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January 02, 2005

Counterinsurgency in Iraq Is Not Going Well

James Wolcott reads the Economist:

James Wolcott: "Kind of a Shame": From The Economist, January 1st-7th 2005 (registration required; oh just go out and buy the damn thing):

"There is only one traffic law in Ramadi these days: when Americans approach, Iraqis scatter. Horns blaring, brakes screaming, the midday traffic skids to the side of the road as a line of Humvee jeeps ferrying American marines rolls the wrong way up the main street. Every vehicle, that is, except one beat-up old taxi. Its elderly driver, flapping his outstretched hands, seems, amazingly, to be trying to turn the convoy back. Gun turrets swivel and lock on to him, as a hefty marine sargeant leaps into the road, levels an assault rifle at his turbanned head, and screams: 'Back this bitch up, motherfucker!'

"The old man should have read the bilingual notices that American soldiers tack to their rear bumpers in Iraq: 'Keep 50m or deadly force will be applied.' In Ramadi, the capital of central Anbar province, where 17 suicide-bombs struck American forces during the month-long Muslim fast of Ramadan in the autumn, the marines are jumpy. Sometimes, they say, they fire on vehicles encroaching with 30 metres, sometimes they fire at 20 metres: 'If anyone gets too close to us we fucking waste them,' says a bullish lieutenant. 'It's kind of a shame, because it means we've killed a lot of innocent people.'"

Kind of a shame, killing the people you're trying to democratize, but after awhile, says the same lieutenant, "It gets to the point where you can't wait to see guys with guns, so you start shooting everybody..." With characteristic dry English understatement, The Economist's embedded reporter (Economist pieces are unbylined) notes, "[W]hen America's well-drilled and well-fed fighters attempt subtler tasks than killing people, problems arise." Their contempt for Iraqis is undisguised and dramatically expressed: a soldier, confronted by "jeering schoolchildren," fires canisters of buckshot from his grenade-launcher at them, and marines busting down doors in Ramadi scream at trembling middle-aged women: "Bitch, where's the guns?" Small wonder, ventures the correspondent, that "many Iraqis are probably more scared of American troops than of insurgents."

The last grafs of the report recount a big whoopy-do operation in the smugglers' haven of Baij involving a convoy of 1000 troops supported by Apache attack helicopters targeting three houses that had been linked to Zarquawi's terrorist band, according to a local informant. There was no one in the houses except women and children. Rather than return to base empty, they pay homage to the last reel of Casablanca and round up the usual suspects. "...they detained 70 men from districts indentified by their informant as 'bad.' In near-freezing conditions, they sat hooded and bound in their pyjamas. They shivered uncontrollably. One wetted himself in fear. Most had been detained at random; several had been held because they had a Kalashnikov rifle, which is legal. The evidence against one man was some anti-American literature, a meat cleaver, and a tin whistle. American intelligence officers moved through the ranks of detainees, raising their hoods to take mugshots: 'One, two, three, jihaaad!' A middle-tier officer commented on the mission: 'When we do this,' he said. 'We lose.'"

There's a Peter Cook-Dudley Moore routine, one of their woolgathering dialogues, where Dud asks Pete, "So would you say you've learned from your mistakes?" and Pete replies: "Oh yes, I'm certain I could repeat them exactly." That seems to have been the Bush administration's approach to Iraq. Take the mistakes of Vietnam and repeat them exactly. And at that you can't say they haven't succeeded...

Greg Djerejian reads the same thing, and is equally depressed:

THE BELGRAVIA DISPATCH: A Gloomy Appraisal of Counter-Insurgency Efforts in Sunni Areas: The Economist has a rather depressing article (subscription required) on the state of U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq. Apart from wishing everyone a Happy New Year, I should note I've been a tad glib of late (for instance, in some exchanges with Brad De Long) about, for instance, the need for military police in Iraq. It's not that I don't think a bitter mix of forces in theater has been critical all along--it's that Brad sometimes appears to suggest that, by simply waving a wand, myriad European and Arab nations would have contributed major troop/military police deployments. I think a sober analysis of the pre and post war diplomacy manifestly shows we provided our non-participating allies enough openings to make real contributions....

Since September 1st, when the battalion's 800 men were deployed to Ramadi, they have killed 400-500 people, according to one of their senior officers. A more precise estimate is impossible, because the marines rarely see their attackers. When fired upon, they retaliate by blitzing whichever buildings they think the fire is coming from: charred shells now line Ramadi's main streets. “Sometimes it works in the insurgents' favour,” admits Rick Sims, a chief warrant officer. “Because by the time we've shot up the neighbourhood, then the guys have torn up a few houses, they're four blocks away, and we just end up pissing off the locals.”

These brutal actions are what the marines have been trained for. They are superb fighters, among the best infantrymen of the most formidable force ever assembled. They are courteous—-at least to their friends—-and courageous. Long will this correspondent remember the coolness with which one teenage marine flicked away his cigarette and then the safety-catch on his rifle, as a sniper's bullet zipped overhead. Since arriving in Ramadi, some 20 marines have been killed and 160 wounded by suicide bombs and IEDs, in ambushes and by mortars. Many were on their second seven-month tour of Iraq and, after a seven-month break to retrain and refit, can expect to spend next Christmas there too. Yet their morale was high....

America's new war toys are on impressive display. In increasingly stormy northern Iraq, a lightly-armoured troop-carrier, the Stryker, is delivering infantrymen to the battlefield in numbers and at speeds unprecedented. As the Strykers race along, their computers display constantly-updated aerial maps of the surrounding area: a digitising of warfare that has made it virtually impossible for any ally of America to fight high-intensity battles at its side. The army's logistical support, needless to add, is superb. America's 138,000 soldiers and marines in Iraq sleep in smart heated cabins and enjoy tasty food, excellent gymnasiums and internet access....

But, as the article goes on to argue, where we show real skill in war-fighting we are coming up short in peacekeeping (or peacemaking, we might say).

Yet armies can be good at war-fighting or good at peacekeeping but rarely good at both. And when America's well-drilled and well-fed fighters attempt subtler tasks than killing people, problems arise. At peacekeeping, peace-enforcing or policing, call it what you will, they are often inept. Even the best of them seem ignorant of the people whose land they are occupying-—unsurprisingly, perhaps, when practically no American fighters speak Arabic. And, typically, the marine battalion in Ramadi has only four translators.... Whether or not the insurgency is fuelled by American clumsiness, it has deepened and spread almost every month since the occupation began.... American military-intelligence officers admit their assessments are often little better than guesses. They have but a hazy idea of when and by whom the insurgency was planned, how many dedicated fighters and foreign fighters it involves, who they are, or how much support they command. The scores of terrorists who have blown themselves up in Iraq over the past year are invariably said to be foreign fanatics. But this has almost never been proved....

Midway through the past year—-in July, in Ramadi—-the insurgents began increasingly to seek softer targets, especially Iraqi security forces, Iraqis working for coalition forces, American supply convoys and the oil infrastructure. In November, one in four American supply convoys was ambushed. Three months ago, American officials overseeing reconstruction in Mosul were lobbied by 30 Iraqi contractors in an average day; now, they struggle to find even one brave enough to accept their dollars. A low helicopter flight over the Kirkuk oilfield, Iraq's second-biggest, presented a scene from the Book of Revelation: each of seven oil wells was marked by a tower of orange flame, meeting in a canopy of dense black smoke. Starker still is the cost in lives. In the first nine months of 2004, 721 Iraqi security forces (ISF) were killed, according to figures compiled by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank; in October, the figure was 779. The surge of violence in Mosul at the start of the Fallujah campaign has not abated; the city's police are the main victims. On November 10th and 11th, rebels devastated almost all the city's police stations, after the 4,000-strong police force had fled. Around 200 dead policemen and ISF members, usually beheaded, have since been dumped about the city. Its American contingent is also under unprecedented attack. On December 21st, at lunchtime, 18 Americans were killed by a suicide bomber in an army mess-tent in Mosul....

It ends on this rather gloomy note:

Little surprise that the Americans had not visited the nearby smugglers' town of Baij in force for three months.... Baij's police station had been blown up and its police had fled. The town's English-speaking former mayor, Abdullah Fahad, was frank about the town's allegiances. “There are terrorists here, not from Syria, not from Mosul, but from Baij. Some are Baathists and some are Islamists and before they hated each other but now they work together, and they tell people that if they don't work with them they will kill them.”

Mr Fahad, who claimed to have survived several assassination attempts and whose son had been kidnapped, refused to help the Americans on the grounds that he would be murdered if he did. When the American commander offered to protect him, he replied: “Thank you, but you are not always here. This is the first time I have ever seen you.” Whereupon the American troops labelled Mr Fahad a “bad guy”, and debated whether to detain him.

Posted by DeLong at January 2, 2005 12:14 PM

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• Gregory Djerejian does the world a favor by transcribing an Economist article on Iraq: Little surprise that the Americans had not visited the nearby smugglers' town of Baij in force for three months, until they rode there one recent night in a ...

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Tracked on January 3, 2005 09:11 AM

» Dutch politicians simpy don't want to believe this from Idealistic but not naive, realistic but not cynical
James Wolcott commented on an article in The Economist (read highlights at Wolcotts site or subscribe)."There's a Peter Cook-Dudley Moore routine, one of their woolgathering dialogues, where Dud asks [Read More]

Tracked on January 5, 2005 04:00 PM


Today, while I was taking part in my community's weekly vigil in remembrance of the dead in Iraq, both Iraqi and American, a man came by and gave a disquisition on why we could not withdraw from Iraq. He said if we were to leave, the Ba'athists would "kill everybody". The vigil is silent, so we listened quietly. He seemed satisfied and left.

I fear that many Americans believe this: we have to keep killing the 'bad guys' because if we don't, the 'bad guys' are going to keep killing the 'good guys'. But as this Economist article makes abundantly plain, *we* don't know who's bad and who's good. But we are absolutely certain we're Santa, bringing those democratic goodies for all the good little Iraqis. And we can't leave because that would mean no Christmas!!

Posted by: Aunt Deb at January 2, 2005 01:32 PM

A Pew Research poll published in December showed that only about one-third of Americans follow events in Iraq with any serious attention. Most do not have anyone in the military. None have paid additional taxes to fund this war. Many are comfortably watching pro football at the moment. It seems like the perfect definition of a fool's paradise.
I have been shrill for a long time. In fact, I have witnesses who heard me say on March 20, 2003, that this war would turn into a huge fiasco.

Posted by: g-lex at January 2, 2005 01:53 PM

if we weren't clear on this before, it's certain now: the elections will occur, the shiites will win and enter into negotiations to lower our troop level immediately and garrison it even further than it has been, bush will declare victory, and the right-wing media will have yet another self-congratulatory orgy.

Meanwhile, the real winners, who are situated in Tehran, will quietly consolidate their position....

Posted by: howard at January 2, 2005 02:31 PM

“Thank you, but you are not always here. This is the first time I have ever seen you.” Whereupon the American troops labelled Mr Fahad a “bad guy”, and debated whether to detain him.

Apparently, trying to stay alive is now evidence of terrorist sympathies in the Bushco nightmare called Iraqi Freedom.

Posted by: flory at January 2, 2005 03:35 PM

Iraq is a disaster. It was predictable and Bush has lived up to our worst nightmares.

I've had discussions with many people where I say we should pull out now. They say we have to stay, otherwise there will be chaos. From where I'm sitting, it already looks like chaos, so I don't really see how staying is helping things at all. This article just shows that it's worse than we think.

Posted by: Unstable Isotope at January 2, 2005 03:53 PM

Thomas PM Barnett, the military strategist who wrote The Pentagon's New Map talks a lot about the need for force structure realignment to the point where we have what he calls a Systems Administration force that could administer to a country and would be separate from the tip of the spear military we have occupying Iraq at the present time. His ideas are gaining traction in the military, he briefs one stars and higher ups, he's a really smart guy and Democrats could benefit big time if they co-opt his message. Read his weblog at www.thomaspmbarnett.com/weblog

Posted by: jared at January 2, 2005 05:35 PM

Thomas Barnett is also the guy who reckons the world is divided between those countries which follow rules and those that don't. True enough. Unfortunately he fails to point out (or even accept) that the US simply refuses to follow the rules whenever that's convenient for it, which means that the system is not nearly as pleasant and happy as he makes it out to be.

Rather than a community of nations working together in co-operation, you have all the other rule-abiding nations doing the US bidding right now, while they have to, but resentment is growing and growing and one day, probably within the next ten years, this is going to manifest itself in some pretty dramatic fashion. The US is going to tell some nation to jump, it's going to say no, the US is going to tell the world to take sides, and oh, yes, sides will be taken. One can imagine this happening, for example, in the financial sphere --- one day some country (*cough* China *cough*) not only no longer buys treasuries, but forbids its citizens and corporations from doing so, and the rest of the world jumps in thinking this is a fine law they might do well to emulate.

Given Barnett's apparent blindness to the US' absolute lack of credibility in the field of abiding by laws, I find it hard to take him seriously.

Posted by: Maynard Handley at January 2, 2005 06:39 PM


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Posted by: Joe at January 2, 2005 06:44 PM

Twaddle, Joe. The burning reason for pulling out of Iraq (as even George Will seems to be working toward saying now) is that we need the troops far more more to cope with OTHER parts of the Megaterrorism War -- specifically, to keep Iran from acquiring the Bomb, and to deal with likely future military emergencies brought on by the fac that Pakistan and North Korea already have it. Were there no looming Bomb threat, the events described by the Economist would be a strong argument for putting far more troops and money into Iraq, in order to keep the peace there and start reconstructing the place without having to resort to panicky indiscriminate attacks on civilians. But, of course, Bush and Rumsfeld refuse to do either one...

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw at January 2, 2005 07:07 PM

Hey Joe, whoa: if you are worried about "hardcore Islam," then why do you endorse Bush's insistence on elections for January 30? Aren't the Shia Arabs in Iraq likely to win an near- majority, especially if the Sunni boycott the voting process? Will the Shia majority sign on for liberal democracy, or for some moderated version of Sharia law that might be called "Iran-lite?"
It looks as if Bush has American soldiers fighting and dying to kill Sunnis so that a successor "hardcore Islamic" Shia regime will not have to do it themselves.
Funny things happen when you plunge into the middle of sectarian and tribal conflict. Take a look, Joe.

Posted by: g-lex at January 2, 2005 07:52 PM

greg's point about no one coming to help the US despite the opportunities misses the salient point that there is no motivation for anyone to come. This is our problem and it becomes more apparent each day that our continual presence just adds to the problem; the notion that our war in Iraq is part of the West's conflict with Islamic totalitarianism is just plain nonsense--great for winning campaigns, though. Sistani is no fool and knows that asking the US to leave (point #2 of his list's campaign promises) not only gets him votes but also does not threaten him; the contradictions within the increasingly unpopular (but frightening) insurgency (baathism v islamist for short) will eventually arise and doom their alliance. The Shia want control and want the US out. As for folks like Joe, who claim we cannot leave...well, when are we going to get the tax increases to fund such ventures and when are we going to reconfigure (either through increased recruitment or the return of conscription) the US Army so that occupation becomes part of its mission; the folly of Rummy was that he fought a war with an army that was never large enough for his intentions. His folly, our tragedy. We left Vietnam but still won the cold war; we will leave Iraq and still win our conflict with Islamic totalitarianism, and I am more convinced each day that the sooner we leave iraq the sooner we will win this latter conflict.

Posted by: lawrence rocke at January 2, 2005 08:06 PM

Which is the most appropriate historical metaphor?

1. The French in Indochina
2. The Americans in Vietnam
3. The Russians in Chechnya

Posted by: John Faughnan at January 2, 2005 09:16 PM

americans in vietnam...the other two examples had colonial or imperial histories; ignorance and innocence can still be used to hide the truth of this massive strategic blunder from most of americans who don't bother to follow the events in Iraq. no, as james wolcott has pointed out, "There's a Peter Cook-Dudley Moore routine, one of their woolgathering dialogues, where Dud asks Pete, 'So would you say you've learned from your mistakes?' and Pete replies: 'Oh yes, I'm certain I could repeat them exactly.'
That seems to have been the Bush administration's approach to Iraq. Take the mistakes of Vietnam and repeat them exactly.
And at that you can't say they haven't succeeded."

Posted by: lawrence rocke at January 2, 2005 09:40 PM

Given that we have already fumbled away any chance to make "soft diplomacy" gains in Iraq or among its neighbors for a considerable time, and that the public in the Mideast (and elsewhere) as so horrified at our behavior (killing and torturing innocents), I'm not sure at this point why we should think that avoiding an election in the near term would help. Yes, Bush will declare victory, but he would do that anyway. If we believe that self-determination and democracy, in some form, are good things in themselves, and all hope of furthering US interests in the Mideast has been squandered so that holding out for a better outcome is hopeless, why not just follow our own beliefs and let the election come? We certainly should do what we can to see that the post-election situation doesn't deteriorate, but I'm not sure that ramdom killing of innocents by US troops while insurgents run around doing pretty much the same thing, leaves much room for deterioration.

Posted by: kharris at January 3, 2005 04:58 AM


Forget Iraq and stop posting. We lost the election. It's Bush's War now, totally and completely, his to win or lose. Our fortunes there are entirely in his hands.

There is no opposition position for us good democrats. All that we can do is support the troops in every way possible and let events play out. Absolutely no good comes from posts such as this one. They change nothing, creates nothing, help no one.

Posted by: Moe Levine at January 3, 2005 02:19 PM

"Which is the most appropriate historical metaphor?"

The French in Algeria.

Second most appropriate metaphor: Israel in Lebanon.

Posted by: Michael Robinson at January 3, 2005 05:14 PM

Don't worry, folks, it'll all be over soon. You can see it coming a mile off:

(1) We have an election. Most of the country can't or won't participate, a lot of people will die ("not my fault" says Dubya), a lot of scoundrels - mostly Shi'ite - will get elected.
(2) The scoundrels have the wit to keep their election promise and ask the Americans to leave forthwith (virtually all the parties that are running have that as a core promise).
(3) Dubya declares "mission accomplished" and bugs out (past intentions to retain permanent bases, pay for reconstruction, get their hands on the oil, etc become inoperative). Iraq instantly disappears from US news - it's only more foreigners getting killed, after all.
(4) Iraq rapidly descends into full scale civil war. Even more people die. Dubya declares "not my problem".
(5) Big winners from the civil war are the Iranians and al Quaeda. Big losers are the Saudis (this sort of thing has a habit of spreading), the Syrians (strong economic links become useless), the Kurds (Turkey will intervene if they look like doing well) and, of course, the Iraqis.

I still can't believe that idiot got re-elected.

Posted by: derrida derider at January 3, 2005 06:43 PM

"There is no opposition position for us good democrats."

Right, turn off the lights and softly close the door. Bullshit.

Those who are accountable must be held accountable, and reminded of this disaster every bloody day.

Posted by: Steve at January 3, 2005 11:15 PM

"Forget Iraq and stop posting. We lost the election. It's Bush's War now, totally and completely, his to win or lose. Our fortunes there are entirely in his hands.

There is no opposition position for us good democrats. All that we can do is support the troops in every way possible and let events play out. "

I find this post very very offensive. Our super military power is killing Iraqis every minute -- what do you mean "let events play out"? We are a democratic society, which means collectively, we are all responsible for our country's killings -- our hands are all stained with Iraqis' blood. I suggest we send the Economist article to our representatives and demand to bring our troops home -- the longer they stay there, the worse killing machine they become.

'If anyone gets too close to us we fucking waste them,' says a bullish lieutenant. 'It's kind of a shame, because it means we've killed a lot of innocent people.'" By some estimates, the US is already responsible for more civilian deaths in Iraq than the number of the recent tsunami victims.

Posted by: pat at January 4, 2005 11:37 AM

That offer to protect the mayor, it was like the protection for that Iraqi fellow in Bagdad, right? I mean, they really meant it and they really couldn't do it, right?

And on elections, the USA is picking and choosing which geographical groups of Iraqis resident in Australia get to vote.

Posted by: P.M.Lawrence at January 4, 2005 11:24 PM

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