The Magazine

Why Iraq's Still a Hard Place

From the July 21, 2003 issue: The thugs are fighting, the troops are tired, and some doubt our determination--but we're winning.

Jul 21, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 43 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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HAVE WE WON YET? The simple answer from American and British soldiers in Iraq is: Not yet, but we are winning militarily. "There are still a lot of a--holes left to kill," is how one senior commander describes the situation. But from a countrywide perspective, security is improving; sweeps with code names like "Desert Scorpion" and "Peninsula Strike" are reducing Baathist redoubts and seem to be preventing outside extremists from gaining much of a foothold. Soldiers believe they are fighting a low-level insurgency, and that time is on our side.

Whether this cautiously upbeat appraisal is correct should become clear over the next month or two. Though concentrated in Baghdad, Fallujah, and the Sunni strongholds in central Iraq, the military operations now are part of a broader campaign with ambitious goals. It is meant to drive the final nails in the coffin of Saddam Hussein's regime--and to prevent major violence on July 17, the Baath party national day--while forestalling significant outside agitation. And there is more: a push to convince the Iraqi people that their lives have been irreversibly changed for the better and that they should begin to take a more active role in the reconstruction of their country.

This generally optimistic assessment is tempered by three concerns. First, the universe of bad guys is in flux. One of the main goals of the current operations is to better define who the enemy is. Baathist diehards are the most immediately identifiable, but there are also borderline Baathists and former Iraqi soldiers and officials who have lost their positions of power and privilege. Among these borderline cases, a number are simply thugs, but even those who might be rehabilitated have no obvious way to earn a living. Iraq's economy was misshapen by oil wealth and Saddam's central control.

This situation has been exacerbated by inconsistency in U.S. policy. The original plan had been to quickly reorganize the army and government pending de-Baathification; these priorities have been reversed, probably to good long-term effect, but not without creating confusion and slowing the start of political reconstruction at the grass-roots level. Whatever the relative claims of justice and public order, the uncertainty of the Bush administration's wishes opens an opportunity for the diehards to make mischief. It does not take much money to convince an Iraqi adolescent to pop a rocket-propelled grenade at a passing convoy. A new political order is also a threat to the traditional tribal order, which Saddam of course manipulated, and to the power of the sheikhs.

Since the fall of Baghdad--and indeed even prior to it--the job of sorting out reconstruction policy has fallen to U.S. and British officers. They are naturally skittish about "nation building" missions, but in Iraq they have no alternative. The military's caution is also fueled by deep skepticism of intelligence passed along by the CIA and "other government agencies" (OGA is the acronym of the moment) prior to the war about the regime's will to resist. But at the tactical level, soldiers, agents, and special operations forces are working hand in glove to weed out local Baathist cells. And a broad assessment of enemy strength and commitment to fight is being built, piece by piece. There is an intelligence value in having military commanders who also must act as the civilian authority: All the local leaders are anxious to come plead their cases--they are in some sense the classic intelligence "walk-ins," and by sifting their stories, it is possible to assemble a three-dimensional picture of what's happening in the Iraqi streets. This makes it hard for outsiders to move in unnoticed. In sum, the current operations should yield a more accurate, bottom-up assessment of the situation nationwide, but until then, making any larger judgments will be difficult. And, of course, the success of the current military sweep operations will go far in shaping those judgments.

A SECOND CONCERN is the fitness of the coalition forces. The units that fought the war, especially the ground war, are deeply tired. The 3rd Infantry Division, the 1st Marine Division, and the core of the British force have been in constant operations--deploying, fighting, stabilizing--for six months or more. Some elements of these units have been in the region, either afloat in the Persian Gulf or "training" in Kuwait, for the better part of a year. Headquarters staffs have been planning and preparing for operations even longer. Fortunately, much of the naval force and strike aircraft have gone home for rest and refitting; however, significant parts of the Air Force, such as cargo and tanker aircraft and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms, are working as hard as ever.

Living conditions in the field are austere, to put it mildly. Headquarters units may be sampling the weird, Michael Jackson-ranch quality of Saddam's palaces, but even there two out of three meals are MREs. Sleeping in the open without a mosquito net has consequences. There's barely enough water to drink--a huge concern as the summer heat begins to peak--and a lot less to wash with. The combination of the fine Iraqi dust and human sweat makes for a grimy paste that is hard to get off in a three-minute shower, especially given the tenuous nature of the Iraqi water system.

Military equipment has also taken a pounding. A substantial number of ground combat systems have sustained damage. There are widespread if anecdotal reports of tanks, infantry-fighting, and other armored vehicles taking multiple hits from rocket-propelled grenades while remaining in action, and those vehicles will require repair. Attack and assault helicopters were peppered with small-arms fire, as in the much-publicized raid against the Republican Guard by Army AH-64 Apaches. The Army's support units, significant parts of which lie in the reserves and have the supplemental mission of enabling the operations of the other services, are putting lots of mileage on their trucks, tankers, and heavy equipment transporters.

Even tactical aircraft, which dominated the skies over Iraq even before the war began, have had operational readiness rates--the technical measure of their fitness to fly in harm's way--a notch or two below those of the first Gulf War, if for no other reason than the aging of the overall fleet in the last decade. The Navy went to extraordinary lengths to surge five carriers and a large fleet of cruise-missile-shooting surface vessels and submarines in time for the war, and the recovery time is certain to be lengthy. And essentially the entire Corps was stripped nearly bare to assemble the Marine expeditionary force; the continuing presence of Marines in Iraq is needed for now, but the Marine Corps is designed for contingencies, not sustained operations.

Reinforcements have been slow to arrive and may still be too few to continue the ceaseless patrolling that makes up the daily diet of forces now in Iraq. The 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, 1st Armored Division, and 4th Infantry Division (whose equipment spent so long in boats waiting to get into Turkey and then Kuwait that the commanding general is smilingly saluted as "commodore") have supplemented the war-fighting force and even allowed for the slender beginnings of a rotation system. British replacements have been hampered by the need to provide 19,000 soldiers to offset the firefighters' strike in England. The peacekeeping coalition has expanded to 28 participants, but to what effect is in doubt; the first wave of liaison officers for deploying allies can be found wandering the halls of U.S. headquarters, trying to figure out where to go and whom to see. Some of the coalition will be willing and able partners, some more trouble, at least logistically, than they are worth. Some will want a U.N. mandate, rules of engagement, and rates of supplemental pay. In any case, they will be tested by Iraqi rejectionists who will probe for coalition weaknesses (it was Pakistani forces that were first targeted by Somali militias in Mogadishu in 1993).

American soldiers are increasingly weary in mind and body. The 3rd Infantry Division, in particular, may be a leading indicator of the kind of stresses this war is producing. Not only was the division deployed the longest, but it was first to confront the suicide attacks of the Fedayeen and other fanatics. Though these attacks yielded few American casualties, the slaughter was nightmarish for U.S. soldiers, who had no alternative but to obliterate their attackers. The division also was assigned much of the operation in Fallujah and other nearby towns, where ambushes have been frequent. A soldier on patrol faces the constant prospect of attack and an enemy often indistinguishable from a friendly crowd or street scene. Over the past ten years, military morale has remained surprisingly strong in the face of escalating constabulary duties, but the soldier story now is that the 3rd Infantry is "black"--meaning critically short--on Prozac supplies. During the Cold War, defending the frontiers of freedom usually meant a comfy kaserne in Bavaria, and something approximating normal family life; it now looks like repeat deployments to Saddam palaces stripped of their plumbing fixtures and electrical wiring. It is too soon to know if this portends long-term morale problems, but reenlistment rates in these units will bear scrutiny. Most of all, soldiers would like at least a clearly defined rotational policy and tour length.

This is the ultimate question about the condition of the U.S. Army: Is it capable of sustaining an occupation of Iraq that will be measured in years? It is possible to be hopeful, even optimistic, about the prospects for political reconstruction in Iraq, while worrying that the military means may not be sufficient to the ends. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld may have been a keen judge of just how large a force was needed to win Baghdad. But the larger victory in Iraq cannot be so quickly or cheaply won.

WHICH LEADS TO a third concern about the nature of the American commitment to the mission in Iraq. It might seem strange, at this stage, to doubt the determination of a president who took the United States to war despite so many protests, but President Bush's word has often been undercut by a curious administration hesitancy to commit resources that match the rhetoric.

The difficulty in securing the rest of Iraq after the occupation of Baghdad underscores the cheese-paring way in which forces were allocated. Indeed, much of what makes Operation Iraqi Freedom such a remarkable feat of arms is that so small a force accomplished so much. But, save for a lone Marine task force that rapidly pushed beyond Baghdad to Tikrit, the campaign's "catastrophic success"--the collapse of the regime and the lack of a coherent defense inside the city--proved too much even for this superb force to fully exploit in a timely fashion. The march on Baghdad and the destruction of the Republican Guard's combat power from the air knocked the Saddam Hussein regime flat, but not out cold. The pause before the latest round of stability sweeps also gave hope and opportunity to whatever resistance--Iranian-inspired, Saudi-fomented, or otherwise--exists beyond the diehard Baathists.

In sum, Operation Iraqi Freedom was run as a "just-in-time" campaign. That has proved both its great strength and its one significant weakness. Such an approach requires that every judgment of high command be correct and timely. Speed does kill the enemy, as Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has observed, but the fast pace of operations also pressures American commanders to make the right call, every time, on time.

Two examples: The delay in moving the 4th Infantry Division from Turkey to Kuwait while the government in Ankara dithered almost certainly was a major factor leading to the significant operational pause after Baghdad fell. And the halting, even micromanaged, flow of forces into the region also contributed to the difficulties of pushing beyond Baghdad. Preserving options and postponing decisions prior to the war limited options and precluded decisions at a crucial moment during the war.

The piecemeal commitment of military forces is echoed in the piecemeal commitment to reconstruction in Iraq. U.S. administrator Paul Bremer clearly has a larger writ than did his predecessors, but even the most straightforward reconstruction tasks take on twists in Saddam's Iraq. The Iraqi electrical grid, for example, was not wired to deliver power to people's homes efficiently, but designed as a tool for exercising political control, neighborhood by neighborhood. Saddam used it to reward or punish at his whim. Surging electricity to one part of the patchwork system can rob or overload another part of the grid. Thus, "fixing" the electricity in Baghdad, which was never "right" to begin with, is proving more difficult than anticipated.

Nor can other aspects of a Saddamized society be quickly put right. Politically rehabilitated Iraqi police officers still think it is the citizenry's job to come to the station to report crimes; their job is to hang out at the station, drinking tea, until a crime is reported. Indeed, "patrol" cars, which we are providing, are thought to be for the officers' personal and commuting purposes. Iraqi policemen are open to suggestions about how better to do their duties, but reform will be a stationhouse-by-stationhouse process that will demand more outside advisers. Likewise, one of the first acts of Iraqi media workers (government employees) has been to strike for higher pay.

Perhaps most damaging has been the ambiguity about political reconstruction in Iraq. Flip-flops in policy on de-Baathification, on the role of the Iraqi National Congress and other opposition groups, and on the power of the "interim authorities" all raise doubts about the depth of American willpower. The disparate rejectionist elements in Iraq--Saddamists, disgruntled Sunnis fearing the loss of privilege, some Shia parties, outside Islamist agitators--are in some sense jockeying for power in the event of a U.S. retreat. The Americans, they tell their fellow Iraqis, will go home, and we will still be here. It is a potent threat, especially considering uncertainty about Saddam's fate. A lot still rides on showing that the devil is dead.

The forces available to complete the Desert Scorpion tasks in Iraq seem more than sufficient for the crucial period of the next month or six weeks. What happens after that is far less certain. There is no shortcut to creating the sense of security needed to reconstruct Iraq.

Have we won yet? No. We are winning, and it seems we have again aggressively seized the initiative. Yet as the march to Baghdad was only a step toward securing the rest of Iraq and completing the task of removing the regime, so are military operations merely the price of admission to the larger tasks of reconstruction. Whether a military victory will lead to a larger political victory remains a question. There are still a lot of thugs to kill, but the real victory will come when Iraq stops producing new ones.

Tom Donnelly is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.