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Iraq: thinking the unthinkable

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Paul Rogers
29 June 2005

The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, the subject of last week’s column in this series, is starting to attract more media attention. The destruction of a United States CH-46 Chinook troop-carrying helicopter on 28 June in Konar province - probably by a surface-to-air missile - is the latest evidence of the effectiveness of the Taliban offensive.

It is likely that the seventeen US troops on board were all killed, making this the heaviest single loss of life for the US since the war in Afghanistan began in October 2001. They add to the total of around 400 lives lost in the Afghan conflict since the beginning of April.

A report from Jean Arnault, the senior United Nations representative in the country, offers a bleak if slightly bureaucratic assessment of the emergency: a period of “negative evolution” in Afghanistan’s national security, involving “an escalation of both the number and gravity of incidents that affect several provinces”.

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The presence of 18,000 US forces in Afghanistan, and the scale of their operations – one of which, in Zabul province, is reported to have killed 100 insurgents, though it failed to kill or detain some of its key Taliban targets – is testimony to the intractability of the Afghan conflict.

A formidable foe

An even greater concern for the Bush administration is the public impact of the insurgency in Iraq.

President Bush’s remarkably low-key TV “address to the nation” on 28 June conveyed the now-familiar message that Iraq has become the core site of the “global war on terror” and that his administration’s policies there deserve firm support from the American people.

Bush’s speech was an attempt to counter the rapid and conspicuous loss of support for the Iraq war in the United States that has accompanied the recent upsurge in violence in Iraq itself. But in the same week, United States officals have been transmitting different signals creating a worried response from the Iraqi political elite.

Donald Rumsfeld’s judgment on 14 June that only Iraqis, not US forces, could bring the Iraqi insurgency to an end was reinforced by his suggestion this week that the insurgency could last between five and twelve years. Iraq’s prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, responded immediately to this unwelcome assessment by saying that he expected stability and peace to be achieved within two years.

Rumsfeld’s further indication that the US had entered into tentative negotiations with some insurgent groups drew the reply from the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, that the Baghdad government had no connection with any such discussions.

The tensions evident here indicate that the United States rather than the Iraqi government retains firm control of counter-insurgency operations. An indication is the announcement on 27 June that the US military plans to spend $50 million on its Iraqi prison programme (which contains only suspected insurgents, not “ordinary” Iraqi prisoners). The plan is to construct a new prison near Sulaimaniya and expand the capacity of the prisons the US now controls from 10,000 to 16,000 detainees.

The assumption behind such plans, notwithstanding Rumsfeld’s remarks, is that United States forces will eventually subdue the insurgency. There are, however, more and more indications that insecurity in Iraq is escalating. An especially important one is the capacity of the insurgents to develop new tactics faster than US forces can counter them.

Three recent examples support this uncomfortable view. The first concerns the ubiquitous Humvee, the standard patrol vehicle of the US army. Repeated attacks by roadside bombs led to a crash programme of fitting armour to the vehicles. Even as it was underway, insurgent groups were able to increase the power of the bombs used to target the Humvees. This made the older, more vulnerable carriers usable only in non-combat areas and has rendered even the armoured variants vulnerable to successful attack.

The second example is the ability of insurgent groups to assemble shaped-charge armour-piercing explosives (they substitute for other munitions that possess this capability but may be in short supply). The significant point here is that insurgents have acquired the skill of adapting conventional explosive packages into these new devices.

The third example is the new potency of such devices. Most roadside bombs were previously detonated either by direct wire links to insurgents concealed nearby, or by radio waves. In the first case, insurgents may be exposed to discovery, and in the second, their radio frequencies could be jammed. To counter this, insurgents are now using infrared detonation systems that are more difficult to disrupt (see David S Cloud, “Iraqi Rebels Refine Bomb Skills, Pushing Toll of GI’s Higher”, New York Times , 22 June 2005).

Such technical advances by the insurgents contribute to an intensifying military predicament for the United States in Iraq. This, coupled with the marked decline in support for the war in the US, is leading to ever-louder calls for an “exit strategy”.

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

Plan or panic?

This series of columns has consistently (see, for example, here, here, and here) presented the view that the significance of Iraq’s oil reserves and the wider need for the United States to maintain security dominance in the Persian Gulf underlie the US’s intention to maintain its forces in Iraq.

Recent Iraqi developments may mean, though, that what is known in some circles as “Plan B” is beginning to be implemented. This would entail the withdrawal of considerable US forces from most Iraqi urban areas and their concentration in a small number of heavily-fortified bases, all located away from centres of population but most offering convenient access to the northern and southern oil fields and their export pipelines.

“Plan B” would assign urban security tasks to Iraqi forces; if they found the task too difficult, this would still leave the US in firm security control of the oil fields and related facilities, able to use its airpower and heavily-armoured troops to control what is really important to Washington.

This strategy would involve numerous problems and carry the potential for intensified insurgent action, even civil war or a violent coup attempt against the Iraqi government. But current circumstances mean that “Plan B” is likely to be given the kind of serious consideration that would have been unthinkable just three months ago. It is all a long way from the expectations of early 2003. Events on the ground in Iraq are spreading to the heart of Washington, and creating new, serious possibilities.

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