The Iraq Dilemma: Frying Pan or Fire?
U.S. President George. W. Bush has hastily convened his war council to decide strategies for the next phase of operations in Iraq. What first must be assessed are the nature, intent and capabilities of the Iraqi guerrilla forces. Imperfect intelligence about this might force the Bush administration to implement strategies based on worst-case-scenario assumptions.
A war council convened in Washington on Nov. 11, appropriately the same day as the U.S. Veteran's Day holiday. The war council clearly was not planned — the U.S. administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer was hurriedly recalled to Washington. The White House meeting included all the major decision makers concerning U.S. strategic policy, including Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice. All the players were at the table; President Bush was dealing the cards.
Clearly, the strategic situation in Iraq was the driving issue. Major guerrilla activity remains concentrated in the Sunni triangle, north and west of Baghdad. In that sense, the guerrilla's position has not improved. However, coinciding with the advent of Ramadan, the Iraqi guerrillas intensified their tempo of operations substantially, but not decisively. That is to say, the guerrilla activity increased, but its strategic significance did not. The guerrillas are far from capable of compelling a U.S. retreat from Iraq by force of arms. Indeed, they are incapable of seizing and holding any territory, as their allies in Afghanistan are capable.
The military situation is relatively stable and, from a strictly military standpoint, tolerable. However, the political situation of the United States is not. There, the inability of the Bush administration to either forecast the guerrilla war or demonstrate a war-termination strategy has weakened the administration, although far from decisively.
The most severe political damage the guerrillas have done has been in the Islamic world. In Iraq, the United States wanted to demonstrate its enormous and decisive military power to impose a sense of hopelessness on radical Islamists who were arguing that American power and will were vastly overrated. Whatever the reality of the guerrilla campaign, the perception that has been created in the Islamic world is precisely the opposite of the one the United States desired. Rather than imposing “shock and awe,” the inability to suppress the guerrillas has confirmed to Islamists their core perception — that the United States can defeat conventional forces but cannot deal with paramilitary and guerrilla forces. Therefore, the United States can be defeated over time if Islamists are prepared to be patient and absorb casualties.
This is not the message that the administration wants to send either to the Islamists or to Iowa. The administration's assumption going into the war was that the collapse of Iraq's conventional forces coupled with the fall of Baghdad would terminate organized resistance. There was a core failure in U.S. intelligence that seemed not to realize that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had a follow-on strategy that he apparently learned from the Taliban.
Contrary to U.S. perception (more the media's than the military's), the United States did not defeat the Taliban in the winter of 2001-2002. The Taliban declined conventional combat in front of Afghanistan's cities and instead withdrew, dispersed and shifted to guerrilla operations. Hussein, realizing that he did not have the ability to defeat or even engage the United States with conventional forces, prepared a follow-on strategy. He prepared the ground in the Sunni triangle for extended guerrilla war. He hid supplies, created a command structure and detailed forces for extended resistance. Joined by foreign Islamists early in the campaign and reinforced later, this organization has managed to maintain operations against U.S. occupation forces, increasing the tempo of operations in late October.
Intelligence failures are inevitable in war, but this failure has created a serious dilemma for Bush's war council. The Ramadan offensive and its political consequences force the administration to craft a response. Standing pat is no longer an option. But there is a range of responses that might be made and choosing among them requires a clear intelligence estimate. At this point, no single, clear intelligence estimate is available. What is more, given the intelligence failure concerning the guerrillas, it isn't clear if the president can choose his course based on the intelligence given him.
The intelligence failure had its roots in a fundamental weakness in U.S. Iraqi intelligence that goes back to 1990s failures. Those weaknesses could not have been corrected in the past six months or so. Therefore, the president cannot regard the best estimate available as authoritative. Indeed, past record aside, the U.S. intelligence community has not clearly understood the guerrillas' command structure, their size and composition or the resources they have available. This is not to say that tactical intelligence improvements have not been made. It seems to us that piecemeal insights have been achieved concerning the operations of individual guerrilla units. But the fact is, on the broadest level, that U.S. intelligence seemingly lacks a clear, strategic sense of the enemy.
As best as we can tell, the guerrillas appear to consist of a main body of Iraqi military trained for this mission and uniquely loyal. Its size is uncertain, but it doesn't seem to be recruiting volunteers into the main group, although it is using volunteers and paying others to carry out specific tasks. If the main force were recruiting, then matters would be simplified for the U.S. — recruitment would provide opportunities for planting agents inside the guerrilla force.
The guerrillas understand this, which increases their opacity. What augmentation they receive is coming from Islamists from outside Iraq. These Islamists cannot simply operate independently because they do not know the terrain sufficiently, but many are experienced fighters from other Islamist wars. Therefore, they seem to serve as a sort of special force, training and carrying out special operations like suicide attacks. If we assume 30 organized attacks a day, that each group can carry out one attack every three days, and that each unit contains about 20 men (based on the size of U.S. unit captures), then there would appear to be a main force of roughly 1,800 people and a few hundred foreign operatives.
President Bush is now facing the classic problem of political leaders in war. He must make military and political decisions about Iraq based on his estimate of the situation, yet he cannot completely rely on the best estimate of his intelligence people. In general, there are three possible views of the Iraq situation:
- The guerrillas have increased their operations on a permanent basis and this is a steady upward curve.
- The guerrillas have temporarily surged their operations during Ramadan and it will return to lower levels in December.
- The guerrillas are facing disaster and have launched a desperation attack during Ramadan in a last ditch attempt to unbalance the United States into a foolish action.
It's difficult to believe that the guerillas can continue to increase the operational tempo indefinitely. This would require a substantial reserve force available in the villages — already trained and recruited — that could dramatically increase the size of the present force. This isn't really possible unless the guerrillas are willing to accept potential intelligence penetration by the United States. A large reserve cannot be discounted, but given the presence of U.S. forces throughout the region, some intelligence would have indicated this before now, unless the community were entirely sealed shut. We assume that primarily foreign recruits would augment the guerrilla force — not an insignificant pool but not a quantum leap either, given infiltration constraints.
We also tend to disbelieve that the guerrillas are facing disaster and are engaged in an Islamic Hail Mary. There haven't been enough contacts between U.S. forces and guerrillas to significantly thin their ranks, nor have there been the mass defections that one would see if a force were in the process of disintegrating. Therefore, in our view, scenario three is unlikely.
That leaves scenario two — a temporary surge. Unless our numbers are widely off base –and that is certainly a possibility — it is difficult for us to imagine the guerrillas maintaining this operational tempo indefinitely. The campaign began with Ramadan. It has been more intense than what went before, but the intensity indicates a force working overtime, not a surprisingly larger force. Given the politics and symbolism, the surge in operations is certainly understandable. It would also indicate the probability of an explosive culmination at the end of Ramadan. But if we were to bet, we would bet that this is a temporary surge.
But we aren't the president — it's easy for us to make bets. He is playing the game for real, while we have the luxury of no responsibility for the decision. If he cannot rely on U.S. intelligence, he cannot rely on us. Under those circumstances, he is obligated to assume the worst-case scenario — scenario one. That is, the Iraqi guerrillas have permanently increased their operational tempo and may well increase it more down the road.
If we are right, then his best course is to wait until early December, and then, while the guerrillas regroup and rest, hit them hard with an offensive. Then, turn to the Iraqi Governance Council and dictate the terms of a transfer of power to them. If we are wrong, and the guerrillas are gaining in strength, then waiting would be disastrous. The U.S. will never be given a clear shot at a counteroffensive; the guerrilla attacks would intensify and the U.S. political situation inside of Iraq would deteriorate. Under that scenario, the longer the U.S. waits, the harder it will be to get the IGC to cut a political deal.
Under any circumstance, the United States needs an indigenous force to bear the brunt of the fighting. The IGC has little real legitimacy in Iraq as an institution and less appetite for serving the U.S. cause — particularly if military events appear to be moving against the United States. Therefore, the IGC seems unlikely to be prepared to solve the U.S. problem, even if it could, which is dubious in the extreme.
Hence, the war council. Bush must make a decision about what to believe is going on. Having been poorly served by intelligence, particularly the optimistic briefs he was given in April and May, it will be enormously difficult for him to go with scenario two and wait things out. However, he is also unlikely to gain the cooperation he is hoping for from the IGC, unless scenario two is the case. Therefore, the war council must consider the abysmal possibility that scenario one is in play and that the IGC will not be helpful.
If true, then there are components of the IGC that might be valuable on their own — namely, the Shiites. The Shiites are as opposed to the Sunni guerrillas as the United States. The last thing they want is Hussein's return or a Wahabi-influenced government in Baghdad. On the other hand, they are certainly not prepared to create an Iraqi army out of the Shiite community and hand it over to U.S. command. They are seeking a Shiite-dominated Iraq — meaning one that excludes the U.S. from long-term presence as well. On the whole, their goal is an Islamic republic generally based on the Iranian Shiite model. It is the last thing the U.S. wanted in May, but, this is November and what the U.S. wants and what it can have are very different things.
It would seem to us that there are two strategies on the table:
- Assume that scenario two is at work, wait until December and then deal with the IGC from a position of relative strength.
- Assume that scenario one is at work and lock in a deal with the Shiites before the situation gets any worse and the Shiite — and Iranian — price gets any higher.
Each scenario carries substantial risks and no intelligence guidance available is sufficiently authoritative. The temptation to wait and hope for the best is strong, but a miscalculation could lead to an impossible situation in which the Shiites have the Americans by the throat while the guerrillas are hitting other parts of the body. Paying the Shiite price now, if unnecessary, creates a long-term problem — the Shiites will be charging a high price for their services.
The administration has toyed with this Shiite-Iranian alignment for months now without coming to a definitive decision, constantly hoping that things would get better. Now, the choice is only between things remaining the same or getting worse. Given the intelligence problems, we suspect that Bush needs to work from the worst-case scenario. That means he will bypass the IGC and work directly with Shiite leaders to lock in a deal quickly. And now it becomes a question of whether the Shiites are feeling lucky.
There is nothing in this article that is not available from the media. However, George has done a superb job of connecting the dots despite the daily information noise from the media.
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