In a major address on the evening of 10 January 2007, President Bush confirmed that he planned to order a "surge" in the number of United States troops in Iraq. The vast majority of the 20,000 extra boots on the ground, amounting to five brigades, will be deployed to Baghdad and the insurgent stronghold of Anbar province.
The speech took place against the background of a deepening American predicament in Iraq, highlighted by three separate news items in the previous few days.
The first is that on Thursday 4 January 2007, a force of around 1,000 US and Iraqi troops launched an assault on a rural area of Diyala province (east of Baghdad), reported to be a training-ground and haven for insurgents.
That in itself is not surprising - such operations have been almost routine for the best part of three years (see Alexandra Zavis, "US-Iraqi Forces Launch Assault on Sunni Haven", Los Angeles Times, 5 January 2007). The surprise arrived in two aspects of what happened next.
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
First, the insurgents seemed well prepared for the assault. Bridges had been sabotaged and roadblocks erected, some of them apparently intended to divert military vehicles towards pre-placed roadside bombs. As the assault progressed it became increasingly obvious that most of the insurgents had melted away, almost certain to return once the US and Iraqi troops had withdrawn.
Second, the US forces did not even inform the 400 soldiers of Iraq's fifth army division about the operation until a few hours before it was due to start. This was because there was simply not enough trust in the Iraqi unit, based on the suspicion that such knowledge would feed through to the insurgents. Even with this tactic being used, though, the insurgents had already heard of the US plans. The implication is that despite the US military's distrust of Iraqi army units after three years of training efforts, the insurgents can still gain intelligence from other sources.
The second significant recent news item is the battle for Haifa Street in Baghdad. In this case, a similar-sized force of US and Iraqi troops was tasked with regaining control of this area near the centre of the capital, a much smaller area than the Diyala operation.
Here, the fighting intensified to become one of the worst firefights in nearly four years, with four days of intensive combat requiring the Americans to bring in helicopter gunships and even F-18 strike aircraft. Yet this was a conflict taking place close to the "green zone", the heavily defended heart of the US occupation operation - indeed Haifa Street runs right through northwest Baghdad towards the green zone itself.
By the end of the fighting, Haifa Street had been largely cleared of insurgents, although it is probable that many scores of them had simply dispersed, as in the Diyala operation. The key point here is that this was not the first time Haifa Street had been "cleared", only to be reoccupied by insurgents; and there is every probability that this will happen again.
The third news item initially seems to be something quite different and of little importance. Tucked away in a recent edition of one of the leading US defence journals, Defense News, was a story about a small specialist defence company that has expanded at quite an extraordinary rate over the past three years (see Kris Osborn "Offering to Counter Ambushes", Defense News, 1 January 2007 [subscription only]).
With annual sales of $10 million in 2004, Force Protection Inc of South Carolina was doing fine; but in 2005 sales shot up to $49.7 million and the 2006 figure is expected to reach $180 million.
The eighteen-fold increase in sales in two years was down to the company's developing proprietary designs of Mine Resistant Ambush Protection (MRAP) vehicles; demand from the US armed forces has been so high that it has not been able to build them fast enough and has even had problems buying enough of the appropriate steel. To solve its problems, FPI is joining forces with the defence giant General Dynamics to bid for an initial $770 million contract from the US marine corps; as a result, the corps is expected to spend several billion dollars in acquiring new equipment over the next few years.
The main source of these developments is the enduring problem of roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. In effect, crude but clever devices produced from redundant ammunition in back-street workshops and costing a few dollars to make are creating a multi-billion dollar market for American arms companies.
The other side
Diyala, Haifa Street and Force Protection Inc all, in their different ways, illuminate the problems that the Bush administration now faces, primarily in Iraq but increasingly in Afghanistan:
- Diyala is a specific reminder of the consistent failure to train Iraqi forces that, from an American perspective, are reliable
- Haifa Street means that the US forces are now going to be engaging much more in precisely the form of urban counter-guerrilla combat that they sought to avoid in the first weeks of the war (March-April 2003)
- the Force Protection deal is a formidable reminder of how the world's most powerful military is being held down by crude and very low-cost forms of asymmetric warfare.
In this light, the "surge" announcement is just the latest in a series of changes in policy in Iraq that date right back to the sacking of the first "viceroy", General Jay M Garner, within weeks of the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in April 2003.
While analysts across the United States and western Europe are debating the likely effects of the surge, it is actually worth looking at it from a completely different perspective, that of the al-Qaida movement, especially now that the dust has settled on the Baker report as the Bush administration casts that endeavour to history.
Al-Qaida was facing one of three possibilities in relation to US policy on Iraq:
- a complete change of policy and a precipitate withdrawal
- the Baker option of phased if incomplete withdrawal and more intensive training of Iraqi security forces, coupled with engaging with Iran and Syria
- "staying the course", involving a surge in troop numbers.
The Baker option is redundant, even if it might eventually be resurrected. The interesting question in current circumstances is: which of the other two options would al-Qaida fear most and which would help it most?
Neo-conservative analysts are stridently insistent that a full withdrawal would leave behind a violent, chaotic and failed state that would be an utter breeding ground for jihadists (see, for example, Reuel Marc Gerecht, "The Consequences of Failure in Iraq", Weekly Standard, 15 January 2007). Indeed their current rhetoric is powerfully reinforcing the surge decision that the Bush administration has chosen. For such analysts, a heavy US military presence, sufficient to quell the worst of the insurgency, is the only way forward.
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 new book is Into the Long War: Oxford Research Group, International Security Report 2006 (Pluto Press, November 2006)
But they may be wrong. The al-Qaida movement is engaged in a revolutionary exercise measured in decades and potentially stretching to a century, and it is an enterprise that is directed both against the elite regimes across the middle east and west Asia and, at least as important, the "far enemy" of the United States. For al-Qaida it is certainly possible that a US withdrawal from Iraq could leave fertile ground for training-camps and a territorial base for operations in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and elsewhere.
But it is also likely that the absence of occupying forces would hugely blunt the insurgency, as well as forcing the Shi'a majority to contemplate a political accommodation with the Sunni minority, knowing that any attempt to control that minority will result in long-term violence and instability, to the detriment of the Shi'a community.
On the other side, the continuing presence of 140,000 US troops (and now, after Bush's speech of 10 January, quite probably 20,000-30,000 more) for years to come is an unbelievable "gift" to the al-Qaida movement, presenting the far enemy to them on what is, to a large extent, home territory (see Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, "The dividends of asymmetry: al-Qaida's evolving strategy", 18 December 2006).
Iraq is already providing a first-rate jihadi combat training-zone and, from an al-Qaida perspective, this is without any risk of changing. They (and many western analysts) simply do not believe that the United States can win in Iraq. Therefore, the longer it loses the better. In light of the fact that al-Qaida deals in decades, it has the prospect of decades of training for jihadi cohorts.
What all this means is that the Bush administration's decision to surge the forces in Iraq is good news for al-Qaida. Moreover, the US military has now re-engaged in Somalia, not with ground troops in a stabilisation role but using air power and highly destructive area-impact munitions with inevitable civilian casualties (see Harun Hassan, "Somalia at the crossroads", 10 January 2007). If this continues, then the prospect is there for a progressive radicalisation of Islamic opinion in the Horn of Africa. With the Iraq and Somalia decisions coming in the first ten days of January, the year 2007 could turn out to be a very good year for the al-Qaida movement.