Australian | 25.10.2004 12:21 | Anti-militarism
THE US has lost the military initiative in Iraq and is in danger of losing the war. Eighteen months after coalition forces swept victoriously into Baghdad, a hard-pressed US occupying army is now facing a rapidly evolving guerilla war that it is singularly ill-equipped to surmount.
That's the view of coalition military experts who worry that the US army is undermanned and over-stretched, lacking the essential military skills to deal with a resourceful enemy holed up in Shia and Sunni strongholds across the country.
Britain's army chief, General Michael Jackson, admitted recently his troops were "back at war" in Iraq and flat out fighting a widening insurgency.
So serious is the deteriorating security situation in Iraq that, privately, coalition military leaders are contemplating strategies for eventual withdrawal from a war they admit probably cannot be won.
The growing insurgency has meant vital work on rehabilitating hospitals, power, water and other critical infrastructure, notably in central Iraq, has been severely disrupted or simply stalled as violent opposition to the US occupation has intensified.
Those who doubt that the Iraq conflict is getting worse or characterise it as principally a counter-terrorism struggle, only have to read the dispatches of the ever-dwindling band of foreign correspondents still based in Baghdad.
Writing in The New York Times last week, Dexter Filkins, now a hardened veteran of the paper's Baghdad bureau, described Iraq as a shrinking country. "Village by village, block by block, the vast and challenging land that we entered in March 2003 has shrivelled into a medieval city-state, a grim and edgy place where the only question is how much more territory we will lose tomorrow. The real consequence of the mayhem here is that we reporters can no longer do our jobs in the way we hope to. Reporters are nothing more than watchers and listeners, and if we can't leave the house, the picture from Iraq, even with the help of fearless Iraqi stringers, almost inevitably will be blurry and incomplete."
Patrick Cockburn of London's Independent newspaper says the situation on the ground is far worse than portrayed in the media precisely because much of the country is now too dangerous for journalists to operate in. "I have spent most of the past year-and-a-half travelling in Iraq and I have never known it so bad," observes Cockburn. "The insurrection is spreading each month under its own momentum. It does so because the dominant fact in Iraqi politics is the overwhelming unpopularity of the US occupation."
Like an isolated Crusader citadel the sprawling, heavily fortified 10sqkm green zone in central Baghdad, which is home to about 10,000 foreign military, diplomatic and civilian personnel, remains a relative haven. But the primary mission for coalition soldiers and diplomats, including the Australians, is now the business of staying alive – self-protection rather than the rebuilding of Iraq.
Usually it is only the odd mortar round or rocket attack that disturbs the round-the-clock military nerve centre inside the green zone. But last Thursday, in a worrying new trend, two home-made bombs exploded inside the previously impermeable green zone, killing 10 people, including four Americans – an attack probably mounted by veteran Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad group.
When the US military rolled into Iraq last year it was with all the confidence of the world's most formidable fighting machine. It brushed aside the Iraqi military, seemingly vindicating Donald Rumsfeld's hi-tech transformational vision of 21st-century warfare, with its emphasis on lighter, nimbler ground forces.
But in a serious political and intelligence failure, the Bush administration did not anticipate the post-war guerilla campaign Saddam Hussein had planned. "We didn't prepare properly for phase four [the post-war occupation of Iraq] specifically because of Rumsfeld," observes one coalition source.
The Iraqi army sensibly declined to fight a conventional war and simply melted away and prepared to fight another day. As the British found in their occupation of Iraq 80 years ago every Iraqi family is armed and Saddam left well-stocked arms depots dotted around the Sunni triangle.
Sunni and Shia insurgents and hardened Saddam-era criminals have since been joined by up to 3000 foreign fighters mostly from neighbouring Arab countries, including Zarqawi's group and a small band of al-Qa'ida terrorists.
The insurgents are well-armed and well-funded, with Shia militias almost certainly getting money from Iran. Hundreds of millions of dollars went missing after the war, with some of it falling into the hands of former regime loyalists. As well as millions of rounds of ammunition an estimated several hundred tonnes of explosives went missing after Baghdad fell.
Sunni and Shia fighters have shown an impressive ability to adapt to US military tactics. "They are learning very fast. They used to pick off the last vehicle in a convoy but now they mount co-ordinated assaults and circular ambushes with up to 100 fighters," says one coalition military expert.
Many of the techniques being employed in Iraq, such as truck bombings, have been learned from other battlefields – Chechnya, Palestine and Bosnia. The insurgents use mobile phone chips to set off simultaneous improvised explosive devices and global positioning system jammers to disrupt US tactical communications.
One of the biggest mistakes the US made after defeating Saddam's army was to disband it. Now economic imperatives drive many attacks on coalition forces, with former regime loyalists paying jobless Iraqis $US500 ($683) to carry out an attack on a military convoy.
While US military strikes against key guerilla strongholds in Fallujah, Najaf and Samarra have achieved some success, particularly in the Shia-dominated south, early gains, notably in the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah, have been compromised by political interference from Washington.
"We have not yet been able to secure one single province in Iraq. In terms of the age-old measure of military success – territory won and occupied – we are no better off now than we were a year ago," a US military source writing from Iraq observed recently.
The US now has about 138,000 troops in Iraq and has already lost 1082 dead and more than 8000 injured since the war began in March 2003. But, even with help from key allies, including 12,000 British troops, the force on the ground is far too thin to successfully prosecute a counter-insurgency campaign.
So how does US get out of the Iraq mess?
First, neither George Bush nor John Kerry will cut and run from Iraq but, as casualties mount, the political will to press on in Iraq will undoubtedly flag. Achieving a measure of political stability will take years – a prospect that US military leaders now recognise.
Staying the course in Iraq will be critical to the success of the wider US-led struggle against global Islamist terrorism. The pressure on the US military, which is attacked on average about 80 times a day, is likely to grow in the coming months in the run-up to Iraqi elections scheduled for next January.
US forces, trained for conventional war, simply don't have time to relearn the art of counter-insurgency operations – a military science in which the British and Australians excel.
Some coalition counter-insurgency experts point to the Vietnam War as a case study and the American tendency to overlook the lessons of that conflict for both Iraq and the new global struggle against Islamic jihadists.
Classic counter-insurgency techniques as practised by the British in Malaya and Australians in both Malaya and Vietnam would involve more training of US-led Iraqi irregular forces to take on Iraqi insurgents in towns and cities and a vastly different cultural and psychological approach.
Instead of relying on raiding techniques and overwhelming firepower, the Americans would have to shift the focus to winning hearts and minds and residing in local population centres as the US marines have tried in the Sunni triangle.
The preferred option for the US military is now to accelerate the training of Iraqi security forces so that the Iraqis can assume the lead role in securing towns and cities. This would allow US combat forces to reduce their "military signature" and withdraw to cantonments outside urban centres and remain as a quick reaction force.
But the effort to speed up training of the new army, police and a national guard has had mixed results at best. The new forces have proved ineffective at protecting officials and offices of the new Iraqi Government and numbers of newly recruited soldiers and police have openly sided with the insurgents.
"I believe the war in Iraq can be won. But I am not sure the Americans can win it," says one military expert.
If things go from bad to worse in Iraq, the US will almost certainly make formal requests to its trusted allies, including Australia, to do more to help save the country from sliding into civil chaos.
The US will neither bring an end to the guerilla war nor will it bring democracy to Iraq, judges George Friedman, founder of political intelligence firm Stratfor. The main purpose in staying the course in Iraq, he argues, is to create a "psychological atmosphere in which Islamic countries do not doubt America's will" to win the war against al-Qa'ida's global terror network.
Patrick Walters is The Australian's national security editor