 9/11, even if he had, those forces would not have been combat ready until late 2003, early 2004 at the earliest, so they would not have been much help in either post-invasion Iraq OR deterring the NoKors. Although their potential deterrent value today vis a vis Syria, Iran or any number of other bad places is reasonably obvious.

Posted by: Tim at March 20, 2005 03:33 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Regarding the "insurgency," it seems pretty obvious the "insurgents" offer Iraqis nothing more than tyranny and death. I don't know how they appeal to anyone who isn't a Baathist or Jihadi. Young men seem ready to die for causes they believe in - yet where does any measure of popular support necessary to sustain a Baathist/Sunni/Jihadi insurrection come from? The numbers alone indicate if the Iraqi Sunnis wish to wage civil war they risk genocide. Especially since we all know post-US departure, no one would do a damn thing to stop it, would they? Not a very smart play for the Sunnis, eh?

Posted by: Tim at March 20, 2005 03:41 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Expanding U.S. military forces, both in general and specifically in Iraq, was not a preferred option. Our money is better spent on advanced-technology weaponry and support systems than on sheer numbers of soldiers.

Sure, our resources were stretched a bit by the Iraq occupation, but they were not maxed out. U.S. forces remain in other areas of the world (e.g., Europe and South Korea) which are being wasted. We should long ago have stopped subsidizing Europe's defense, and South Korea is wealthy enough and capable enough of defending itself without U.S. forces serving as a trip-wire. So we could have relocated more existing soldiers to Iraq if necessary without expanding total troop strength.

As long as we can handle peak loads (which we can, as indicated above), it doesn't make sense to design a force structure which treats those peaks as the norm. Instead we are expanding IRAQI military forces to take over security tasks from the U.S. Far better to temporarily spend the money over there to build up indigenous forces than to permanently increase our own military establishment and costs.

The other consequence (whether intended or unintended) which should be considered is that the Baathist/terrorist insurgency has thoroughly alienated the great majority of Iraqi citizens. They now are under no illusions as to which side is good and which side is evil -- who deliberately kills innocent civilians and who tries to protect civilians. Yes, suicide bombers have killed a lot of people, and that's a terrible thing. But it has united the population against them. In the long run it may result in fewer lives lost than a lower grade but longer term insurgency trying to wait out a larger U.S. occupying force.

This is a variation of the "honey-pot" theory: The terrorists, both within Iraq and from surrounding nations, expended their resources at a high rate trying to create unacceptably-high U.S. casualties. Their efforts failed when Bush was re-elected and the Iraqi people went to the polls in large numbers. They've lost huge numbers of people, they can't sustain the accelerated level of conflict, and as a result the insurgency is in the process of collapsing.

Posted by: Daniel Wiener at March 20, 2005 04:22 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg, I suspect that there is some skepticism about this news, it having been said before. I do hope you're right, though.

Posted by: praktike at March 20, 2005 05:11 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

WaPo runs down the case for caution:

Posted by: praktike at March 20, 2005 07:13 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

How much of this report should we believe?

There's no room for independent verification of any of it, and this particular guy has been spectacularly wrong before.

Still, it might be true. I don't understand why it hasn't gotten more coverage. Also I don't understand why the army shortfall in recruitment has gotten so little coverage. In january it was only the marines that didn't meet recruitment goals. For february it's the army too. Not to mention the reserves and the national guard.

Now we absolutely have to hope the iraqis get an adequate government going. If they don't it won't be just the sunnis out for our blood. At that point it would be obviously suiucidal to be a US collaborator.

Posted by: J Thomas at March 20, 2005 01:17 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Folks act as if the rehabilitation of Iraq and the insurgency were somehow sequential. All the time the insurgency was at is fiercest, lots progress was being made. If you look seriously at it, the worst of the insurgency lasted about a year. During that time, soverignty was restored, the CPA was disbanded, the interim constitution was written, the interim Iraqi Governing council was formed, preparations for voting were progressing, and the ING and IP were being formed and blooded. You can't convince me that there were any problems. that if they were eliminated, would have permitted a faster, more effective return of power and control to the Iraqis.

If there had been no insurgency, how different would Iraq look today? 22 months and less than 2000 troops dead, from shock and awe until free elections conducted by the iraqis themselves. Man we should be proud! With no insurgency would it only have been 20 months?/18? Get real! Regards

Posted by: Abu Qa'Qa at March 20, 2005 05:17 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

We've been keeping something less than a third of our ground forces in the Iraq theater. Not keeping two-thirds of our force resting from deployment and preparing to deploy--in both cases available for other use--would be a case of "not enough troops."

Both real generals and armchair generals always want reinforcements.

Posted by: russell at March 20, 2005 07:28 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

There's no room for independent verification of any of it,

How can you say this? All you have to do is study news reports and the decrease in US deaths and Iraqi bombings would be revealed.

Posted by: gm at March 20, 2005 07:36 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

". . . with too few troops in theater making the going tougher that it likely needed to be."

It's just as possible more troops would have made thigns worse.

The one thing we can say, I think, is that maybe elections should have been held sooner, perhaps even a few months after Baghdad fell (remember, the insurgency took several months to get going). Even if the elections were a big mess, they would still be better than anything in the region before, and they would have been a huge boost to our standing among Iraqis.

Great post overall. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: TallDave at March 20, 2005 09:14 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I think Greg's right that the radical Jihadist insurgency is politically a dead end. Of course, that doesn't mean a small (and patient) minority of dedicated holy warriors can't and won't cause significant problems for the future Iraqi government. But yeah, politically the Islamists have had their support significantly drained.

What WILL be interesting is the interactions between the U.S. and the new Iraqi government. While I don't think the Iraqi parliament will move toward Iran-style theocracy, I think it's pretty clear that they will have an agenda that is significantly different from that of the United States- they won't want to be used as a base if tensions over Iran's nuclear program really start to escalate, for instance.

Posted by: B.R. at March 20, 2005 10:17 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

A few monts back I posted a summary of Mao's three phase guerilla war statagy as maens for analyzing the progress(or lack) in Iraq.

I think seveal of the commentors will find it interesting.

click here

Posted by: Hank_F_M at March 20, 2005 10:35 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"You can't convince me that there were any problems. that if they were eliminated, would have permitted a faster, more effective return of power and control to the Iraqis."

See if this is convincing. Al Sadr said he wanted the US troops out. And then we closed down his newspaper and trumped up a criminal charge against him and announced that we were going to kill or capture him. This is pretty much what created the shia insurgency. Al Sadr's supporters started taking over towns and such, and we started killing them. One thing led to another until we were bombing close to the shias' holiest shrines and working out a plan to send iraqis (kurds? sunnis?) into the shrines to kill Al Sadr and his people. It didn't settle down until Sistani himself organised a compromise, and some of his unarmed peace marchers got shot up -- we say it wasn't by US troops but by iraqi security forces under a former iraqi exile appointed by the US.

Suppose we had responded to the call for US exit by saying we'd leave as soon as an elected government asked us to, and Al Sadr was welcome to run for office on that platform if he thought it was a winning one. There's a fair chance that there wouldn't have been any shia insurgency, that all that part of the death and destruction could have been avoided.

The way we did it, every religious shia got to see where they stood with us. We talked the talk about free speech and free press but we didn't live it. We destroyed big parts of Karbala and Kut and we got the reputation for not taking prisoners. Now there's essentially nobody in iraq who wants US troops to stay who isn't kurdish. The elected government will have the strain of assuming the mantle of democratic legitimacy while they avoid the single issue that the large majority of them ran on and that the overwhelming majority of iraqis wants -- US troops out.

Perhaps if we'd lived up to our ideals Al Sadr would have started an insurgency anyway. But there's a strong chance if we hadn't started it there wouldn't have been any shi'ite insurgency and we'd all be that much better off.

Consistently, the insurgents have been the same people we said we'd freeze out of the democratic process.

We said no Ba'aths in government. The Ba'aths revolted.
We said no salafis in government. The salafis revolted.
We said no Sadrists in government. The Sadrists revolted.

I can't be certain but this sure looks like a problem that's gotten in the way of iraqi democracy.

Posted by: J Thomas at March 21, 2005 01:13 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

We said no Ba'aths in government. The Ba'aths revolted.
We said no salafis in government. The salafis revolted.
We said no Sadrists in government. The Sadrists revolted.

And the end result for all three of these groups was zero-to-negligible presence in government and generally making themselves revolting to the Iraqi people. If the insurgents want to follow losing examples, hey, best not to correct your enemy when he's making a mistake.

Posted by: Achillea at March 21, 2005 02:08 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

J Thomas - I'm inclined to agree with your statements for the most part. owever I would think that kurds aside that opoular opinion on the US would have softened somewhat since the election. WHilst I am sure that a good proportion still resents the American presence in Iraq, I don't think that it would comprise of the entire population, or an overwhelming majority - probably a fair assertion back in November- but probably not so now. I'd agree thats its a view held by a majorty of Iraqi's, but not necessarily an overwhelming majority.

I also believe that a proportion of the resentment stems from as you've identified the intereference or damage to wites of significant religious importance. Also I believe it also stems from the high level of civilian casualties. At last count its aproximately 19-20,000 civilian casualties (compared to 4-6,000 casualties of Insurgents and military casualities) Rather too high in relation to the number of non civilian casualties. This is sure to further fuel resentment.

Posted by: Aran Brown at March 21, 2005 03:31 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

This new story from John Burns is prominently featured on the Times website as of Sunday evening, and may be on Monday's front page:

On Iraq's Street of Fear, the Tide May Be Turning

Nearly two years after American troops captured Baghdad, Haifa Street is like an arrow at the city's heart. A little more than two miles long, it runs south through a canyon of mostly abandoned high-rises and majestic date palms almost to the Assassin's Gate, the imperial-style arch that is the main portal to the Green Zone compound, the principal seat of American power.

When most roads in central Baghdad are choked with traffic, there is rarely more than a trickle of vehicles on Haifa Street. At the day's height, a handful of pedestrians scurry down empty sidewalks, ducking into covered walkways that serve as sanctuaries from gunfire - and as blinds for insurgent attacks in one of Iraq's most bitterly contested battle zones.

American soldiers call the street Purple Heart Boulevard: the First Battalion of the Ninth Cavalry, patrolling here for the past year before its recent rotation back to base at Fort Hood, Tex., received more than 160 Purple Hearts. Many patrols were on foot, to gather intelligence on neighborhoods that American officers say have been the base for brutal car bombings, kidnappings and assassinations across Baghdad.

In the first 18 months of the fighting, the insurgents mostly outmaneuvered the Americans along Haifa Street, showing they could carry the war to the capital's core with something approaching impunity.

But American officers say there have been signs that the tide may be shifting. Despite some notable exceptions, insurgents are attacking in smaller numbers, and with less intensity; mortar attacks into the Green Zone have diminished sharply; major raids have uncovered large weapons caches; and some rebel leaders have been arrested or killed.

American military engineers, frustrated elsewhere by insurgent attacks, are moving ahead along Haifa Street with a $20 million program to improve electricity, sewer and other utilities. So far, none of the work sites have been attacked, although a local Shiite leader who vocally supported the American projects was assassinated on his doorstep in January.

But the change American commanders see as more promising than any other here is the deployment of large numbers of Iraqi troops. American commanders are eager to shift the fighting in Iraq to the country's own troops, allowing American units to pull back from the cities and, eventually, to begin drawing down their 150,000 troops. Haifa Street has become an early test of that strategy....

Posted by: Tom Maguire at March 21, 2005 03:40 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Al Sadr is/was an Iranian stooge, and he was organizing a "Shia" insurrection long before the US shut down his "newspaper."

Look it up.

What you can't look up are some of the special ops the US deployed to convince Al Sadr that his was a losing cause. Think about the horse’s head in the Godfather, for starters.

Posted by: Tim at March 21, 2005 03:57 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Sadr is a thug,period. Just yesterday Basra U students protested his thugs and their tyrannical attempts to enforce Sharia Taliban style on them.

The reason he was handled is because of the Shiites who disagreed,they supplied the information to destroy his "Army". Sistani hates him with a passion.

Shiites and Kurds will have their way with Iraq,since our enemy are delusionary Sunni thugs,this is altogether good for the USA. Let's not forget who our enemy is.

Posted by: Patrick at March 21, 2005 05:16 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Tim, it's absurd to say al Sadr is more of an iranian stooge than the SCIRI guys or the Dawa guys or Sistani.

And there's no evidence that al Sadr thinks he's going to lose. There isn't much evidence yet for us whether he'll lose or not.

Patrick, you believe we "handled" al Sadr because some tame shi'ites told us to? Why would we do that?

And I think you have it backward, we hardly need to remember who our eneies are. What we have to remember is who our friends are. The kurds are our only friends in the middle east.

Posted by: J Thomas at March 22, 2005 05:12 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Al Sadr said he wanted the US troops out. And then we closed down his newspaper and trumped up a criminal charge against him and announced that we were going to kill or capture him. This is pretty much what created the shia insurgency. "J. Thomas

J Thomas,

You are far too bright to be spouting this. Are you saying that Al Sadr wasn't involved in the killing of moderate pro American, pro democracy cleric al-Kooie in April, 2003. Where's your proof?

Tim has already dealt with the fact that Al-Sadr's newspaper was closed down because it was inciting the insurgency.

Three things are clear:
1. The insurgency does not have widespread popular support.
2. Iraqis are prepared to die to defeat the insugency.
3. The greatest military force on earth will not rest until the insurgency is defeated and Iraqis have their freedom (and peace).

We may conclude therefore that unless some strongman emerges and seizes power ( and this seeems highly unlikely) Operation Iraqi Freedom will be a success.

This pleases me - for the Iraqis and for myself-as I have said throughout that the logic of the liberation is more compelling than the logic of the insurrection.

Posted by: Terry Gain at March 22, 2005 11:04 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Terry, it's widely agreed that al Sadr did print demands that the US military leave iraq. This was "inciting the insurgency". I have no idea whether he was involved in that murder, the evidence has not been presented in court. There may not be any evidence. Al Sadr has denied it, and so far his credibility is far greater than the Bremer administration. He hasn't been caught in nearly so high a proportion of lies. (Do you have any examples of Sadr lies?)

I can accept the possibility that he might have been involved but there's absolutely no reason to think so, so far, apart from the claims of a collection of known liars. Whatever happened to "presumed innocent until proven guilty"?

There are many insurgencies in iraq and they don't get along. It's clear that if the elected government can get the US military out of iraq that will give them a tremendous amount of support and be a big blow to all the insurgencies. If they can't....

Do you think we can maintain our current military resources in iraq for 4 more years? On entirely borrowed money? If we want to "defeat" the insurgencies we'd better do it quick.

Posted by: J Thomas at March 22, 2005 11:59 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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