An article in last Friday’s NYT – “Big Gains for Iraq Security, but Questions Linger” – is more than a standard wartime dispatch. With two principal authors and ten local Iraqi correspondents credited as contributors, it is a significant attempt to explain key aspects of the current military situation for American readers.
For Democrats, the article makes two points of particular importance.
First, the article very strongly corroborates an argument that was made in a TDS post last week. The post warned about a sudden burst of conservative commentary that was distorting the military situation in Iraq to make the case for McCain and achieving “victory.” By the artful use of words like “routed”, “forced to submit”, “surrendered” and “scattered,” these commentaries made it appear that the withdrawal of Sunni and Sadrist militias from Basra, Sadr City and Mosul represented the near-collapse of the insurgency. From this it followed that it is only if the weak-kneed Democrats start withdrawing troops that the insurgents can possibly win.
The TDS post argued that a careful reading of the dispatches from these cities indicated that the withdrawals were more accurately described as mutually negotiated cease-fires rather than battlefield combat victories and therefore did not signal the collapse of the insurgent forces.
The Times article very emphatically confirms this view, repeating the conclusion at two different places.
“The government victories in Basra, Sadr City and Amara were essentially negotiated, so the militias are lying low but undefeated and seething with resentment”
And then again,
“…the government’s successes in Basra and Sadr City were not so much victories as heavy fighting followed by truces that allowed the militias to melt away with their weapons.”
This is an important point. It provides Democrats with an authoritative source to use to challenge the misleading suggestions that the insurgents are actually on their “last legs” and “about to collapse” if Americans just “stay strong a tiny bit longer” or “support John McCain”. It will not stop conservative spokesmen from making such claims when talking to ordinary voters (where they think they can get away with it) but will reduce their tendency to assert this notion in serious debate or the op-ed pages of the Washington Post or New York Times where such rhetoric will be viewed as evidence of either extreme gullibility or embarrassing ignorance.
Beyond this, the article also presents other information about the military situation that Democrats need to understand in order to plan their own political strategy.
One key point the article makes is that:
…The most obvious but often overlooked reason for the recent military success has been an increase in the number of trained Iraqi troops.
The quality of the recruits and leadership has often been poor, even in recent months. In Baghdad’s Sadr City, one Iraqi company abandoned its position in April, forcing American and Iraqi commanders to fill the gap with hastily summoned reinforcements. In Basra, more than 1,000 recently qualified soldiers deserted rather than obey orders to fight against Mr. Sadr’s Mahdi Army. One senior Iraqi government official conceded that the deserters simply “felt that the other side was too strong.”
But sheer numbers have helped to overcome the shortcomings. After the embarrassing setback in Basra, Mr. Maliki was able to pull units from elsewhere to provide reinforcements and saturate the city with checkpoints and patrols…
Another key point is that:
…in Mosul, the celebrations over the performance of the Iraqis who fought there have glossed over the tremendous — but hidden — role played by American Special Operations forces to clear out the toughest enemy fighters before the Iraqi soldiers arrived in full. “It is underreported how much the secret guys did to set the conditions for the Iraqi Army to go in and do what they did,” the official said.
What these two excerpts from the article illustrate are certain basic realities about the military situation in Iraq that will shape the future course of events.
1. On the one hand, highly trained US forces can demolish any fixed position when they can coordinate the application of the full range of modern weaponry — long distance surveillance, laser-guided and other highly accurate munitions, effective close tactical air support and so on. It is therefore essentially impossible for insurgents to hold any fixed positions in urban areas against attack. But at the same time US forces cannot hold territory without maintaining large numbers of troops in the area. In their absence, insurgents quickly return and reoccupy the positions.
This was illustrated by the battle for Fallujah where insurgents tried to hold fixed positions. They were soundly defeated despite a bitter and tenacious defense, but then returned and reoccupied the town soon after the US troops were withdrawn.
2. Iraqi government troops are substantially less battle-worthy then their antagonists – man for man or unit for unit — and cannot take strongly defended territory without significant US support. But, if sufficient numbers are available, once an area is “softened-up”, they are capable of saturating an area with patrols and checkpoints.
Thus, by themselves, neither Iraqi troops nor U.S. forces are sufficient to pacify cities like Basra, Sadr City and Mosul. It is only when the two can be deployed in combination that such tactical victories can be achieved.
This has two important implications for the future:
1. The size and number of urban areas that can be continuously kept under control by the Maliki government are sharply limited by the numbers of available troops. Any circumstances that provoke widespread anger against the Maliki government – such as might happen if the government tries to suppress Sunni or Sadrist voters during the upcoming elections – could easily overwhelm the troop’s ability to maintain control and lead to a widespread breakdown.
2. Even if widespread unrest does not occur, because the insurgents’ morale has not been broken or even seriously weakened, they will not give up because they have lost control of territory. Rather, they will shift to the kind of urban guerilla warfare practiced by the IRA and the Algerian resistance against French colonial rule. The US and Iraqi army do not have an effective technical or tactical defense against this kind of warfare.
It is one of these two scenarios — and certainly not John McCain’s historically sophomoric comparison of an Iraqi occupation with post world war II Germany and Japan (where no organized and well-armed anti-American resistance movements existed and casualty rates were consequently negligible) — that is the militarily likely future for which Democratic strategy must be prepared.
For the US troops themselves, a shift to combating IRA/Algerian style guerilla warfare will have two predictable consequences.
First, because the shock waves from bombs and other explosive devices are the primary source of injury being sustained by U.S. troops, a prolonged occupation will result in literally tens of thousands of traumatic brain injuries. VA and other medical professionals treating injured soldiers already refer to traumatic brain injury as the “signature injury” of this conflict, comparable to the land-mine caused loss of limbs in Vietnam. A particularly appalling characteristic of these brain injuries is that while they shatter and destroy the remainder of a person’s life even more fully then the loss of an arm or a leg, such injuries are much more easily concealed, minimized and underestimated in government statistics because the injury is to soft tissue and not as visible as missing limbs
Second, as time goes by several factors will converge to increase the perception of U.S. troops as an occupying force – (1) the return of the major US oil companies to Iraq and the consequent need to deploy substantial troops to protect U.S. oil workers and installations, (2) the competitive pressure on Iraqi politicians to demonstrate their “independence” and “nationalist” credentials by denouncing the U.S. (this is already beginning to happen in the debates over the status of forces agreement) and (3) the “public relations” benefits to the insurgents of portraying themselves as warriors against foreign domination rather than seekers of sectarian advantage.
Taken together with a turn to IRA style urban guerilla warfare, the result will be a heightened tendency for insurgents to specifically target U.S. servicemen and women rather than other Iraqis. U.S. casualties will increase while “victories” will become increasingly elusive.
The response to this will inevitably be a coarsening and increasing cynicism among the troops similar to what occurred in Algeria and Vietnam. This is in no way a criticism of the troops in Iraq today – even with Abu Ghraib, their overall behavior compares very favorably with the systematic brutality into which French troops descended in Algeria. But long-term occupations of foreign countries are inevitably profoundly corrosive to the morale of even the best soldiers and invariably create deep currents of bitterness and cynicism.
These are predictable results of a long-term occupation on our troops. They stand in sharp contrast to John McCain’s idyllic image of an extended U.S. presence in Iraq becoming similar to the pleasant tours of duty in Japan or Germany that many previous generations of U.S. servicemen and servicewomen enjoyed. And it is on this more realistic basis that Democrats must insist the coming debate over Iraq be conducted.