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A tale of two insurgencies

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
31 May 2006

George W Bush's hailing of a "turning-point" in Iraq in his speech of 22 May has coincided with more problems for the coalition forces there. The United States president's most recent declarations of optimism follow repeated examples of the genre over the past three years, many occasioned by particular events: the deaths of Uday and Qusay Hussein, the capturing of Saddam Hussein himself, the handover from Paul Bremer to a selected Iraqi administration, the agreement of an Iraqi constitution, and the national elections of January 2006. The statements may serve the purpose of trying to persuade Americans to accept the rising toll of casualties; but each time, the expectations they raise have been unfounded (see Sidney Blumenthal, "The president of dreams", 31 May 2006).

This time, the welcome indicator of progress was the long-delayed establishment of an Iraqi government under prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. The optimism of the US president or his close ally Tony Blair paid little heed to the fact that key ministries remained unfilled. More immediately, the political manoeuvrings in Baghdad occurred against the backdrop of a series of bombings across much of central Iraq and a rapid deterioration in security in Basra, prompting the declaration of a state of emergency in the southern city.

Every day, scores of Iraqi civilians are being killed. In addition, the British have had one of their worst months since the beginning of the war, while the easing of US casualties in March was brutally reversed, as losses in April-May 2006 were among the highest in these three years: 143 soldiers killed and more than 800 injured.

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One last push

Some of the most experienced western journalists attempting to cover the Iraq conflict state with conviction – a conclusion in direct contradiction to the comments of George W Bush – that the level of insecurity for ordinary Iraqis is substantially worse than a year ago (see Patrick Cockburn, "Which is the Real Iraq?", Independent, 23 May 2006). Perhaps equally indicative of the real state of affairs is the current attitude found among those neo-conservative analysts that were so convinced that regime change in Iraq would have a positive outcome. The approach of one of the neo-conservative house journals, the Washington-based Weekly Standard, is typical – a combination of "don't lose your nerve" and "send more troops".

Frederick Kagan's "A Plan for Victory in Iraq" (29 May 2006) is the most recent example. Here, the notion of success revolves around a substantial increase in troop numbers coupled with a series of violent counter-insurgency actions in towns and cities believed to harbour the largest concentrations of insurgents. Kagan calls for the Pentagon to delay the return of many thousands of troops to the US homeland so that they can be joined by those due to replace them for some months of combined intensive operations. Adding in reserve formations from Kuwait, he calculates that this would provide a force of combat troops and support personnel numbering close to 50,000.

This strategy sounds very much like "one last push". The belief is that such large-scale operations will make it impossible for insurgents to melt away from one area of US action to take refuge in quieter towns and cities, since all the relevant centres of population will be on the receiving end of US military power at the same time.

The problem is evident. Even apart from the difficulties of assembling and maintaining such a large force at a time of serious overstretch, the analysis misses the key point that insurgents under US attack may not actually move to quieter areas but instead may simply melt away within the areas of US military action.

This has happened repeatedly in practice. In Fallujah (November 2004) and in Ramadi (early 2005), US and Iraqi troops attempted to over-run areas of intense insurgent activity and then cordon the cities off and control them with substantial residual forces of US and Iraqi troops, even if not at the level of those involved in the original assaults. In each case, insurgents remained in the cities and very quickly restarted their campaigns – Fallujah militants even contined to manufacture and detonate car bombs under the very noses of the US forces, killing some of them in the process (see "No direction home", 25 November 2004).

Repeated experience in Iraq over the past three years suggests that a temporary surge in US troop numbers would have a minimal long-term effect and, all the time, incidents such as the Haditha killings in November 2005 are having an undermining effect on support for the war in the US itself.

Moreover, even if there were additional US forces deployed, and in the unlikely event that they curbed the insurgency, there is virtually no prospect of Iraqi police and security forces taking over from them, given the crisis now facing those forces (see "Victory in Iraq", 15 December 2005).

Because of the urgent need to reduce troop numbers in Iraq, US and other coalition forces have been engaged for well over a year in major, intensive efforts to train up Iraqi police and army units and a wider variety of special-purpose contingents. The numbers are considerable: a recent estimate counted 145,000 police and commando units, 117,000 soldiers in the reconstituted Iraqi army, 145,000 guards intended to protect infrastructure and another 50,000 private security guards (see Dexter Filkins, "Armed groups propel Iraq toward chaos", International Herald Tribune, 31 May 2006). Overall, this amounts to something approaching half a million people under arms, quite apart from sectarian militias and leaving aside entirely the insurgents themselves and the foreign jihadists operating in the country.

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

A collection of Paul Rogers's Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris
(October 2005)

If the police, soldiers, infrastructure guards and others were well-trained, loyal to central government and effective in their operations, then it might be possible to claim that the US forces could turn over security to them. None of these requirements is in place. Training has frequently been minimal (sometimes as little as two days); background checks on previous criminal records have often been ignored; and there is a clear trend towards different government ministries retaining the loyalties of particular brigades or battalions. Many have ended up operating as death-squads, a situation not far removed from the experience of central American states such as El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s.

Between Haditha and Helmand

While the security situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, there are further indications of the slide towards open insurgency in Afghanistan (see "Afghanistan's endemic war", 25 May 2006). The Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) is still meant to be taking control of all substantive military operations from the United States, thus enabling the Pentagon to withdraw several thousand troops from the country. Amid conflicting estimates, the intention seems to have been to evacuate around 4,000 troops in the coming months, taking the US forces in the country down to perhaps 15,000 from the current figure of close to 20,000.

Instead, and quite extraordinarily, the reverse is happening – just as Nato member-states feed in several thousand more troops for Isaf, the United States is adding thousands more to its own contingent. In all, there will be well over 30,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan by mid-summer 2006 – the largest number since the war began nearly five years ago.

Furthermore, the evidence of the past few weeks indicates that Taliban militia groups have hugely increased in confidence, taking over some districts and even engaging foreign troops in large groups of fifty-strong or more (rather than in units of fewer than ten, as formerly). It is also likely that as they permeate more districts across the south and east of the country they will tend to identify the weaker and less well-trained elements of the Isaf military, isolating them for specific attack and further complicating the whole Isaf stance (see Ahmed Rashid, "Afghanistan poses the real threat", 30 May 2006).

This is all very far removed from the political rhetoric of Bush and Blair, with their determined efforts to present a positive picture, even if they do now admit to some errors. The reality is that the military problems are mounting by the week in both Iraq and Afghanistan, an uncomfortable political reality that will become more widely evident as the insurgents' springtime turns into a hot summer.

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