Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Iraq War: Anthony Cordesman on the insurgency

One of the most informative pieces of analysis I've come across lately on the Iraq War is The Developing Iraqi Insurgency: Status at End-2004 by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS); updated as of 12/22/04 (*.pdf file).

In looking at the situation in Iraq, Cordesman challenges the common notion that disbanding the Iraqi army was an obvious mistake.  In the best case, maintaining the old army would have required recalling the many soldiers who had simply walked away.  And some sort of purge of Baathist loyalists would have been required.

But that doesn't mean he has no criticisms of the action.  On the contrary, he argues:

What is valid criticism is that Ambassador Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), seems to have made this decision after limited consultation with Washington, and that the US formally dissolved the existing army without providing either the Iraqi people or the Iraqi ex-military with any clear or convincing plan to create a new one or to include those who had served in the previous force.  It also excluded former Ba’ath and career officers and personnel who were competent and had simply gone along with the former regime to survive or because of the very national threats that developed during the Iran-Iraq War. If the overall manning of the leadership cadres consisted of timeservers, uniformed bureaucrats, and men seeking their own advantage, there were still many in these cadres that had served with honor in previous wars.

The danger of believing your own propaganda

Cordesman emphasizes the amount of self-deception that was going on among US war planners.  He even uses the V-word, "Vietnam."

The US minimized the insurgent and criminal threat and exaggerated the popular support for US and Coalition efforts. Polls as early asthe summer of 2003 showed that at least one-third of Arab Sunnis while over 15% of Shi’ites supported attacks on Coalition forces. The numbers may now be substantially higher. ...

As a result, the US failed to come to grips with the Iraqi insurgency during the first year of US occupation in virtually every important dimension. It was slow to react to the growth of the insurgency in Iraq, to admit it was largely domestic in character, and to admit it had significant popular support. ... In short, it failed to honestly assess the facts on the ground in a manner reminiscent of Vietnam.

As late as July 2004, the Administration’s senior spokesmen still seemed to live in a fantasyland in terms of their public announcements, perception of the growing Iraqi hostility to the use of Coalition forces, and the size of the threat. They were still talking about a core insurgent force of only 5,000, when many Coalition experts on the ground in Iraq saw the core as at least 12,000-16,000. (my emphasis)

Cordesman points to the need for caution in measuring victories against the insurgents.  At the time this paper was last revised, memories of the Battle of Fallujah were fresh, and it was easier to imagine that it had been a "tipping point."  Cordesman was cautioning that the insurgency was still very much active and that it was hard to see in concrete terms how the undoubtedly US tactical victory in Fallujah had actually damaged the insurgency.

In fact, he makes an even broader conclusion:

These insurgents [Sunni Iraqis and outside fighters] have suffered significant tactical defeats since early 2004, notably in Najaf, Baghdad, Samarra, Fallujah, and Mosul. Nevertheless, US and Iraqi government attempts to root out the insurgency have so far only had limited impact. There is no evidence that number of insurgents is declining as a result of Coalition and Iraqi attacks to date. The number of insurgent attacks has been consistently high since the spring of 2004, although the pattern fluctuates over time.

His section on the insurgency itself concludes that most of the insurgents are Sunni Iraqis, with some foreign jihadists/terrorists.  He dismissed the Interim Government's claims that most Iraqi provinces were secure:

The present level of the threat in Iraq is all too real, and Iraqi Interim Government claims  that some 16 of Iraq's provinces are secure are clearly untrue. ...

No province is safe from occasional attack, and attacks are only part of the story.

There is continuing sabotage of key targets like Iraq’s oil facilities, and a constant campaign of intimidation, disappearances, and "mystery killings." Even cities that were supposedly liberated before the battle of Fallujah, like Samarra, have been the source of enough continuing attacks to force the redeployment of large numbers of Iraqi security and police forces and elements of key US counterinsurgency units like Task Force 1-26.

He notes that the insurgency, both domestic and foreign fighters, have proved themselves very adaptable to changing US tactics.

Cordesman in this paper viewed the training of Iraq military, paramilitary and police to be a long haul.  He emphasizes that the insurgents obviously have very good "human intelligence" on US and Iraqi operations, much of it provided by disloyal elements in the existing Iraqi forces.  He warns against trying to use the number of Iraqi security personnel as a measure of their effectiveness:

There is no way to quantify how the development of Iraqi military, security, and police forces has kept pace with the development of effective Iraqi government forces. In any case, numerical comparisons are largely pointless. The ratio of security forces to insurgents sometimes has to reach levels of 12:1 through 30:1 in order to provide security in a given area, while in other cases, a small number of security forces can decapitate a movement or cell and end it. In any case, intangibles like the battle for political perceptions and "hearts and minds" are often far more critical than the numbers of insurgents and defenders.

This article on the Iraqi forces quotes Cordesman taking a seemingly more optimistic tone, although it doesn't seem to contradict what he was writing in December: Iraqi troop training: signs of progress by Peter Grier Christian Science Monitor 03/29/05.  Despite the title, the article has a good analysis showing why it's necessary to be skeptical of the numbers game the administration has been playing in this area.

(It's always good to keep in mind at this point, too, that independent reporting from Iraq is pretty scarce.  The security is so bad, most reporters are severely restricted in their movements even within Baghdad.  Nancy Pelosi recently took a Congressional delegation to Baghdad.  Because of the disastrous security situation, they were only allowed to go to the heavily-fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, and weren't even allowed to stay in the country overnight. Congressional delegation see progress in Iraq by Edward Epstein San Francisco Chronicle 03/26/05; you have to wonder if the headlines wasn't meant to be ironic.

Juan Cole recently called attention to the fact that the Pentagon is saying that now there are around 60 insurgent attacks a day in Iraq, and asks, "By the way, if there are 60 attacks a day, why do I only read about 7 or 8 of them?" See No Government and 16 Dead, Informed Comment blog 03/28/05.)

In the December paper, Cordesman also includes a good reminder about what patrolling the borders of Iraq means:

Iraq’s borders total: 3,650 kilometers in length: Iran 1,458 kilometers, Jordan 181 kilometers, Kuwait 240 kilometers, Saudi Arabia 814 kilometers, Syria 605 kilometers, and Turkey 352 kilometers. Most of these borders are desert, desolate territory, easily navigable water barriers, or mountains. Even Iraq’s small 58-kilometer coastline is in an area with considerable small craft and shipping traffic and presents security problems. Insurgents also do not need major shipments of arms. As a result, virtually anyone can go in and out moving money and small critical supplies, and volunteers can simply enter as ordinary visitors without equipment. Even if Iraq’s border forces were ready, and its neighbors actively helped, border security would be a problem. (my emphasis)

Lessons from the Iraq War

Cordesman also lists a number of factors that US forces and war planners are processing and from which they are trying to learn lessons.  Some of the ones that particular stand out in his paper for me are the following:

Experts have long pointed out that one of the key differences between Islamist extremist terrorism and previous forms of terrorism is that they are not seeking to negotiate with those they terrorize, but rather to create conditions that can drive the West away, undermine secular and moderate regimes in the Arab and Islamic worlds, and create the conditions under which they can create "Islamic" states according to their own ideas of "Puritanism."

I would add that while that is the goal of the jihadists, that doesn't mean than none of them would negotiate ever under any circumstance.  Politics is politics, after all.

The following is a good brief description of how atrocities and dramatically horrible attacks can be used by the insurgents, and the risks for the US in trying to deal with guerrilla/terrorist tactics through conventional warfare response, e.g., bombing cities, which is still going on, more than two years into the war:

Such [dramatic] actions [by insurgents] also breed anger and alienation in the US and the West and to provoke excessive political and media reactions, more stringent security measures, violent responses, and all of the other actions that help provoke a "clash of civilizations." The US and the West are often provoked into playing into the hands of such attackers.

At the same time, any attack or incident that provokes massive media coverage and political reactions appears to be a "victory" to those who support Islamist extremism or those who are truly angry at the US – even though the actual body count is often low, and victory does not mean creating stronger forces or winning political control. Each such incident can be used to damage the US and Western view of the Arab and Islamic worlds. (my emphasis)

The following observation is a welcome relief from the conventional, superficial military whining about the effects of media on the "will" of the home front:

Terrorists and insurgents have found they can use the media, rumor, and conspiracy theories to exploit the fact the US often fights a military battle without proper regard to the fact it is also fighting a political, ideological, and psychological war.

Real incidents of US misconduct such as the careless treatment of detainees and prisoners, and careless and excessive security measures are cases in point. So too are careless political and media rhetoric by US officials and military officers.

Bin Laden, the Iraqi insurgents, etc., all benefit from every Western action that unnecessarily angers or frustrates the Arab and Islamic worlds. They are not fighting to influence Western or world opinion; they are fighting a political and psychological war to dominate Iraq and the  Arab and Islamic worlds. (my emphasis)

Cordesman notes that one tactic the insurgency is using to sabotage economic projects just after they are completed.  This means the US and the Interim Government get only minimum benefit from the projects after the large expenditures.  "They also often led the local population to blame the Coalition or government for not keeping promises or providing the proper protection."

He discusses various ways in which the guerrillas utilize low-tech methods to evade detection.  Referring to one of the Pentagon's current favorite buzzwords in "military transformation," he writes:  "While it is nice to talk about netcentric warfare, it is a lot harder to get a big enough net."  As in all wars, the exciting new technology that is put on display turns out not to be quite the wonder-workers that they may have seemed to be at first.

The following is an especially interesting point.  The Pentagon, learning one of many wrong lessons from the Vietnam War, doesn't provide civilian "body counts."  This allows the Air Force in particular to claim that their bombing of urban centers is more "surgical" and precise in every war.  One of Rummy's more disgusting moments - and there have been a lot of them - was when he raved on before the cameras about the "care" and "humanity" that went into selecting bombing targets.  Well, it turns out that the insurgents are able to use the Pentagon's deliberate ignorance in not measuring casualties accurately to their advantage:

Iraqi insurgents, and other Islamist extremists learned that US intelligence is optimized around characterizing, counting, and targeting things, rather than people, and the US has poor capability to measure and characterize infantry and insurgent numbers, wounded, and casualties. They exploit these weaknesses in dispersal, in conducting attacks, in concealing the extent of losses, and in manipulating the media by claiming civilian casualties and collateral damage.

Finally, this observation on the problems of HUMINT (human intelligence sources) in Iraq is not new to me.  But he gives good expression to what a serious problem it is, especially when you add in the fact that so few Americans there speak Arabic.  He also uses the V-word again:

Like Vietnam, Iraq is a warning that hostile HUMINT sources are often pushed into providing data because of family ties, a fear of being on the losing side, direct and indirect threats, etc. In Iraq's case, it seems likely that family, clan, and ethnic loyalties have made many supposedly loyal Iraqis become at least part time sources, and that US vetting will often be little more than either a review of past ties or checks on the validity of data being provided. The end result may be an extremely high degree of transparency on US, Iraqi government, aid, and every other aspect of Iraqi operations. This will often provide excellent targeting data on key US and allied officials, events, etc. It can include leverage and blackmail, and vulnerability data, as well as warning of US and other military operations. Dual loyalty and HUMINT penetration of Iraqi security and military forces may be the rule, rather than the exception. (my emphasis)

The advantage of papers like this is that Cordesman is a careful and respected analyst of military affairs.  But he's not simply recycling administration spin.  He's trying to understand what is really going on, and what lessons can be learned from it.

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