The Spring of Our Discontent

As spring approaches in the northern hemisphere, we had better brace ourselves for some bad news in the various wars that the US is currently involved in.

In Afghanistan, as is well known by now, the Taliban has its strongholds in the northwest frontier territories of Pakistan that borders southern Afghanistan. The Pakistani government has pretty much relinquished any attempt to control this area and has left it under the control of the local warlords, many of whom have long-standing ties, ethnic and even familial, with the Taliban. This is rugged, mountainous territory and it is believed that the Taliban has been regrouping and strengthening its cadres in that region and that as the snow thaws, it is expected that cross-border infiltration will increase leading to a spike in violence. It is clear that the Afghan government in Kabul and the US and NATO forces in that country are waiting to see what is going to happen.

Furthermore, it is now reported that after being disorganized and fragmented and rudderless for awhile, al Qaeda leaders are rebuilding their operations in that same region, re-establishing a chain of command with their loose federation of foot-soldiers around the world.

Meanwhile, we have the escalation of US troops in Iraq (especially in Baghdad) along with the appointment of a new commander of the forces in that country General David Petraeus. Petraeus is a student of counter-insurgency, being the main person responsible for writing the manual that is being used to train US troops. He has also been very adroit at self-promotion, using as his main vehicle reporter Michael Gordon of the New York Times, the very reporter who jointly authored with now-discredited Judith Miller all the fantastic allegations about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that led to public acceptance of Bush’s illegal attack on that country. Gordon is now doing exactly the same thing with the escalating rhetoric against Iran (more about that later).

The shape of the new Iraq operation is becoming clear. Petraeus seems to be a believer in a ‘clear and hold’ strategy, which he carried out in his earlier stint in Iraq where he was in charge of the Mosul region. In this strategy, you divide up a region into small units, then send in troops door-to-door to ferret out fighters and weapons caches. Once a region is cleared, then you move to the next region while stationing enough troops in the cleared region to prevent re-entry by the insurgent forces. While Petraeus managed to get favorable publicity for his approach to that city, the plan itself failed and “the town reverted to insurgent control within hours of his division’s departure.”

But this approach is going to be repeated in Baghdad, with the city being divided into 11 zones:

The soldiers will aim to create mini “green zones” – cut-down versions of the area in the capital where US and British officials, and the Iraqi government, take refuge – guarded by checkpoints, sandbags and barbed wire. Residents would be issued with ID badges, and their every entry and exit logged.

To do this the US and Iraqi government forces will have to win back these areas from the militias. In particular they will have to take on the Shia fighters, many of them government backed, who have been accused of operating death squads.

The response of insurgents and guerillas to this type of US strategy is fairly obvious to anyone who has followed this type of warfare. They will likely not directly challenge the much better armed and organized US troops and will move away from that region and either launch attacks elsewhere or lie low until the occupying troops eventually leave. This is always the problem faced by an occupying foreign force. The local fighters know that you have to leave at some point and the question then becomes who has the most patience.

The key to the success of this strategy lies in two things. One is to have enough troops to both clear new areas while holding on to the old ones. The second is that since a key goal of insurgencies is to create instability, to keep the troops in place long enough to allow a normal life to develop in those areas, thus causing the insurgents’ momentum to dissipate and become discouraged.

How many troops are enough for this? Classic counter-insurgency theory has a rule of thumb that says that in an occupation you need one soldier for every 50 civilians in the region. This works out to 500,000 troops for the Iraq population of over 26 million. This is the basis on which former US Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki stated in 2003 that the US would need about “several hundred thousand” troops to occupy Iraq, for which prediction he was eased out of office since that was not the answer wanted by the Bush administration. Baghdad alone has a population of about 5 million, which would require 100,000 troops, and yet currently there are about only 15,000 combat troops there. And the numbers are worse than it looks since the 50-to-1 estimate of troops is based on a fairly peaceful occupation, not a raging insurgency/civil war like what we are seeing. Clearly even the current ‘surge’ is not enough.

Recall also that even though there are about 150,000 US troops in Iraq, only about a third of them are actual combat troops, the rest being support personnel (engineers, mechanics, cooks, medics, clerks, and the like). This ‘tooth-to-tail’ ratio of combat troops to support personnel is a surprisingly hard figure to pin down, which is why estimates of how many troops are necessary seem to vary wildly. But under all calculations, the numbers currently in place are insufficient and already there are hints of a further escalation in the works to meet this deficiency. This is also why re-creation of the Iraqi military is such a high priority for the US, since there will never be enough US troops for a successful counter-insurgency.

As more US troops go on patrol and engage with the insurgents as part of this clear and hold strategy, they are likely to suffer additional casualties from snipers and IEDs. But even allowing for this, it is quite likely (for reasons to be given in the next posting) that the current policy will produce a short-term reduction in the overall levels of violence, as the forces opposed to the occupation scatter to parts outside of Baghdad and regroup. This will likely occur soon and extend into the spring and the lull will be interpreted by the Bush administration as a vindication of its ‘surge’ strategy. The question is whether this lull can last and what political strategy the Bush administration is pursuing in parallel. And this is where things start to get messy.

Next: Disentangling the key players in Iraq

POST SCRIPT: I Walk the line

Johnny Cash had a great voice. Here he is singing his big hit I walk the line.

This is a difficult song because each verse shifts to a higher key, until the final verse is back in the original key. Between verses you can sometimes hear him humming the starting note so that he comes in correctly.

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