Victory in Iraq

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Paul Rogers
15 December 2005

A clash of views about what to do in Iraq has exploded in Washington in the past month. The advocates of withdrawal are making the running, but there remains a powerful body of opinion that believes victory is possible. Its proponents are well represented in the neo-conservative wing of Washington politics and particularly in the neocon house journal, the Weekly Standard. The views expressed in such circles deserve serious analysis, both for their own sake and because they shed an interesting light on the nature of the evolving US strategy in Iraq.

The neocons are facing unlikely as well as familiar opponents. The former include the veteran Pennsylvania congressman Jack Murtha who served as a marine in Vietnam and has a long track record as a defence “hawk”; this made his 17 November speech calling for the administration to timetable a withdrawal from Iraq particularly compelling and difficult to counter (see “The Iraq illusion”, 1 December 2005).

This has not stopped the two senior politicians in Washington from trying. Dick Cheney made a vigorous response in his own speech of 17 November, and again at the American Enterprise Institute on 21 November; these were followed by George W Bush's address at the US naval academy at Annapolis on 30 November (the first of a series of four) which launched the Pentagon’s new Iraq document, the National Strategy for Victory.

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Strategy and reality

The Republican right, including the neo-conservatives, have long made two distinct proposals for increasing the United States’s chances of winning the war in Iraq. The first is that troop numbers should be increased. This figured prominently in a series of articles in mid-2005 – even though this was a period of worsening recruitment and retention problems for the US armed forces, especially the regular army and the national guard.

The second is that numbers of troops on the ground might be less significant than how US military forces were being deployed. A good example of this way of thinking came in December 2004, when the second assault on Fallujah a month earlier was still being presented as a victory. In a notable article in the Weekly Standard, Mackubin T Owens of the US Naval War College argued since the taking of Fallujah had indeed been a military success, the tactics used there must now be extended to the other significant centres of population that were largely or partially controlled by the insurgents:

“All wars hinge on logistics. No force, conventional or guerrilla, can continue to fight if it is not resupplied. Storming Fallujah was absolutely essential to the destruction of the rebel logistics infrastructure.” ("Two, Three, Many Fallujahs", 6 December 2004).

In the event, almost as soon as Fallujah was overrun, the insurgents demonstrated their capabilities by seizing much of Mosul. The pattern was repeated to the letter a year later; as Bush was making his Annapolis speech, 2,500 US and Iraqi troops were on the offensive in the town of Hit, only to find that hundreds of insurgents staged a temporary takeover of the nearby city of Ramadi in broad daylight.

Such experiences do not seem to dent the policy or persuade the neo-conservative right that it is a failure. Indeed, some have called for a systematic and sustained assault on areas of rebel activity in Baghdad itself. The logic is plain: the numerous military assaults in towns and cities in western Iraq are side issues – the heart of the insurgency is not in Ramadi and was never in Fallujah, it is in Baghdad.

In Baghdad, twenty to twenty-five attacks are taking place every day, and the number is increasing. This is despite a major increase in patrols by Iraqi security forces – in January 2005 there was a single Iraqi army battalion operating in the city, whereas by November there were eighteen (see Greg Grant, "Next Focus for U.S. in Iraq: Baghdad?", Defense News, 21 November 2005 [subscription only]).

The neocon belief in victory persists in face of such realities on the ground, but so does the fear of a loss of domestic support for the war. In response to Murtha's comments, Robert Kagan & William Kristol wrote a powerful, almost emotional, piece for the Weekly Standard that emphasised the disastrous consequences of a US withdrawal and the risk of what amounted to a domino effect across the middle east ("Abandoning Iraq", 28 November 2005).

A more considered analysis is found in the magazine’s most recent issue. Frederick W Kagan’s lengthy piece presents a clear thesis: that any talk of even a partial reduction of troops is deeply flawed, and that "calls for a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, or for setting arbitrary deadlines or milestones for withdrawal, now threaten to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory."

Moreover, Kagan contends that "with a proper strategy, victory in Iraq is far more likely than people think" and that "the most recent news from Iraq is promising. American strategy has improved, and prospects for success are better than they have ever been" (see "Fighting to Win", 19 December 2005).

This assessment, shared by other commentators on the US right, implies that a more vigorous policy of counterinsurgency is essential. It argues that the use of substantial firepower in recent operations in western Iraq has contributed to success in clearing areas of insurgents, but also acknowledges that the insurgents are capable of flexible regroupment even after heavy assault.

The answer suggested is the "clear, hold, build" approach. The plan is to use large military contingents to "clear" areas of insurgents; garrison US and Iraqi troops in these areas in order to “hold” them (instead of the more usual policy of withdrawal); engage in a "build" strategy of reconstruction and long-term control.

It sounds attractive to pro-war voices seeking validation for their thinking. But it hardly takes into account the capacity of US and Iraqi forces to do as it proposes – the Americans are too few, and the Iraqis too unreliable, to simultaneously attack insurgent strongholds while holding on to previously "cleared" areas.

The costs of war

Behind these views on the Washington neocon right lie the persistent realities of continuing casualties, both Iraqi and American, in Iraq. After long refusing any estimate of Iraqi civilian deaths, President Bush on 13 December conceded that as many as 30,000 Iraqis (“more or less”) have been killed in the war – a number that is increasing by hundreds every week.

The statistics of US losses also tell a grim story. In the ten weeks to 13 December, 220 military personnel were killed and over 1,100 injured (more than 400 of them seriously). The overall figure for US deaths and injuries since the start of the war in March 2003 – 2,150 killed and just over 16,000 injured – is a wider indication’s of the conflict’s toll, though even these do not give the full picture.

The US Transportation Command recently made available statistics showing that between October 2001 and 8 December 2005, as many as 25,289 armed forces personnel had been evacuated to the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan (see Mark Benjamin, "Incalculable Pain", 10 December 2005 [subscription only]).

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)

Those transferred are in addition to the combat casualties; the overwhelming majority were sent home from Iraq. Many had sustained serious injuries in vehicle accidents, others had physical illnesses, some were suffering from mental illness. But the key point is that their condition was sufficiently serious to require treatment not in Iraq or Afghanistan, nor even in the military hospital at Landstuhl in Germany, but through medical evacuation back to the United States itself. The full picture is therefore of more than 40,000 Americans directly or indirectly affected by the two wars.

Although this larger figure gives a total rather than a month-by-month assessment, the deaths and injuries due to combat show no diminishing at all in recent months. There have been occasional peaks – such as during the two assaults on Fallujah in 2004 – but overall there is a depressing consistency which belies the immense improvements in US troop protection and tactics since the war started.

The blunt truths are that the Iraqi insurgents have also evolved their methods, that their background support remains remarkably resilient – and that it is not at all certain that the national elections today, 15 December, will make any difference to their campaign. The neo-conservative view may well be that “the day of victory” in Iraq will come, but the evidence indicates that they are whistling in the wind.

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