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Iraq’s cloudy horizon

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
9 May 2007

The United States surge in troop numbers in Iraq is now into its fourth month and thus three-quarters complete, yet the country's military leaders caution that there will be few signs of progress for some months to come. This view is coming to be shared even among combative writers in neo-conservative outlets such as the Weekly Standard, where the scent of victory widespread in past weeks is beginning to turn (see, for example, Bill Roggio, "The Roggio Report", Weekly Standard, 7 May 2007).

The dominant political sentiment in Washington has been to give the surge until September 2007 to test its effectiveness, but the Pentagon is already taking steps to maintain the current troop levels until at least the end of 2007. More than 35,000 soldiers have been given notice to prepare for deployment to Iraq in the coming months, allowing the Pentagon to maintain the current level of twenty brigades (see "Pentagon Tells 35,000: Prepare to Deploy", Associated Press, 8 May 2007).

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

Such sentiments hardly suggest an overwhelming confidence in the current situation, although it is fair to remember that the US military in Iraq has been consistently more modest than its political counterparts in Washington.

This attitude almost certainly stems in part from the pattern that is now emerging of insurgent activity since the start of the surge, a pattern ominously similar to the experience of previous US offensives, when insurgents have responded in two ways: withdrawing temporarily from areas of immediate US activity, moving their attacks elsewhere; and testing out any new US tactics before adapting to them.

This is already proving to be the case with the surge. There has certainly been a decrease in sectarian violence and criminality in some parts of Baghdad, and the insurgent groups in Anbar province that are loosely linked to the al-Qaida movement have largely gone to ground as some local communities have cooperated with US and government forces. In most other respects, though, the levels of violence have been maintained or even increased. This has been seen both in numerous bomb attacks in Baghdad, and in a marked shift to northern and southern cities away from the capital; the suicide truck-bomb attack which killed nineteen people in the hitherto relatively peaceful Kurdish city of Irbil on 10 May is but one example.

This deployment of additional troops is being combined with the extension of tours of duty, from twelve to fifteen months. This evidently puts greater pressure on the soldiers, but the wider military thinking is that they gain more experience and therefore become more effective. At the same time, senior US military officers in Iraq are being notably cautious. Lieutenant-General Raymond Odierno, in an interview in Baghdad, talked of plans through to next spring: "What I am trying to do is to get until next April so we can decide whether to keep it going or not. Are we making progress? If we're not making any progress, we need to change our strategy. If we're making progress, then we need to make a decision on whether we continue to surge"(Ann Scott Tyson, "Commanders in Iraq See 'Surge' Into '08", Washington Post, 9 May 2007).

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 )

The outpost effect

At the same time, insurgent actions against US troops have started to increase, and new tactics are being employed. US military casualties since the start of the surge have been amongst the highest of the four-year war: 104 troops were killed in April 2007, another thirty in the first nine days of May, with over 650 troops being wounded in the five weeks to 2 May.

Perhaps the most significant development has been the rate of attacks on the more isolated US outposts. A core part of the current US strategy has been to reverse the previous trend of concentrating US forces in a few large and well-protected bases. The surge has effectively been about reclaiming the streets and districts of Baghdad by putting US troops back into neighbourhood outposts, working alongside Iraqi army and police units and engaging with local communities.

Whereas previously the tendency was to clear areas and then move on, the current intention is to consolidate in particular areas, providing support for government forces with a view to their eventually taking over. The expectation was that this would make things too difficult for the insurgents, but the signs are already there that it is having the opposite effect. What the dispersal to small outposts is actually doing is providing insurgent units with lots of new targets (see Ann Scott Tyson, "Troops at Baghdad Outposts Seek Safety in Fortifications", Washington Post, 8 May 2007).

A case in point is the double truck-bombing of a US base near Baquba on 23 April killing nine US soldiers (see "The Iraq insurgents' surge", 26 April 2007). The inevitable response to this kind of attack has been the fortification of many of the sixty joint-security stations established in and around Baghdad. Free-fire zones are being created around the outposts with concrete barriers, sand walls and barbed-wire barriers erected to protect the soldiers within. Such fortifications enable the US troops to fire on would-be truck-bombers, destroying the vehicles before they can get close to the US positions.

This carries the danger that more Iraqi civilians will be killed by soldiers making quick decisions about vehicles they suspect or fear are carrying bombs. Moreover, the insurgents themselves have responded by adding armour to their trucks, so that American troops now have to be equipped with anti-tank weapons for their own protection.

The resulting situation is one where isolated security stations are ending up as small fortresses, heavily protected and heavily armed. The problem here is that this level of protection makes almost impossible the main aim of the security-outpost strategy: to integrate the US and Iraqi government forces into urban neighbourhoods (see Helena Cobban, "Surge getting bogged down in fortifications", Just World News, 9 May 2007). Indeed, having such bases spread throughout Baghdad may tend only to reinforce the perception of a city under occupation, especially as the levels of firepower required to protect US forces will inevitably lead to civilian casualties.

If one major part of the surge strategy was to place US forces deep within Iraqi neighbourhoods, the other part was to encourage the Iraqi government to improve the capabilities of its own forces while engaging in political developments intended to ease the sectarian conflict. The second aim has been set back by the intention of the Iraqi parliament to take a two-month recess. The desire to counter this proposal was almost certainly one of the main reasons for United States vice-president Dick Cheney's surprise visit to Baghdad and Salaheddin province on 9-10 May.

The day before Cheney arrived in Baghdad, in a move scarcely reported in the western media, a majority in the Iraqi parliament signed a legislative petition calling for a US withdrawal from the country. As many as 144 of the 272 members signed up to this; but the continuing absence of many members because of security concerns means that the vote if anything underestimates the true weight of opinion (see Raed Jarrar & Joshua Holland, "Majority of Iraqi Lawmakers Now Reject Occupation", AlterNet.org, 9 May 2007).

A campaign under pressure

The issue of improving Iraqi security forces is also raising the awkward issue of the amount and quality of their military provisions. Most of it consists of old equipment originating in east-central Europe, or material designed to protect troops from improvised explosive devices. There is very little in the way of heavy armour and virtually no artillery, while the air force is restricted to reconnaissance and transport planes and a few basic helicopters. This contrasts with the resources available to US forces, which includes a wide range of armoured vehicles and hundreds of helicopter gunships and strike aircraft (see Riad Kahwaji, "No Artillery, Tanks in Iraqi Buying Plan", Defense News, 7 May 2007 [subscription only]).

One of the reasons for the disparity is most likely that US forces do not believe they can rely on Iraqi security personnel, with the consequent risk that heavier weapons could either end up in the hands of insurgents or even be used by renegade units within the army. The result is that the Iraqi army is actually incapable of acting on its own in a counterinsurgency role, even though the surge was partly intended to provide the conditions for it to do just that.

The cumulative result of all these trends is as follows:

  • insurgent activity already adapting to new American tactics
  • an Iraqi security force that is inadequately equipped for its assigned role
  • an Iraqi political system without a sense of urgency
  • a surge that actually looks set to last at least a year
  • a US military leadership that does not itself seem convinced that the surge will work.

If this is the Bush administration's response to the Iraq conflict, having ignored the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton report, perhaps it is time to take that report off the shelves and think again.

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