America’s entrapment

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
27 August 2003

The pattern of violence and killing in Afghanistan, noted in last week’s column in this series, has continued. Four government soldiers were killed in an incident on Friday 22 August, and five more died in an ambush in south-eastern Afghanistan the following day. In response, a major counter-attack was organised involving Afghan and United States troops supported by F-16 and A-10 combat aircraft.

Reports remain rather confused but it appears that up to 600 guerrillas described as Taliban fighters were engaged by 450 Afghan government soldiers and a small number of American troops. According to a US military source at Bagram airbase near Kabul, fourteen guerrillas were killed; another source said that forty had been captured.

If previous experience is a guide, the remaining several hundred guerrillas will have dispersed, some of them over the border into Pakistan, to regroup in due course for further attacks. More generally, these incidents indicate the size of the forces that they can assemble, as well as the extent of the military operations that continue to involve the US forces.

Deployment amidst insecurity

Although the situation in much of Afghanistan remains difficult, it is the conflict in Iraq that is central to Pentagon concerns. The number of US troops who perished in the war itself is now exceeded by those killed since President Bush declared major combat operations over on 1 May. Over sixty Americans have died in combat since then, and a larger number have been killed as a result of traffic accidents, unintentional discharge of firearms and other causes.

It is now accepted that the opposition in Iraq is growing, not diminishing, as is the degree of disorganisation in public services. This has been ably reported by experienced journalists returning to Iraq after a month or two away (Rory McCarthy in the Guardian, 27 August 2003), but it is the changing nature of the attacks on US troops that is most worrying for the Pentagon.

There has been a steady shift away from any kind of conventional engagement, as was experienced during and immediately after the war, to more skilful guerrilla engagements coupled with the use of remotely-controlled bombs. During the war itself, US casualties were “clustered” into particular incidents of substantial ambushes or the effects of artillery fire or missile attack. Since the war, there has been a widespread degree of dispersal, with many hundreds of small-scale incidents, frequently leading to injuries and sometimes deaths (Bradley Graham, “Rising Toll Shows U.S. Challenges”, Washington Post, 26 August 2003).

One of the effects of the attacks, and the persistent American losses, is a change in military deployments. There are still occasions when large-scale “sweeps” are undertaken, as with this week’s operation involving 3,000 US troops, but there has also been a trend towards reducing the number of routine patrols.

A pattern is emerging that is not unlike US operations in Kosovo, although on a much larger scale. The main troop deployments in the most unstable parts of Iraq take the form of concentrations of forces in heavily-guarded encampments, located in former palaces or military bases. The irony is that just as the Saddam Hussein regime put a premium on the security of its leadership and elite forces, so US forces are having to do the same for their own troops, often using the old regime’s facilities.

At a more general level, the decrease in US military patrols means that “ordinary” lawlessness is certainly not diminishing and this, combined with guerrilla attacks, goes a long way towards explaining the high levels of insecurity. These, typified by the atrocity at the UN headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August, are now so severe that key aid agencies are now pulling their people out of the country.

A risky calculation

An even more dramatic response from the US forces has been the recruitment of former intelligence and security operatives from the Saddam Hussein regime (Anthony Shadid and Daniel Williams, “U.S. Recruiting Hussein’s Spies”, Seattle Times, 24 August 2003). The main recruiting source has been the mukhabarat, or foreign intelligence agency of the old regime, and it is being undertaken in the face of objections from the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.

Recruitment such as this is a clear recognition that the United States is engaged in a developing guerrilla war in Iraq, and that major counter-guerrilla operations that inevitably drag in and sometimes even kill innocent bystanders, can be deeply counter-productive. A fundamental requirement in counter-guerrilla warfare is recognised to be high-quality intelligence, and the predicament of the US in Iraq is that it is having to rely on such intelligence from people who have been personally and persistently involved in one of the most repressive and brutal regimes of recent years.

The use of former mukhabarat personnel is also relevant because the US military now recognise that there are indeed foreign militants entering Iraq to engage US forces, with many of them coming across borders that are thoroughly porous. The reasons for this are themselves significant. On the Iraqi side, there are simply not the border guards or police available to regulate entry, and, more significantly, countries such as Syria are not bothering to maintain frontier controls at their pre-war levels. While they are probably being very careful not to help the movement of militants into Iraq for fear of US retaliation, they see little reason to support the United States in its occupation of Iraq.

The wider issue is the extent to which the opposition to American occupation is coming from outside elements. Going right back to the origins of the war, and the motives for regime termination, the Bush administration was always anxious to characterise the war as part of a much wider “war on terror”, with Saddam Hussein represented as a supporter of terrorist groups.

This was not the overriding motive cited by the British government and most independent analysts considered it highly questionable. Their reasoning was that the Saddam Hussein regime seemed persistently cautious in any support for paramilitary movements, possible to avoid giving the United States a pretext for a war. More specifically, al-Qaida and similar Islamic paramilitary groups had little respect for the old Iraqi regime since it was essentially secular rather than religious.

What is now happening, though, is that the probable presence of small numbers of foreign militants is being used by the Bush administration as justification for a much wider process of remaking the political map of the Middle East as a core part of the war on terror. This has the immediate political advantage of tying US military losses not to some mistaken occupation of a distant country but to the wider process of making the US homeland safer from terrorist attacks.

Last battle or first shots?

This in turn raises the question of whether a genuine policy development is occurring, or merely a crude and cynical device. Certainly, the rhetoric is there. As Paul Wolfowitz put it on US television at the end of July: “...the battle to secure the peace in Iraq is now the central battle in the global war on terror, and those sacrifices are going to make not just the Middle East more stable, but our country safer.” George W. Bush actually made a similar point even before the war, when he told the American Enterprise Institute on 26 February that “A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region by bringing hope and progress to the lives of millions” (Dana Milbank and Mike Allen, “US Shifts Rhetoric On Its Goals in Iraq”, Washington Post, 1 August 2003).

This rhetoric, though, stems from a genuine belief within administration ranks that the consolidation of post-war Iraq is actually a fundamental part of the creation of the New American Century, setting the scene for the transition to pro-American governments across the region. Moreover, because Iraq is the focus for this transformation, so it will attract the Islamic militants from across the region.

As Thomas Friedman put it this week: “…America’s opponents know just what’s at stake in the postwar struggle for Iraq, which is why they flock there: Beat America’s ideas in Iraq and you beat them out of the whole region; lose to America there, lose everywhere” (Thomas L Friedman, “The wider stakes in postwar Iraq”, International Herald Tribune, 25 August 2003).

The key question, therefore, is whether this battle between US forces and the militants has already been joined. It is here that US policy in post-war Iraq is already problematic, for four reasons.

The first is the conspicuous lack of support from those few states that could commit large numbers of well-trained troops to relieve pressure on the US forces. Second, Kofi Annan will simply not countenance a “blue helmet” operation in the context of US control of the country. Third, most surrounding states will offer little or no aid, a stance made more resolute by the reaction of their own populations both to the US military presence and to the continuing Israeli-Palestinian confrontation.

The fourth reason is perhaps the most significant of all. There has been an abject failure on the part of the occupying power to restore Iraq to economic and social normality, coupled with continuing resistance stemming almost entirely from elements within Iraq rather than militants entering the country from the wider region. That, in all probability, is still to come, and may actually take many months to develop.

In short, if Friedman and others are right, and if what happens in Iraq is central to US policy not just in the Middle East but to the wider “war on terror”, than we are in the very early stages of a prolonged conflict. Moreover, US policy is already in trouble even before the full extent of the conflict has been joined. We have yet to see how al-Qaida and its related groups will oppose the US presence.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, some analysts argued that one of al-Qaida’s aims would be to draw the United States more fully into the region. The Bush administration may see that large-scale military intervention as the prelude to success in its war on terror whereas the reality could be that al-Qaida and its associates will welcome the presence of 140,000 targets in their midst. No longer do they have to go to America – America has come to them.

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