"We feel right now that we have, as I mentioned, broken the back of the insurgency."
- Marine Lt. Gen. John Sattler, Nov. 18, 2004, after the U.S.-led offensive against Fallujah
Could it be that we've misclassified the insurgency in Iraq - that it's an invertebrate, able to absorb bone-crushing blows because it has no bones to crush? It seems to be more like a dandelion, which, when smashed, only spreads more seeds. Seven months after U.S. forces leveled the enemy stronghold, the insurgents are causing as much trouble as ever.
The lull in violence that followed the January elections was taken to mean the rebels were in disarray. If so, they've regrouped, and Iraq has reverted to chaos. Nearly twice as many Iraqi security personnel died in attacks in March as in January. April was almost as bad as March. May looks worse still.
The last couple of weeks have been among the bloodiest since the U.S. invasion, with more than 420 people killed in assorted violence. The insurgents have been mounting an average of 70 attacks a day, compared with 30 or 40 in February and March.
Fallujah was supposed to make a difference, and so was the recent U.S. offensive in western Iraq. But someone forgot to tell the insurgents. American commanders were surprised at the strength and sophistication of the resistance in this latest campaign.
But this war has been full of surprises, none of them pleasant. In April, even before the latest expansion of violence, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency testified, "The insurgency has grown in size and complexity over the last year." Grown in size? We are spawning terrorists faster than we can kill them.
This offensive may illustrate why. On May 12, the Associated Press reported that residents of Qaim were angry at American forces for hitting the town with air strikes and artillery.
"They destroyed our city, killed our children, destroyed our houses," one man said.
The insurgents, says New York University law professor Noah Feldman, a former official of the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq, "are getting stronger every passing day." Contrary to assumptions in this country, he told Newsday, "there is no evidence whatsoever that they cannot win."
The election was supposed to have the opposite result. It was billed as giving the Iraqi people the chance to defy threats of bloodshed, express their belief in democracy, create a government enjoying broad-based legitimacy and drain support from the insurgency. Instead, the election led to months of squabbling among different factions, creating uncertainty and disenchantment among ordinary Iraqis. The difficulties in this process bode ill for the bigger job ahead - writing a constitution that will unite the country's bitterly divided factions behind a new Iraq.
The dilemmas faced by the United States persist. We see no choice but to carry out military missions to kill insurgents - but those missions produce collateral damage that alienates the people we are trying to help. We can't improve the security environment until we rebuild the infrastructure and revive its economy - which we can't do until security improves. Of the $18.4 billion in economic aid the United States promised, Iraq has gotten only $4.8 billion.
The U.S. government has spent huge amounts, though, on the war. The total tab now exceeds $200 billion, with the meter still running.
But money can't solve some problems. The military is showing the effects of the stresses placed on it, with recruiters consistently unable to meet their quotas, and some of them breaking the rules to find warm bodies. The Army has missed its recruiting goals for the last three months, including a gaping 42 percent shortfall in April. One undermanned Marine unit put up cardboard cutouts bedecked with camouflage shirts to try to fool the enemy.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers warns that insurgencies commonly last "from three, four years to nine years." But successful counterinsurgency wars are rare. We may not have the means to win this one - even if Americans are willing to stay for years to come, and even if the military can withstand the debilitating demands on its people.
It's hard to find grounds for optimism. Brookings Institution scholar Ivo Daalder notes something ominous about our experience: "We have had one bright spot in Iraq in two years - the elections."
Many Americans assume that if we stay the course, things will get better. But it's worth pondering the question Jack Nicholson asked in one of his movies: "What if this is as good as it gets?"
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
© 2005 Philadelphia Inquirer