With a Whimper

It’s time for us to take stock of the situation in Iraq, especially in light of the comments of President George W. Bush at Annapolis, Maryland, on November 30, 2005. It’s not nearly as bad as some doomsayers think.

President Bush told U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen that he intends to remain in Iraq until victory is achieved. All American forces can come home, he said, only when the Iraqis are able to battle terror and insurgency on their own. Bush urged everyone to refer to the whitehouse.com website, where they can pull off a document, “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq,” which outlines the plans.

Bush admitted that creating adequate Iraqi military and police forces will require much patience. Yet patience is getting thin everywhere, primarily because virtually no one in power in Washington has explained the true conditions we face. They are not dismal. In fact, they are quite hopeful.

Iraq’s national security adviser Muwafak al-Rubaie said more than 50,000 of the normal-level 138,000 Americans troops can leave in 2006. And the Pentagon, according to press reports, is talking about withdrawing three (of 18) brigades with about 15,000 troops around the first of the year.

While these possible troop withdrawals offer much encouragement, Americans remain anxious because most of what they see and hear in the press is horror stories. When we examine the situation rationally, however, we realize that the Vietnam-like quagmire nearly everyone fears will not come to pass in Iraq.

First off, American forces will have little influence on whether or not the insurgency continues. Likewise, it’s unrealistic to expect the election set for December 15, 2005, to end the insurgency. The election can only confirm the solid power of the majority Shiites and their allies the Kurds. The insurgency is being fueled by fundamentalist terrorists and by minority Sunnis, neither of whom are going to gain appreciable power in the new government.

Thus the same situation will obtain after the election as before. The terrorists want to create chaos so they can take over Iraq and use it as a base to conquer the whole Middle East. The Sunnis (about 20 percent of the population) want to regain the supremacy they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein. Both groups have adopted vicious, but highly effective, insurgency tactics—suicide bombers who target innocent civilians, and a program of murdering foreigners.

Although American and other coalition forces are still targeted for attacks, especially by means of roadside explosives detonated as convoys pass, the emphasis is now on easier prey whose murders and abductions will generate huge headlines in the West: killing women and children at street markets, blowing up Shiite mosques, and seizing foreigners, such as the German archaeologist Susanne Osthoff, abducted in late November 2005. Osthoff’s capture was most cruel, since she had been trying to preserve Iraq’s archaeological treasures and stop antiquities from being looted.

Although foreigners can reduce their chances of being kidnapped by avoiding public places and remaining within guarded precincts, it’s next to impossible to shield ordinary Iraqi civilians going about their daily lives. Suicide bombers can blend into the street population and can be detected only when they set off explosives tied to their bodies.

Thus we can predict a fairly logical sequence for the foreseeable future: the terrorists and Sunni insurgents will continue to kill innocents until such time as the people of Iraq decide enough is enough and begin themselves going after the insurgents with determination.

American forces have been effective in rooting out known insurgent and terrorist strongholds or hiding places and in interdicting supply lines from Syria. But the job of ending the insurgency cannot by finished by Americans or other foreign troops. They are too visible and too much targets themselves. Their knowledge of Iraqi society will always be imperfect as compared to that of natives, and they will always be at a disadvantage (and like sitting ducks) trying to patrol beats in the fashion of American precinct cops.

Despite the fact that Americans cannot do the job, we can foretell that the insurgents will never succeed in taking over Iraq. Their actions are so savage that they are alienating the overwhelming majority of Iraqis. American military power—either exerted today by forces based within Iraq or, later, by means of swift-strike forces located outside of Iraq—will always be far greater than anything the insurgents can bring to bear.

Accordingly, President Bush is correct in emphasizing that the way to end the insurgency and bring peace is the creation of effective Iraqi military and police forces. These forces will ultimately develop enough expertise and discipline to root out the fundamentalists and the insurgents and they will ultimately end the reign of terror. But it’s going to take time. And the course of their campaign will not be dramatic or obvious.

Partisan or guerrilla warfare depends primarily upon the support of a significant portion of the native population. This support was described graphically in the early 1930s by the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong, who said that guerrillas survive because they can swim—or can hide---in the “water”of the people. This “water” is rapidly evaporating in Iraq today. Supporters of the insurgents will finally be reduced to a tiny, radical, and more easily identified minority. When this happens, two other requirements of partisan warfare, the anonymity of most insurgents, and the existence of secret lairs where they can hide and keep their stores, will be much easier to uncover.

In other words, the final throttling of the insurgency in Iraq must be accomplished, not by American troops, but by native soldiers and native police using their superior knowledge of their own society. It will not be pretty and it will not be spectacular or glittering. To paraphrase “The Hollow Men” of 1925 by T.S. Eliot, this is the way insurgencies end, not with a bang but a whimper.

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