Déja vu again, as Bush commits more troops to pacify Iraq

It is not easy to resist a sense of déja vu while watching the components of the US’s new drive to curb the escalating insurgency and extreme inter-communal violence gripping Iraq fall into place. Earlier attempts to shake up the disastrous US military effort in Iraq have been failures. All indications are that the new, much-touted drive, which forms the cornerstone of America’s exit strategy from Iraq, is unlikely to fare any better. As realities on the ground in Iraq are as bleak as ever, it is increasingly clear that, by embarking on this effort, US president George W Bush has taken on a mission impossible.

The military part of the strategy includes an increase in US troops, with around 17,500 additional troops deployed to Baghdad alone and 4,000 to the volatile Anbar province. But aside from its military component, which has attracted much attention and raised many sceptical eyebrows, Bush’s plan also involves political and economic aspects. The increases in US troops and economic aid are linked to steps taken by the Iraqi government to curb the spiralling sectarian tensions, including a plan to distribute national oil revenues more equitably to all the country’s provinces and to ease the government’s policy of ‘de-Ba’athification’. Bush’s plan also includes pumping $1.2 billion into the country, to be allocated to reconstruction projects to salvage Iraq’s war-battered economy and create jobs for the growing numbers of angry, disenfranchised, unemployed young Iraqis who are joining insurgent groups and militias.

Bush has also resorted to the age-old tactic of “if in doubt, reshuffle,” which has long been employed by politicians trying to delay the inevitable day of reckoning. The attitude of most US military commanders to the “surge [in numbers of troops]” option was one of scepticism, if not all-out opposition. In an effort to sidestep this obstacle, Bush has reshuffled his military commanders and brought forward fresh faces to lead the new drive. Admiral William Fallon, who commanded American forces in the Pacific, has been nominated to replace General John Abizaid as commander of the US Central Command, whose authority includes overseeing the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Army Lieutenant General David Petraeus, who headed the effort to train Iraq’s security forces in the post-Saddam period and has lately taken part in drafting the US Army’s new counter-insurgency field manual, was appointed as top American military commander in Iraq, replacing General George Casey. Another change relates to the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, who was nominated the next US ambassador to the UN. Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador in Pakistan, will take over from Khalilzad in Iraq.

Bush’s plan seems already to be increasingly running into trouble on all fronts. Domestically, the plan faces growing opposition from an increasingly sceptical public and argumentative Congress. Within a day of gaining control of the US’s bicameral legislature, House speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat-California, and Senate majority leader Harry Reid, Democrat-Nevada, opened fire on the idea of a troop surge. “We are well past the point of more troops for Iraq,” the two legislators wrote in a letter to Bush. They also urged the government to begin a gradual reduction of American troops in Iraq in four to six months. On January 24, the Democrat-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee fired another shot at Bush’s plan to increase troop-strength in Iraq, passing a non-binding resolution that described the move as “not in the national interest.” Debate on the measure is scheduled to begin in the full Senate in early February. The congressional repudiation of Bush’s last-ditch effort to salvage his faltering Iraq project has also been finding an unusual resonance among lawmakers from his own Republican party. A number of Republican congressmen, including Senators Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Gordon Smith of Oregon, George Voinovich of Ohio and Sam Brownback of Kansas, have publicly backed legislative proposals registering objections to Bush’s decision to boost US military strength in Iraq.

The newfound displeasure with Bush’s Iraq policy at Capitol Hill reflects growing doubts among Americans that the war in Iraq is winnable. That the war-weary American people have lost faith in the ability of the Bush administration to frame a successful strategy for Iraq was reflected in a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, which shows that 61 percent of Americans are opposed to a troop surge. An earlier AP/Ipsos poll conducted in December showed that public approval of Bush’s handling of the Iraq war was at a record low of 27 percent.

In purely military terms, it is highly doubtful that the new drive can succeed in curbing the escalating insurgency and spiralling civil strife in Iraq. The numbers involved (21,500 additional troops in total) do not even meet the substantial troop increase advised in the US’s new counter-insurgency manual, which maintains that successful operations “often require a high ratio of security forces to the protected population.” Past experience shows that the success of efforts to control areas in Baghdad and elsewhere by “saturating” them with military forces has at best been fleeting. The pattern has become all too familiar: whenever US troop-concentrations are reduced, Iraqi forces prove no match for the insurgency and incapable of holding their ground. Last July, for instance, the US military and Iraqi armed forces launched an operation codenamed “Together Forward” (“Ma’an ila al-Amam”), which included the deployment of some 7,000 additional US troops and 12,000 additional Iraqi troops in Baghdad to try to arrest the sharp increase in insurgent activity and inter-communal violence that swept many areas of Iraq after the bombing of the Askariyyah Shrine in Samarra in February 2006. By October, US military spokesmen were admitting publicly that the operation had failed to meet their expectations and that the situation was disheartening. Indeed, the second half of 2006 saw the highest level of violence in the Iraqi capital since the US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussain in March 2003, as the spate of bombings and killings continued to cost the lives of thousands of Iraqis.

The recent assault by US and Iraqi forces against insurgents in the Haifa Street area in Baghdad is another case in point. Following a series of successful operations in early 2005, the area was declared a showcase for the ability of the US and Iraqi forces to clear urban neighbourhoods of insurgents. However, the scale of the recent fighting, in which Iraqi and US ground troops fought fierce battles as they inched their way into the lattice of side-streets and alleyways around this major Baghdad thoroughfare, supported by helicopter gunships and fighter jets, indicates that the insurgents have managed to move back into the area and re-establish their presence there.

Another pattern seen whenever American troops have staged major offensives in Iraq is that insurgents and militia fighters melt away from the targeted areas, only to return later. There are tell-tale signs that the Iraqi insurgents and militias have employed the same shifting tactic again. For instance, there have been reports of insurgents redirecting their activity away from Baghdad to cities such as Mosul and Tell Afar in the north, while other reports indicate that some elements of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia have been re-deploying inside Baghdad as well as moving to the Shi’a heartland in the south. If the past is any guide to the future, one can expect these elements to wait the major US-led military operations out, and then return in force to the capital and re-establish themselves there once US troop-concentrations go down. That leaves open questions about the usefulness of any temporary and limited increase of US military presence in Iraq. While such a short-term infusion of additional troops might well disrupt insurgent activities and prevent rival militias and armed groups from turning various neighbourhoods into battlefields, it is not likely to eradicate them altogether because it does not allow for long-term saturation of the focal points of insurgent and militia activity with troops.

Moreover, increased troop concentrations and presence in urban neighbourhoods will provide the insurgents with more targets to attack. Preliminary reports indicate that the logistical side of the plan features the establishment of between 30 and 40 so-called “joint security sites” manned by US and Iraqi forces and spread across nine military districts in Baghdad, many in police stations that have been among the most frequent targets, while others will be set up in large houses that will be fortified with high concrete walls, barbed wire and machine-gun towers. This will put more pressure on the over-stretched American supply-chain in Iraq, which is already strained supporting the existing American troops. Furthermore, the fierce urban operations that might follow, to clear Baghdad’s streets of Shi’a and Sunni militias, carry the risk of a high toll of civilian casualties, which will further enrage an increasingly impatient, and hostile, population. Any attacks resulting in a large number of civilian casualties in Baghdad could trigger uprisings elsewhere. For instance, it is possible that a heavy-handed operation against Sadr City will provoke the Mahdi Army to stage uprisings in the Shi’a heartland in the south. Such military activities are also highly risky from a political standpoint, as they could shatter what little unity and harmony is left in Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s coalition government.

But the prospects for the success of any new Iraq policy adopted by the US government also hinge on the full cooperation and ability of Maliki’s government to deliver results and keep promises it might make. Corruption is rampant in the Iraqi national police force and army, which are highly infiltrated with thuggish elements from various militias and criminal enterprises, hamstrung by rampant administrative problems and poor morale, and wracked by ethnic and sectarian tensions. With the exception of the Kurdish units, the battlefield performance of the Iraqi security forces has at best been mediocre. Evidence of the extent of their incompetence, and sometimes even impotence, has come from innumerable operations that have failed. With almost entire units believed to be loyal to various militias, it is difficult to see how these units could be deployed against those same militias.

Another problem dogging the Iraqi government’s counter-insurgency and anti-crime efforts has been the weak justice system. Often policemen and soldiers make arrests, only to send the detainees to courts where judges are afraid to pass harsh sentences because they fear reprisals from insurgents, militias or criminal gangs. Moreover, with the rampant corruption and inefficiency plaguing the Iraqi security forces, their members are as likely to commit crimes as to solve them.

The success of the new initiative depends largely on the dubious ability of Maliki’s government, which is consumed by factional infighting, to take measures necessary to accelerate constitutional reform, promote reconciliation, and secure an equitable division of oil revenues. The extra $1.2 billion in reconstruction aid designed to jump-start the economy is hardly enough to make a significant impact in a country whose electricity output meets barely half the demand and oil-production is falling almost a million barrels a day short of the set goal of 3 million. According to the Iraqi electricity ministry, rebuilding the electricity grid alone, to meet the growing power needs, would cost an estimated US $27 billion. The fact that the new economic aid is largely symbolic becomes starkly clear when it is compared to the nearly $100 billion a year that Washington is spending on the war itself. In its December recommendations, the Iraq Study Group made an appeal for increasing America’s reconstruction assistance to Iraq by $5 billion a year.

Ultimately, Bush’s new drive is supposed to stabilise Baghdad and turn over security responsibilities to the Iraqis themselves. November has been floated as a possible deadline for this to take place. If it fails, Bush’s retooled Iraq strategy will go down in history as the equivalent of the Soviet exit strategy from Afghanistan. In May 1989 the Soviets finally withdrew their demoralised forces from Afghanistan after nearly a decade of devastating war with outnumbered and poorly-equipped Muslim mujahideen. But the end of the ill-fated Soviet adventure in Afghanistan marked the beginning of a series of Afghan civil wars. A similar outcome seems increasingly likely in Iraq. But the other possibility is that the new, temporary surge of US troops might turn into a long-term escalation in the Iraq war, much like when president Lyndon Johnson increased the numbers of US troops in Vietnam in 1965. In that case, Bush’s effort to salvage his Iraq misadventure will mark another critical juncture in America’s march towards yet another Vietnam-like quagmire.