What Went Wrong in Iraq?


Sep 28, 2006

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on September 28, 2006.

WASHINGTON, Sept. 28 (UPI) -- American military and diplomatic leaders have swung back and forth between various strategies to confront the hostile forces arrayed against them in Iraq. But despite recent U.S. initiatives, the fighting there only continues to intensify, particularly in Baghdad.

Police said Thursday they found the bodies of 40 death squad victims in Baghdad over the past 24 hours. The 40 men had been shot and their hands and feet were bound.

Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said Wednesday that murders and executions are now the top cause of civilian deaths in Baghdad.

President George W. Bush acknowledged Sept. 7 that "the fighting in Iraq has been difficult and bloody." Earlier, the president said that "sectarian violence is terrible in Baghdad."

And U.S. Army Gen. John Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee weeks before that "sectarian violence probably is as bad as I've seen it, in Baghdad in particular." He added that "if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war."

In an effort to reduce the violence in the troubled Iraqi capital, U.S. commanders are now redeploying more than 3,000 American troops into Baghdad, including a sizeable contingent of military policemen. This represents a conventional response to a decidedly unconventional war and foregoes the shaping of Iraqi forces into an effective counter-insurgency force.

One reason for the heavy fighting and sectarian strife in Baghdad, which took many military leaders by surprise, was the result of senior military authorities' unwillingness to consider indirect approaches and alternative strategies early on.

Unconventional warfare is another alternative. The precepts of unconventional warfare include: the precise use of force as a deterrent; ensuring the safety of the local population; enabling local security forces; using special police capabilities to infiltrate insurgent forces; the provision of social services to the population in addition to economic aid; preventive information operations; and more rigorous detainee operations.

What went wrong in Baghdad? From the earliest days of the American occupation, U.S military authorities seem to have overlooked a key precept of counterinsurgency: the need to protect the local population.

Hostile forces established a stronghold in Iraq's capital while American commanders concentrated heavily on protecting their own troops and contractors in Iraq, rather than Iraqi citizens. This opened the door for the insurgent forces to fill the security void by offering their own version of law and order.

The American government spent hundreds of millions of dollars on electronic systems and armor to protect U.S. troops, but so far has shared almost none of this with Iraqi government forces. As a result, Iraqi security forces and Baghdad citizens have been exposed to the ravages of a sordid group of bad actors streaming into, and not away from, the capital city.

Perhaps just as important as the inability to protect the Iraqi people has been the failure to break the "social compact of the streets," in which insurgent operations are tolerated by the average citizen and money can be made by Iraqi youths supporting insurgent activities.

Insurgents are paid well to plant roadside bombs and they derive social status from these efforts. Contrast this with the $2 to $3 a day they can earn working for U.S. contractors in far less glamorous activities such as picking up trash.

In many ways in today's Baghdad, economic motivation trumps ideological motivation, particularly among the young. Meanwhile, the U.S. government persists in spending hundreds of millions of dollars on unsuccessful propaganda operations attempting to "out-religion" the enemy. U.S. and Iraqi authorities need to gain a better understanding of the motivations of insurgents to understand how to make joining the insurgency less attractive -- halting enemy recruiting and reconstitution.

If the insurgents are to be stopped, they must come to understand that there is a price to pay for their actions. At the moment, however, insurgents apparently feel they face little danger. Unlike in Afghanistan in 2001, the skies over Baghdad are unusually quiet. Anti-government forces face a threat from coalition ground forces, but insurgents who stage hit and run attacks are often long gone by the time American and other coalition troops can get to the scene along Baghdad's confusing and busy streets. As a result, insurgents are emboldened by what they see as their relative invulnerability.

Insurgents also seem not to fear capture because it is unlikely they will be informed on by their Iraqi neighbors. And even if captured, insurgents will be sent to jail or prison where they can network for a few weeks or months with foreign jihadists, or perhaps recruit those Iraqis swept up innocently beside them. In the end, many of the insurgents are released due to "lack of evidence" and the overtaxed Iraqi justice system -- too many now expect this outcome.

Though two years late, the Iraqi and American authorities have taken the first steps toward better addressing the security issues in Baghdad outlined above. If they can grow and sustain these efforts by applying the precepts of unconventional versus traditional warfare simultaneously, they may be able to get the capital under control. If coalition forces fail to do this, U.S. service members, Iraqi security forces and civilians may be killed in ever-greater numbers and the insurgent cancer centered in Baghdad will likely spread to other troubled areas.

© 2006 United Press International

Ed O'Connell, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, is a senior analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. He has conducted research in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.

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