Many Americans wonder why the world's most powerful military force, which toppled Saddam Hussein quickly and without suffering heavy casualties, is unable to stop insurgents from staging an average of 70 attacks a day across Iraq.
They also wonder why there's so much disagreement about whether the insurgency in Iraq is growing stronger, is in its last throes or is holding steady.
Trying to chart the progress of the counterinsurgency based on daily and weekly developments is impossible because short-term trends in the level of violence can be very misleading. To better understand the insurgency, Americans should keep in mind three lessons learned in past counterinsurgency efforts.
First, insurgents choose the time and place of their attacks.
A rise or fall in the number of attacks does not tell us much about the overall strength of the insurgency or the success of the U.S. strategy at any given time. Attacks will ebb and flow based on choices that the insurgents make.
When attacks dropped after the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq, it appeared that the insurgency was waning. In retrospect, it is clear that the insurgents deliberately chose to hold off their attacks until the new Iraqi government was formed April 28. May became one of the deadliest months in Iraq since the fall of Mr. Hussein.
Second, insurgents adapt.
Early insurgent attacks focused on U.S. forces. When the United States adopted security measures that made such attacks more difficult, the insurgents started targeting Iraqi forces and civilians. When U.S. forces got better at identifying roadside bombs, insurgents started using more car bombs. The insurgents are usually a step ahead of the security forces that are pursuing them, changing their methods of operation to overcome new obstacles and to take advantage of new weaknesses that emerge.
Third, insurgents pose great challenges for military and police forces. The insurgents work in small, uncoordinated groups and often operate unnoticed. Locals who observe their activities may be too afraid of retaliation to share this information with security forces. Using force against insurgents often causes high casualties because they operate in dense urban areas where civilians live and work.
All of these problems often cause insurgencies to last a decade or more, as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld recently observed. The lessons of counterinsurgency suggest that military operations in Iraq will continue to be very costly for the United States and its allies, in both blood and treasure.
But how to tell if U.S., Iraqi government and allied forces are winning or losing the battle against insurgents? A lull in attacks does not mean that the insurgents are weakening, and an increase in attacks does not mean that they are getting stronger. Instead, we need to measure progress by a different yardstick: the ability of the Iraqi security forces to provide law and order in their own country.
Efforts to train the Iraqi security forces floundered for 18 months after the fall of Mr. Hussein, enabling the insurgency to take root and flourish. Several months ago, the United States made the training effort its top priority, and the early results are promising. Iraqi military and police forces are increasingly conducting joint patrols with U.S. and coalition forces and are starting to build the capacity for independent operations.
Unfortunately, it takes a long time to build effective security forces, particularly for the difficult challenges of counterinsurgency. U.S. commanders estimate that it will take at least two years until the Iraqi forces are capable of securing law and order, and that assumes that conditions don't change. A strengthened insurgency or reduced U.S. commitment could require training efforts to last much longer.
Why should the United States measure success or failure by the progress of the Iraqi security forces? The most obvious answer is that effective Iraqi forces will enable U.S. forces to return home. But there is a deeper, and more important, answer: Only Iraqi forces will ultimately be able to defeat the insurgents. History suggests that outside powers have a very poor record in counterinsurgency operations because the presence of outside forces often adds fuel to the fire of the insurgents' cause. Only local residents possess the knowledge and determination needed to prevail.
To have any hope of defeating the insurgents, U.S. forces need to stay in Iraq until the Iraqi security forces are capable of containing the insurgency on their own. Withdrawing before that point would cause Iraq to slip into chaos and perhaps civil war, which would provide Islamic extremists with a base from which to operate.
In the meantime, the training effort should remain the highest priority for the United States and should be the yardstick against which success and failure are measured.
Nora Bensahel is a counterinsurgency expert at the RAND Corp.
This commentary originally appeared in Baltimore Sun on August 9, 2005. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.