Iraq SitRep

A series of stories today paint a rather bleak picture of progress in Iraq.

US warns Baghdad’s Green Zone is unsafe (James Drummond and Steve Negus, Financial Times)

US military officers in Baghdad have warned they cannot guarantee the security of the perimeter around the Green Zone, the headquarters of the Iraqi government and home to the US and British embassies, according to security company employees. At a briefing earlier this month, a high-ranking US officer in charge of the zone’s perimeter said he had insufficient soldiers to prevent intruders penetrating the compound’s defences. The US major said it was possible weapons or explosives had already been stashed in the zone, and warned people to move in pairs for their own safety.

The Green Zone, in Baghdad’s centre, is one of the most fortified US installations in Iraq. Until now, militants have not been able to penetrate it. But insurgency has escalated this week, spreading to the centre of Baghdad. The zone on Sunday came under the heaviest attack since it was established. Up to 60 unexploded rockets were found inside its perimeters after a five-hour barrage. On Tuesday, a car bomb outside a Baghdad police station killed 47 people. The violence in Iraq continued unabated yesterday when 10 Iraqis were killed in clashes with US troops in Ramadi, west of Baghdad. The decapitated bodies of three men, believed to be Arab kidnap victims, were separately found on a highway north of Baghdad.

Insurgents In Iraq Appear More Powerful Than Ever (Steven Komarow, Csar G. Soriano and Tom Squitieri, USA Today)

Two years ago, the head of the Arab League was scolded by many for predicting that “the gates of hell†would be unleashed if President Bush proceeded with his threat to invade Iraq. But when Amr Moussa reprised his statement to a meeting in Cairo this week, there was no dissent. Instead, the former Egyptian foreign minister, an influential figure in the Middle East, got nods when he said “the gates of hell are open in Iraq, where the situation is becoming more complicated and troubled.â€

U.S. plans had called for Iraq’s new government and Prime Minister Ayad Allawi to be gaining respect and organizing for national elections now. Instead insurgents appear more powerful than ever. By some counts, more than three dozen Iraqi cities and towns are in the hands of leaders hostile to the new government and the United States, and apparently able to dispatch gunmen and suicide bombers at will. The resistance that was spotty a year ago now launches an average of more than 50 attacks against U.S. or coalition forces a day. Some of the most horrific attacks have been aimed at those cooperating with the United States and the U.S.-backed government: More than 700 Iraqi police officers have been killed. Increasingly, the U.S. civil and military effort in Iraq appears aimed at keeping the country from sliding into chaos rather than moving ahead. That change was underscored this week when the Bush administration said it was shifting more than $3 billion from its Iraq reconstruction budget to boost security.

***

“I think it’s worse than we had expected and led to believe, and that is the benchmark,†says Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of Defense under President Reagan who is now an analyst at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning group in Washington, D.C. “If I said to you that Saddam (Hussein) would be out in the spring of 2003, and in September 2004 you would have all this going on, you would say no.†Adds Korb: “In the Sunni Triangle area, I would not want to go out (at) night.†In addition to the violence in the cities, insurgents “are going after people aligning themselves with the new government, and they show they have the ability to disrupt the oil, which is the center of the economic plan, even in the so-called safe south.†“The bottom line is, at this moment we are losing the war,†says Andrew Bacevich, a former Army colonel who teaches international relations at Boston University. “That doesn’t mean it is lost, but we are losing, and as an observer it is difficult for me to see that either the civilian leadership or the military leadership has any plausible idea on how to turn this around.â€
While “it is certainly a good thing that Saddam Hussein is gone,†it is difficult to say that Iraq is in better shape, Bacevich says. “Iraq was a lousy place to live when Saddam was in power, and Iraq is a lousy place to live with Saddam Hussein gone and this growing insurgency†in his place, he says.

***

The last time the United States was enmeshed in a larger and more protracted conflict was in Vietnam a generation ago. Comparisons between the two are frequent now. The Iraq war marks the first time since Vietnam that U.S. troops have been involved in sustained combat for more than a few months. And for now, at least, the Iraq war seems to have no obvious end in sight. Part of the problem America faced in Vietnam was the inability to define the end — what President Lyndon Johnson called the “light at the end of the tunnel†— or to measure progress in getting there, says Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who now heads a Washington think tank. North Vietnam’s willingness to sacrifice its sons guaranteed continuation of the fighting, Krepinevich says. The United States was not outfought. It was “out-bled†— the same strategy the jihadists apparently mean to duplicate in a different form today, he says.

***

Retired Marine colonel Thomas Hammes, a contractor who trains foreign fighters allied with the United States, says Iraq will take time. “Insurgencies last 10 to 30 years,†he says. “It took the British 12 years in Malaysia†to end the Communist uprising after World War II, and the British were losing for the first three years, he says. “We certainly have the capacity to get it right†in Iraq, he says. “But it is an incredibly complex situation.†Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism specialist at RAND, agrees that patience is needed. But he says the United States has already “squandered a lot of precious time.†He points to bungled efforts such as poorly training Iraqi police and relying on air power to battle the insurgency, which turns civilians against the coalition. “Helicopter gunships become potent propaganda,†he says. He says Iraqis desire democracy and that as bad as the situation seems now, it could get much worse, especially if the majority Shiite population becomes inflamed with fundamentalist fervor. But a crucial element is giving citizens “the fundamental sense that the government protects its citizens,†and that is not happening in Iraq, he says.

The projections aren’t very promising, either:

U.S. Intelligence Shows Pessimism on Iraq’s Future [RSS] (Douglas Jehl, NYT)

A classified National Intelligence Estimate prepared for President Bush in late July spells out a dark assessment of prospects for Iraq, government officials said Wednesday. The estimate outlines three possibilities for Iraq through the end of 2005, with the worst case being developments that could lead to civil war, the officials said. The most favorable outcome described is an Iraq whose stability would remain tenuous in political, economic and security terms. “There’s a significant amount of pessimism,” said one government official who has read the document, which runs about 50 pages. The officials declined to discuss the key judgments – concise, carefully written statements of intelligence analysts’ conclusions – included in the document.

The intelligence estimate, the first on Iraq since October 2002, was prepared by the National Intelligence Council and was approved by the National Foreign Intelligence Board under John E. McLaughlin, the acting director of central intelligence. Such estimates can be requested by the White House or Congress, but this one was initiated by the intelligence council under George J. Tenet, who stepped down as director of central intelligence on July 9, the government officials said. As described by the officials, the pessimistic tone of the new estimate stands in contrast to recent statements by Bush administration officials, including comments on Wednesday by Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, who asserted that progress was being made.

***

Mr. Bush’s opponent, Senator John Kerry, criticized the administration’s optimistic public position on Iraq on Wednesday and questioned whether it would be possible to hold elections there in January. “I think it is very difficult to see today how you’re going to distribute ballots in places like Falluja, and Ramadi and Najaf and other parts of the country, without having established the security,” Mr. Kerry said in a call-in phone call to Don Imus, the radio talk show host. “I know that the people who are supposed to run that election believe that they need a longer period of time and greater security before they can even begin to do it, and they just can’t do it at this point in time. So I’m not sure the president is being honest with the American people about that situation either at this point.”

The situation in Iraq prompted harsh comments from Republicans and Democrats at a hearing into the shift of spending from reconstruction to security. Senator Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, called it “exasperating for anybody look at this from any vantage point,” and Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, said of the overall lack of spending: “It’s beyond pitiful, it’s beyond embarrassing. It is now in the zone of dangerous.”

Belmont Club’s Wretchard does some statistical analysis of the combat casualties in Iraq, though, and argues that perspective is needed.

American casualties have occurred in a limited number of places. Journalist and blogger Jason van Steenwyk, who served in Iraq, says in his post, Hardly Tet, that we should recognize combat operations in Iraq for what they objectively are, neither minimizing nor inflating the estimate.

***

Based on the pattern of casualties, it is hard to reach the conclusion that Iraq is descending into anarchy or that the resistance is spreading uncontrollably. If that were true we would be seeing a different distribution of casualties. Combat in Iraq is complex politico-military phenomenon.

Take a lot at his numbers; they’re worth a read-through.

Finally, the Ottawa Citizen’s David Warren argues that some hard choices will have to be made if we are to win this thing:

The Americans have made one big mistake since entering Iraq. It was to make local peace deals in Fallujah, and elsewhere, which left the fox in charge of the hens. The idea was not, however, as stupid as it now looks. It was a risk: that if you put a few old Saddamite officers, and tribal leaders with lapsed Saddamite connexions — the ones not currently wanted for war crimes — in charge of a town, they will know how to restore order. They will prevent it from becoming a staging area for terrorist hits elsewhere, because if that happened the Marines would be back. And psychologically, one is likely to earn the gratitude of your erstwhile enemy, if you recruit him when he is expecting to be shot. The risk may have been worth taking, in hindsight, for what the U.S. learned from it. We now know the policy backfired badly. The territories put off-limits to U.S. and allied patrol became terror havens immediately, as the local Jihadis came out of hiding to celebrate an “American defeat” — even as the Marines, who had nearly exterminated them, were in the act of withdrawing, according to agreement.

Being honourable with the honourless seldom pays. This is an enemy that has several times fire-bombed a local Christian church, then run into a mosque to avoid retribution. They know that the Americans and, for the moment, their legitimate Iraqi allies, will not fire on a mosque. They count their enemy’s honour as pure weakness.

The situation doesn’t look good, to be sure. The circumstances on the ground are far worse than I’d have predicted going in; certainly worse than I’d have guessed last March after the phenomenal 21 day campaign that toppled Saddam’s regime with considerably fewer Coalition casualties than I expected. Knowing what we know now, it’s hard to argue that the war as it has been fought has been “worth it.” Certainly, taking Saddam out was worthwhile. I’m less sure that the follow-on nation building excercise was more than a neo-con folly, regardless of Max Boot‘s passionate argument otherwise. Ultimately, that question isn’t answerable until the end game. If we wind up with a relatively stable and democratic Iraq, the answer will be in the affirmative. Otherwise, not.

That said, assessing almost any war during the worst point is a difficult exercise. The American War for Independence looked much more grim than this circa Valley Forge. Lincoln’s bloody quest to preserve the Union was certainly not “worth it” nineteen months in (or, arguably, nineteen years after). Indeed, the “Good War” probably didn’t look that way in mid-1943. War is a nasty business and usually rather discouraging for most of its evolution. Wartime leaders need to be much more optimistic than the rest of us to see it through.

I would also reiterate that comparisons to Vietnam are simply uninformed. We’ve lost slightly more than 1,000 dead in Iraq compared to nearly 59,000 in Vietnam. Win, lose, or draw, we’re not going to see anything approaching that. If we still have American soldiers in Iraq five years from now, it will because the mission turned out successfully and we have a garrison there to support a friendly government, not the result of years of incremental escalation.

Update (1313): Kevin Drum observes, “Nobody’s predictions have been all that great when it comes to Iraq, but in hindsight it turns out that the intelligence community did better than most. October could turn out to be a very grim month.” He’s right on the first part. I hope he’s wrong on the second, although I suspect he isn’t.

Dan Drezner saw the FT piece as well and simply notes that it’s “really bad news.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Brian J. says:

    So, intelligence experts who say Iraq has weapons of mass destruction are negligent, wrong, or liars promoting an agenda, but intelligence experts who say Iraq is a quagmire are unimpeachable and almost omniscient?

    No, thanks. I’ll take Door #3, Monty.

  2. ken says:

    You can hardly classify the neo-con clowns who said Iraq had WMD as ‘intellegence experts’ If you read what the real experts were saying it was uncertain what Iraq had. Now we know they had nothing.

  3. bryan says:

    In re: the worst part of war, I recall hearing an NPR report the other day on the war of 1812 with the British, when they burned Washington. The historian said this was “the worst thing” that could happen to the Americans, and if the Brits had pressed their advantage, they would surely have won. But somehow, the fort at Baltimore survived the British naval barrage, and the Brits were forced to withdraw.

    I wonder what our intelligence analysts would have said before F.Scott Key had the opportunity to observe the events that inspired the “Star-Spangled Banner”?