The major United States assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah has still not quelled all resistance after more than two weeks. As fighting continues in some parts of the city, it is clear that large numbers of marines will need to be kept there to prevent a rapid return of the insurgents. Meanwhile, other operations involving several thousand American, Iraqi and British troops are underway south of Baghdad. All this takes place amidst claims by senior military commanders in Iraq that Fallujah was a success and the insurgents are now in retreat.
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This assessment is even being used to justify an increase in US military forces in Iraq of up to 5,000 more troops (see Bradley Graham, Iraq Force is Seen as Likely to Grow, Washington Post, 22 November 2004). One senior military officer says: Whats important is to keep the pressure on these guys now that weve taken Fallujah from them Were in the pursuit phase. We have to stay after these guys so they dont get their feet set.
The issue of troop reinforcements is deeply sensitive, especially so soon after President Bushs re-election. The extraordinary idea that Fallujah is a success may well be linked to a wider need to portray the demand for more troops as a signal of the USs determination in Iraq, rather than its dire problems. In any case, the situation on the ground - especially in the largely Sunni areas of central Iraq extending northwards to Mosul - is anything but stable.
The recent experience of Mosul is illustrative of the predicament of the US military forces. At the height of the Fallujah assault, insurgents occupied parts of the city and the US military had to move 2,400 additional troops to counter the sudden upsurge. Thus, rather than being able to go on the offensive in the wake of the Fallujah attacks, the troops needed to respond to the unexpected initiative of insurgents.
Indeed, early indications are that the assault on Fallujah has done little to restrict the insurgency. Before the operation, there were up to 80 insurgent attacks each day on US, Iraqi and other coalition forces; during it, the number surged to 130; now, it has declined to the preceding level. US losses in Fallujah so far are 51 killed and 425 injured, most of the latter serious (see Jackie Spinner, Medics Testify to Fallujahs Horrors, Washington Post, 24 November 2004).
An army in overload
This is only one example of the continuing attrition of United States forces in Iraq. Over 1,200 troops have been killed and 8,500 wounded in action since March 2003, with over 15,000 more troops evacuated to the United States because of non-combat injuries and physical or mental health problems (only a fifth of whom return to their units in Iraq; see Iraq: The Uncounted, CBS News, 21 November 2004). Thus, total US casualties number 25,000 people.
The effects of the war on the mental health of US soldiers are now being recognised as a serious crisis: A study by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research found that 15.6% of Marines and 17.1% of soldiers surveyed after they returned from Iraq suffered major depression, generalized anxiety or pos-traumatic stress disorder a debilitating sometimes lifelong change in the brains chemistry that can include flashbacks, sleep disorders, panic attacks, violent outbursts, acute anxiety and emotional numbness (see Esther Schrader, These Unseen Wounds Cut Deep, Los Angeles Times, 14 November 2004).
The actual effects are likely to be even greater than this survey indicates; the research involved only those troops willing to come forward and was conducted only among troops serving in Iraq early in the war, before the insurgency escalated.
Meanwhile, further indications of military overstretch are revealed in hearings of the House Armed Services Committee (see Esther Schrader, On Capitol Hill, Military Warns of Being under Strain, Los Angeles Times, 18 November 2004). The Pentagon alone is spending $5.8 billion a month on its forces in Iraq but testimony from service chiefs indicates that much more money would be needed.
The armys chief of staff, General Peter J Schoomaker, testified that intense efforts to upgrade the armour on its fleet of 8,000 Humvees are less than half complete. The sheer corrosion of equipment in use is much higher than anticipated; the army is currently seeking a further 41,600 radios, 25,000 machine guns and 33,500 M-4 carbines.
The human costs of war
The number of civilian casualties in Fallujah is still unclear. An unconfirmed report suggests that 73 women and children killed during the fighting were buried by villagers from a settlement close to Fallujah; a separate, unofficial estimate from Red Cross sources in Iraq estimate that 800 civilians have been killed.
The US military has persistently said that Fallujah was, insurgents aside, virtually deserted at the start of the assault. A significant statistic cast doubt on this. By 21 November, US forces had detained around 1,450 suspected insurgents in the city, but 400 were quickly released as non-combatants and 100 more were due for release soon after. Since almost all those detained were young men of military age, and at least a third of those were clearly regarded even by the Americans as innocent of insurgent activity, it seems certain that were much larger numbers of older men, women and children in the city right through the fighting.
The numbers of civilian losses remain hard to verify. But the human costs of the economic damage experienced in Iraq since the termination of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003 are becoming apparent. A deterioration in basic services has led to a substantial increase in acute child malnutrition; research by the Iraqi health ministry in cooperation with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Fafo Institute for Applied International Studies in Norway shows an increase from 4% to 7.7% of the child population meaning that approximately 400,000 Iraqi children experience a wasting condition which involves chronic diarrhoea and dangerous protein deficiency.
The neocon rethink
The official American line of an insurgency in retreat is belied by three factors: continuing attacks across Iraq, high US casualties, and problems of military overstretch. As revealing are indications that some analysts and think-tanks which strongly supported the war, even including neo-conservatives, are now urging a fundamental rethink of US policy in Iraq (see Bryan Bender, Hawks Push Deep Cuts in Forces in Iraq, Boston Globe, 22 November 2004).
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There is now a growing acceptance in Washington that the strategy of maintaining large numbers of US troops in Iraq who routinely use overwhelming force only serves to exacerbate the insurgency, and has negative effects on the wider war on terror. The Cato Institute study, Exiting Iraq (June 2004), concludes: The occupation is counterproductive in the fight against radical Islamic terrorists and actually increases support for Osama bin Laden in Muslim communities not previously disposed to support his radical interpretation of Islam.
An emerging thread among right-wing thinkers is that the Iraqi elections of January 2005 are crucial, and that the US should start withdrawing troops as soon afterwards as possible. As long as some kind of Iraqi government is in power, the opportunity must be seized; otherwise, the argument goes, the continuing US presence around major population centres will demonstrate that a supposedly independent Iraq remains under occupation.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it depends on an Iraqi government capable of maintaining security. Most current indications are that this will simply not happen. The rate of training of Iraqi security forces is far lower than required; only small numbers of elite forces are proving effective alongside US troops in counterinsurgency operations; police and defence forces are under constant attack; there is widespread evidence of persistent infiltration by insurgents.
The central dilemma for the Bush administration is: continue to occupy Iraq to ensure US influence, or begin progressive withdrawals early in 2005 and risk endemic instability. A number of analysts are indeed now advocating this latter course - and almost the only time that a Republican administration could get away with such a fundamental policy shift would be early in a second presidential term.
Why is the US in Iraq?
The key factor to remember here is that the United States is not in Iraq to ensure a transition to peace and stability prior to a complete withdrawal; it is there because of Iraqs immense geopolitical (including oil-related) importance to US security. The United States, as earlier columns in this series have argued, has always intended to build a number of permanent military bases, quite apart from its much larger numbers of occupation forces. This has not changed.
In this light, a reasonably clear plan of action may emerge from current US difficulties one that represents a significant tactical shift. If even partial elections are held in January, US troops will quickly reduce high-profile counterinsurgency operations and withdraw from Iraq in numbers. The remainder - still likely to be tens of thousands of troops - will be located at a few large, well-protected bases far from major urban centres but conveniently close to current oilfields and areas of future exploration. The cities will be virtually abandoned in the hope that the diminished US presence will undercut the motivation of, and support for, the insurgents.
This would be far from the original proselytising expectations of the United States in Iraq, yet would do nothing to check the view across the region that the US is determined to implant itself in the heart of the Arab world for the long term. The presence of US bases would continue to serve the interests of radical Islamists and insurgency campaigns.
A radically different policy, such as a full US military retreat from Iraq, is unthinkable. For a re-elected George W Bush in particular, it would represent the collapse of the whole neo-conservative middle east project. We are still a long way from that.