I have spent most of my adult life as a reporter covering insurgencies, from the five years I covered the wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala to seven years in the Middle East and nearby regions, where I covered the two Palestinian uprisings and the civil wars in Algeria and Sudan, and finally to the three years I reported on the wars in the Balkans, including the rebellion in the Serbian province of Kosovo by the Kosovo Liberation Army. Some of these wars were fought with skill, such as the U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign in El Salvador and the French-backed counterinsurgency in Algeria; others were not, such as the war in Kosovo, fought by a Serbian government whose stupidity and brutality rivaled our own in Iraq.
The plan to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq will be accompanied by a subtle, but disastrous, change in the way the war is fought—a change that will almost assuredly increase the monthly tallies of American dead and wounded. The president warned that “deadly acts of violence will continue, and we must expect more Iraqi and American casualties.” In his version of the war, these losses will allow us to climb from the sinkhole we have dug for ourselves to the sunlight of victory. Unfortunately, for Iraqis and for us, what the president proposes is a mistake of catastrophic proportions. It defies basic counterinsurgency doctrine and will leave American troops more vulnerable, more exposed and in greater danger in this war of shadows.
A counterinsurgency war is, first and foremost, a political war. It requires a deftness, as well as cultural and political sensitivity, that American troops and commanders, most of whom do not even know enough Arabic to read the road signs in Baghdad, do not possess. Military strikes must always be very limited, infrequent and surgical—a tactic foreign to the terrified 19-year-old kids who unleash 1,000 rounds per minute with their M249 SAWS in crowded Iraqi neighborhoods moments after an improvised explosive device goes off. The greatest failure in Iraq—a war I always opposed—was to use American forces to occupy the country and then, after sectarian blood lines had been drawn and American troops had killed thousands of innocent Iraqis, set out to try to build a proxy army of quisling Iraqi nationals. It was doomed from the start. We lost the war, and in Iraqi eyes it was defined as our war by the time our invading forces blasted their way into Baghdad.
Conventional armies, such as ours in Iraq, come equipped with inherent strengths that rebels cannot match. These strengths include massive firepower, air support and an integrated intelligence and communications infrastructure that permits rapid and effective responses, as well as the ability, in a fixed firefight, to usually obliterate a rebel band. But conventional behemoths, especially when they seek to occupy hostile, foreign territory, have serious and often fatal weaknesses, weaknesses that have been deftly exploited in Iraq and especially Baghdad. Most of the new troops will go to Baghdad, doubling the number of combat troops in the Iraqi capital. Four thousand more Marines will go to Iraq’s western Anbar province, where U.S. commanders admit that the 30,000 current U.S. troops have lost control to Iraqi resistance fighters. There are now about 140,000 American military personnel in Iraq, of whom about 50,000 are combat troops.
American forces, because they control the country’s infrastructure, must often remain in fixed, static positions. And troops in static positions are easily targeted by small, mobile rebel bands. During the war in El Salvador new guerrilla recruits, for their first kill, were often sent at night to attack one of the many small bridges held by government troops. The immobile targets were so vulnerable, the newly minted rebel soldiers were almost always assured of success.
Soldiers and Marines in Iraq are bottled up in heavily fortified and protected compounds, although even these are hit by periodic mortar rounds and suicide bombers. Troops make forays out of these forts in armored convoys that move very swiftly down the middle of city streets in a show of force or to protect supply lines. It is constant and rapid movement that ensures survival. The occupying forces have learned the hazards of remaining in static positions. But now President Bush, who knows as little about warfare as he does about diplomacy, wants to take away this vital mobility.
“In earlier operations, Iraqi and American forces cleared many neighborhoods of terrorists and insurgents, but when our forces moved on to other targets, the killers returned,” the president said. “This time, we’ll have the force levels we need to hold the areas that have been cleared. ...”
“Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons: There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents,” Bush explained. “And there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have.”
But the president and the few generals willing to swallow their pride and probably their integrity to support him have failed to explain or grasp the realities of occupation. The presence of more troops on the streets of Baghdad, troops who only understand how to impose their will by force, will fuel the rage most Iraqis feel toward their American occupiers. It will heighten the tension and increase the strikes on American forces, which, tied down, will be more easily targeted.
The insurgents—Shiite and Sunni—have done what we failed to do. They have built a vast and effective support network within their communities, communities we were never able to reach from Humvees or the fortified walls of the Green Zone. Most of the insurgents are Iraqi. They speak Arabic. They worship in the mosques. They buy vegetables in the local markets. They love their country. And many have paid a terrible price for their patriotism and their faith. These neighborhoods are secure. They are just not secure for us. They will never be. And sending in new batches of Americans from Texas or Ohio or New York to patrol these streets will not make Iraq or America safer. It will ensure that even more mothers and fathers, American and Iraqi, will be ushered by George W. Bush into the long night of bitterness and grief.