“IT IS EASY to conquer an Arab country,” observed the general. But drawing on years of experience in the Middle East, he added that the Arabs' “natural inclination to rebellion makes it difficult for the invader to maintain his control.”
This prescient warning came in 1957 from Sir John Glubb, a British general who fought Iraqi insurgents in the 1920s.
Two years after conquering Iraq, America now finds itself locked in a struggle with a fierce insurgency that is using suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices, beheadings, ambushes, kidnappings, and assassinations to kill Iraqis, Americans, and coalition forces.
Who are these insurgents? How do they keep going? Why can't US, coalition, and Iraqi government forces stop them?
The insurgency grew out of the sudden fall of Saddam Hussein and the total collapse of domestic political authority. It drew fighters from the ranks of thousands of hostile, unemployed military veterans armed with an abundance of weapons. It took root as US and coalition troops were stretched thin and woefully unprepared to deal with a fierce resistance movement.
The Iraqi insurgency today comprises a shifting host of as many as 70 disparate groups that increasingly have coordinated their attacks. It is made up of diehard supporters of the old regime reassembled, joined by growing numbers of Iraqi and foreign fighters who see Iraq as a new front for holy war against America and other “infidel” nations.
The resistance is composed of full-time fighters, part-time supporters, and sympathizers. Counting insurgents is always tricky. Iraq's head of intelligence has estimated there are 40,000 full-time rebels plus 160,000 supporters. In March, the director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency testified that there were 15,000 to 20,000 insurgents in Iraq.
Expansion and erosion of insurgent ranks occurs concurrently, depending on changing personal assessments of how the war is going. And criminals have joined in. Today an estimated 80 percent of the violence in Iraq is purely criminal.
Experience suggests that a successful counter-insurgency requires a ratio of 10 government soldiers to one insurgent. Coalition forces currently number 164,000 (including 142,000 Americans), but several coalition partners plan to withdraw forces by the end of the year.
American withdrawal will depend on the ability of Iraqi forces to replace US troops. Although Iraqi military and police now theoretically number 159,000, it will likely be years before they can take over the country's security.
Insurgents cannot defeat US forces in open battle, although they fight hard in urban areas where terrain offsets America's superior weaponry. Insurgent strategy aims at draining US resolve, hoping that an intolerable number of deaths over a number of years will prompt the United States to exit Iraq in defeat as it exited Vietnam.
Americans tend to measure the progress of military campaigns in weeks or at most months, while public support fluctuates according to the rapid changes of the 24-hour news cycle.
But the insurgents measure their campaign in decades or longer, and their determination to continue struggling against all odds and to die as martyrs is their source of strength.
The insurgents can still be stopped. Despite the continued violence, progress is being made in Iraq. The insurgency is gradually being confined to Sunni strongholds west and northwest of Baghdad.
Newly trained Iraqi government soldiers and police are gradually shouldering more of the security burden. Small, largely unreported gains are improving the quality of life for Iraqis.
The election of a new and hopefully inclusive government in Iraq, political accommodations, and offers of amnesty may create divisions in insurgent ranks and co-opt some. Military pounding and political maneuver could eventually reduce the insurgency to manageable brigandage. The insurgents' increasingly indiscriminate attacks could galvanize the local population against them.
On the other hand, insurgents could carry out spectacular and costly attacks against US forces, undermining claims of progress and strengthening arguments for prompt withdrawal.
Iraq could collapse into fighting between religious and ethnic groups leading to even more disorder and violence. A tragic error in targeting or new revelations of abuse by coalition forces could intensify hostility in Iraq and cause revulsion in the United States.
Wars are determined by often unpredictable events. The military triumph proclaimed by the United States in May 2003 gave no clue of the mess in Iraq today. But neither do today's bloody images and briefing charts tell us where Iraq will be two years from now.
We only know that, for at least the short term, the fighting will continue.
Brian Michael Jenkins is a senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit organization.
This commentary originally appeared in Boston Globe on May 18, 2005. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.