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Why Iraq Insurgency Hasn't Lost Steam — But Hope Has
I want to believe it's working.
I want to believe that after four years of incompetence, we have finally found the leadership and strategy that will succeed in Iraq. I want to believe the surge will work, because it's pretty clear that its failure will be disastrous.
So I want to believe. But I don't.
Yes, there are signs of progress just encouraging enough to kindle hope. In some areas of Baghdad, the surge has reportedly made a real difference, offering a heartbreaking peek into what might have been in Iraq had we committed sufficient manpower in the first place.
It's also true that the U.S. casualty total in July - 78 killed - was the lowest in eight months, again suggesting that maybe something important is changing.
But compare July's casualty total to the total of July 2006, and the number looks a lot less encouraging. A year ago, 43 Americans were killed in July, meaning that U.S. casualties have jumped year to year by 81 percent.
A month ago, it had also been encouraging to learn the reported death toll among Iraqi civilians in June fell to its lowest level of the year, a fact the president cited as a potential sign of progress in a report to Congress.
But last month, those numbers skyrocketed again, with civilian deaths rising more than 30 percent to more than 1,700. The number of corpses found in Baghdad also rose significantly.
Despite those reports, military officials still believe they're making progress on the security front. Maybe they're right, or maybe they just want to believe too badly that the sacrifices they are making are worthwhile.
Either way, it probably doesn't matter. The surge was never intended to win the war, it was intended to temporarily suppress the insurgency while the Iraqi government makes good on its promises to the Iraqis and to the Americans fighting and dying on their behalf.
That hasn't even begun to happen. The factions in Iraq have shown no interest in reconciliation or compromise, and on Wednesday, major Sunni parties withdrew from the government altogether.
In Senate hearings this week, Admiral Michael Mullen - nominated by President Bush as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - acknowledged that "there does not seem to be much political progress" in Iraq, and without that progress, "no amount of troops and no amount of time will make much of a difference."
Why is progress so difficult? Why has the insurgency proved so difficult to uproot?
Not surprisingly, insurgencies have become a topic of considerable interest among military analysts, with experts studying the life cycles of insurgencies around the world. In that work, they've found that as an insurgency matures, the motivation of its leaders often changes. Rebels who start out fighting for what they see as a noble cause or to achieve a goal in time come to enjoy the power and money that insurgency brings them. Analysts describe that transition as "grievance to greed."
In a new paper, Steven Metz, a professor at the U.S. Army War College, makes a point with considerable relevance to Iraq. He argues that government leaders fighting an insurgency undergo that same transformation. They too find the insurgency a convenient way to accumulate power and money, and they don't really mind if it continues. In their world, the considerable personal risks they would have to take to make peace vastly outweigh the minor risks of letting the insurgency continue.
For example, Metz points out, building an effective military is essential if a government is to defeat an insurgency. Yet government leaders also understand that a powerful military can also become a threat to their own existence. As Metz notes, "more regimes have been overthrown by coups than by insurgencies." Government leaders are more secure with a weak military and continuing insurgency than with a strong military and no insurgency.
That explanation fits all too well with what's happening in Iraq, and it once again suggests that any hope for real change in that country is tragically misplaced.
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor. His column appears Thursdays and Mondays.
© 2007 The Journal-Constitution