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General Omar N. Bradley
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December 24, 2005

Why the War Has Already Been Lost

by Gareth Porter

The Bush administration has just provided a textbook demonstration of the successful manipulation of public opinion. By repeating the theme that the United States is winning the war in Iraq for weeks, George W. Bush has now convinced 60 percent of Americans that the United States will win, and nearly as many that it is already winning, according to the latest ABC/Washington Post poll.

Despite the new surge of public belief in victory, however, the United States is no closer to success in defeating the insurgency – in the sense of unilaterally reducing its operations to a minimum level – than it was two years ago. On the contrary, all three major elements of US strategy in Iraq – US military operations against the insurgents, creating indigenous security forces and the political attraction of Sunnis into the Iraqi political system – have been shown to have failed to achieve any traction. The US may continue the war for some time, but it no longer has any strategy for winning.

The improbability of United States defeating the Sunni resistance is inherent in the nature of the Iraq conflict. It is a sectarian (Sunni vs. Shi'ite) and ethnic (Kurdish vs. Arab) struggle for power combined with a nationalist armed resistance, mainly by Sunnis, to foreign military occupation. The possibility of suppressing the insurgency has always hinged on the loyalties of the Sunni population within the Sunni-dominated provinces of Central Iraq. A review of the major developments of the past two and a half years suggests that there was never any possibility that those loyalties would shift away from support of the insurgency.

By the end of 2004, in fact, the US command faced a dual strategic crisis: on one hand, it recognized that the US military presence was serving to drive Sunnis into the arms of the insurgents; on the other hand, the United States had been unable to maintain Sunni security forces, because it had demonstrated over and over again that the loyalty of those troops was to the Sunni anti-occupation forces.

In April 2004, the complacency of the US command was shattered by an insurgent offensive across the entire expanse of the Sunni zone that effectively disintegrated the Sunni military units which the United States had set up. According to a June 2004 GAO report, the number of Civil Defense Corps troops in the three Sunni provinces fell by 82 percent from 5,600 to about 1,000. It was not a matter of individual members being intimidated into failing to show up for work, either. As the GAO report pointed out, the destruction of the Sunni security structure was achieved mostly by the "collective desertion of units."

That debacle was followed immediately by a US effort to create a military force put together by the former Ba'athist officer whom the Americans had picked to head Iraq’s intelligence service. The "Fallujah Brigade" was supposed to be an alternative to a bloody US assault on that Sunni city. But instead the brigade’s Sunni troops and officers collaborated with the insurgents in Fallujah, giving them 800 assault rifles, 27 pickup trucks and 50 radios which had been provided by the US command.

An insurgent offensive in Mosul and Ramadi in November again dramatically illustrated the inability of the occupation to obtain the loyalty of Sunnis security forces. Three thousand two hundred of the 4,000 policemen in Mosul deserted overnight, and helped the insurgents to the weapons, radios, uniforms and vehicles from seven police stations. In Ramadi, the Americans distrusted the Sunni police so much that they unilaterally disbanded the entire force.

The US command would never again trust Sunnis to form local security forces. Instead it brought in nearly 2,000 Kurdish peshmurga militiamen to control Mosul. It also brought in five battalions of predominantly Shi'ite troops, with a smattering of Kurds, to replace the Sunni police in Ramadi, Samarra and Fallujah. The Iraqi commando units brought into fight in the Sunni provinces are also Shi'ites and Kurds.

These deployments further reinforced Sunni loyalties to the insurgency, because of the intense dislike and distrust between the Sunni population and the non-Sunni militias and commandoes. Despite administration claims that it has succeeded in recruiting 5,000 Sunni soldiers in 2005, the fact remains that it is still Shi'ites and Kurds who patrol the streets of Sunni cities and who search for Sunni insurgents.

Meanwhile, the US military command was beginning to realize that its operations against the Sunni insurgency were having the perverse effect of increasing support for the resistance. A "senior military officer" (probably the top commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey) was quoted by the Washington Post in October 2004 as saying that the insurgency had expanded because of Iraqi "irritation" with the occupation and the mistreatment of detainees. A year later, Casey would admit publicly to Congress that "anger" generated by the U.S. military presence was making the insurgency stronger.

Against this background of a dawning realization that US strategy was not working, the US attack on Fallujah in November 2004 has all earmarks of a high-risk gamble. Before taking full control of the city, US forces destroyed about seventy percent of the 50,000 homes in the city and used the outlawed chemical white phosphorous. The real objective of this extraordinarily excessive use of force, as Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland explained after interviewing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, was to "dissuade Sunni townspeople from joining, supporting or tolerating the insurrection." The suffering imposed on Fallujah was to be an object lesson to the rest of the Sunni heartland.

However, the assault on Fallujah has apparently had the opposite effect. To the Sunni population, it quickly became a symbol of the atrocities of the occupation forces. The insurgency grew stronger rather than weaker in 2005. Even in Fallujah itself, despite extremely heavy controls over the returning population, the insurgents still have overwhelming support from the population. A US official in the city recently admitted, "Basically everyone here has the potential to be an insurgent."

Significantly, a new strategy of "political attraction" became the centerpiece of administration policy in Iraq during 2005, while the strategic significance of military operations was deemphasized. A new constitution and elections for the Iraqi parliament were supposed to divide those in the Sunni community who wanted participation in the system from the hard core who would continue their armed resistance.

The political strategy had a fatal weakness, however: it depended on the willingness of Shi'ite leaders who were out for historical revenge against the Sunnis to make far-reaching concessions to Sunni interests. Instead of cooperating with the U.S. strategy, the militant Shi'ites leaders used the constitutional negotiations to marginalize the Sunnis both politically and economically. Even the administration had to admit that the constitution that was drafted – without Sunni agreement – actually reinforced the determination of Sunnis to support armed resistance. The administration’s argument the Sunni population would begin to abandon the insurgency because of their participation in voting has already lost credibility with the media, and it is doubtful that administration policymakers still believe it – if they ever did.

Meanwhile, the Sunni insurgency, which had been a loose network of independent armed groups with no common agenda, was morphing into a movement capable of effectively coordinating both military operations and political strategy. During 2005, the leaders of several major insurgent organizations cooperated in developing a flexible strategy that encompasses Sunni participation in voting and even in the national assembly, as well as negotiations with the United States. The overall objectives of this emerging Sunni political-military movement are to increase pressure on the US to agree to a settlement and to improve the relative power position of Sunnis in the new political order. The evidence also indicates that that the Sunni insurgents have been able to cooperate with both the Association of Muslim Scholars and Sunni politicians in advancing a broad Sunni political-military strategy.

The failure of the "political strategy" leaves the administration with no plan that promises the defeat of the insurgents. The failure of all three elements of US strategy in Iraq suggests that the administration will be forced in the end to negotiate some kind of an agreement with the insurgents to end the resistance. Indeed, the process may already have begun, even as Bush insists that the United States is winning the war. When it comes, that agreement will undoubtedly be preceded by still more such bluster and by an escalation of violence. But it will represent a true compromise, not a peace imposed by the United States. And the national debate over whether the entire endeavor was a success or a failure will begin.


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  • Gareth Porter is a historian. His latest book is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (University of California Press).

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