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A war of decades

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The long, slow, perceptible if cautious bubble of optimism about the United States's progress in Iraq has finally been punctured. It was the product of the measurable if limited progress in the security situation in Iraq in 2007 that was partly the result of the US military "surge" of February-July 2007; it was fuelled further by the wishful thinking of a country desperate for some good news after more than four years of grinding war, and by the driven ideological certitudes of neo-conservative commentators.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

The gathering mood in Washington had projected onto Iraq the idea that the new US strategy was making some sort of military victory possible; that a major drawdown of troops could be implemented from summer 2008; and (above all, in the conservative calculation) that Iraq would cease to be a burden on Republicans seeking victory in the November elections. A particular satisfaction to the ideological right was the conviction that George W Bush's decision to ignore what it saw as the "defeatism" of the Iraq Study Group's report of December 2006 and choose instead to boost troop numbers in Iraq was in the process of being vindicated.

A key moment in the bubble's collapse was the testimony of David H Petraeus (the United States's military commander in Iraq) and Ryan C Crocker (Washington's ambassador in Baghdad) to two key audiences - the Senate's armed-services and foreign-relations committees - on 8 April 2008. Republicans had earlier looked forward with confidence to the event, but the occasion went sour. The sudden violence of the two weeks before the hearings did not help the political mood, especially for a political culture so fixated on short-term thinking and positioning; but this was not the main factor in flattening any feelgood temptation (see "The Iraqi whirlwind", 3 April 2008). For while the surge had certainly helped sharply to reduce military and civilian casualties and attacks across Iraq, its impact was already diminishing by early March 2008 - well before the more recent escalation of violence.

An Iraqi report

United States military sources estimate that there were 631 armed attacks in Iraq in March 2008, an increase from 239 in February. At the same time, there was scarcely any increase in attacks on civilians: from sixty-two in February to sixty-nine in March. In other words, almost all of the considerably increased number of operations was directed against US and Iraqi security forces (see Michael R Gordon & Eric Schmitt, "Attacks in Baghdad Spiked in March, U.S. Data Show", New York Times, 8 April 2008). In a remarkable irony, the fifth anniversary of the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime in Baghdad was marked by an all-day vehicle curfew across the city.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed

In his testimony, Petraeus agreed that the progress was less than had been hoped, and argued against any further withdrawals of troops after the surge has ended. A forty-five-day pause from August to mid-September 2008 has been announced, but it is clear that this does not mean further withdrawals at the end of that time. As Petraeus said:

"We haven't turned any corners, we haven't seen any lights at the end of the tunnel. The champagne bottle has been pushed to the back of the refrigerator. And the progress, while real, is fragile and reversible" (see Kristin Roberts, "Petraeus to halt Iraq troop withdrawals in July", Reuters, 8 April 2008).

In part, this may be the behaviour of a politically astute military officer concerned neither to provide hostages to fortune nor to be doing the work of the Republican Party. Even so, the signs on the ground in Iraq really are not good; the most worrying example being not the violence in Basra but the manner in which the fortified "green zone" in Baghdad has become so vulnerable to mortar and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attack.

If Hamas in Gaza can manufacture crude home-made rockets that are sufficiently potent to cause the hardened Israel government real unease, then it is patently obvious that the safety of the green zone is even more of a chimera. It is, in effect, dependent on political decisions by Shi'a militias as to when that vulnerability is exploited. As the Israelis found in the war with Hizbollah in July-August 2006, no wall can be built high enough to prevent rocket-attacks from determined enemies (see "The war after the war", 12 October 2006)

In Washington, the frustration on Capitol Hill is palpable, not least because there is recognition among Democrats that they can do little to influence policy in Iraq in the remaining months of the George W Bush administration (see Karen De Young & Thomas E Ricks, "Frustrated Senators See No Exit Signs", Washington Post, 9 April 2008). The true reference-point, however, is less the domestic electoral cycle than the combination of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; it is when the US predicament is seen in this context that Petraeus's caution is so important.

The Nato summit in Romania 0n 2-4 April offered small cheer to the United States in that France has now made a commitment to deploy several hundred troops in combat operations in southeast Afghanistan. This will serve to help keep the Canadians on board for the time being, and comes at a time when the US is deploying an extra 3,200 marines and the British are augmenting their own forces. This week, some 6,000 troops of Britain's 16 air-assault brigade deploy to Helmand province for a six-month posting, and there are indications that the British could add several hundred more troops (see Alastair Leithead, "A ‘different' war in Afghanistan", 9 April 2008).

Republican analysts in the US doubt that there are sufficient troops, even with this increase. The American Enterprise Institute has called for three additional combat brigades, but this runs straight into the Iraq problem. The US defence secretary Robert M Gates has spoken several times of his hopes for a drawdown of US troops to 100,000 (see Yochi J Dreazen, "Petraeus's Iraq Proposal is Likely To Roil Campaign", Wall Street Journal, 9 April 2008).

This would have been the lowest figure since the war began - entailing the return of 60,000 troops to the homeland, with around 30,000 following at the end of the surge together with a further 30,000 of the US's regular deployment. Such a withdrawal would have at least partially eased the many problems of overstretch and might even have allowed for substantial reinforcements to be sent to Afghanistan. The evidence presented in Washington, and the nature of public debate there, now make that even more unlikely. As the president himself made clear on 10 April - even in proclaiming that "a major strategic shift" had occurred in Iraq - no prospect of a major drawdown is in sight (see "Bush backs Iraq withdrawal freeze", BBC, 10 April 2008).

An Afghan shift

In Afghanistan itself, meanwhile, the violence has escalated in recent weeks. It is taking the form of numerous roadside bombs and attacks on "soft" targets such as road-construction crews; an example is the killing of eighteen security-guards protecting a road-building team on 8 April in Zabul province. That may well be the pattern for much of the summer, in a way that signals a shift of Taliban tactics towards a more flexible and less predictable military campaign (see Antonio Giustozzi, "The resurgence of the neo-Taliban", 14 December 2007).

The experience of summer 2007 was that major Taliban assaults became exposed to the intense use of firepower by western forces. The result was often to inflict civilian casualties that embittered Afghan villagers towards these forces; but also to damage Taliban units sufficiently as to diminish the movement's readiness to wage frontal assaults during the rest of the year. It would be logical to assume that senior Taliban and al-Qaida strategists - who are highly intelligent and experienced individuals - will have carefully weighed the lessons of this experience and may well decide on quite different tactics.

If so, they will rely on numerous small-scale guerrilla actions, making determined efforts to avoid major confrontations while embedding themselves much more thoroughly in the south and east of the country. This might present western forces with the semblance of success; but that could be hugely deceptive.

From the perspective of the paramilitaries' leadership, who will have been watching the Petraeus/Crocker congressional testimonies with a far greater intensity than most Americans, their aim will be to simply wear down the foreign forces. As so often before, the issue of durability is fundamental. For Taliban, al-Qaida and other jihadist militants, a year is nothing in a decades-long confrontation in which the main aim is to outlast the occupiers, forcing them to expend resources on burdensome defence budgets and into a mood of consuming war-weariness (see "Iraq: a far horizon" [25 October 2007]).

This is where the 8 April 2008 hearings are truly significant. It is now unlikely that there will be major American troop withdrawals from Iraq until at least 2009, so the pressure on the west's military forces in Afghanistan will grow. It took a decade to evict the Soviets after the Red Army's ill-starred invasion and occupation in December 1979, and it might take double or even triple that period to evict American and allied troops from both Afghanistan and Iraq. This, however, is indeed the timescale that the United States and its coalition partners are involved in. In the perspective of global jihadism, the few months of an election campaign are not much more than the blink of an eye.

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