During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military released body counts of enemy and friendly dead to the media, which reported them voraciously. Invariably, the militarys datashowing more enemy than friendly deadwas designed to give the illusion that the United States was winning the war. What the data didnt show was more important: that a tenacious enemy fighting for its homeland would be willing to incur high casualties and outwait an opponent with a short attention span. Similarly, in Iraq, the U.S. military gleefully reports that attacks against U.S. soldiers have dropped by more than half since their peak in November of last year and that firefights between U.S. soldiers and Iraqi guerrillas in Iraqi towns have also diminished. But like the body counts in Vietnam, the American public should be wary of such rosy assessments.
The major reason that fighting between the U.S. military and the insurgents has declined is that the American forces have vacated the field of battle. However unfortunate, with a competitive election coming up this year, the White House knows that the only thing in Iraq that matters to the American public is how many U.S. soldiers are killed and wounded there. Thus, force protection has become the number one unstated goal in Iraq. American forces have been pulled out of Iraqi cities and towns and most security functions have been turned over to the amateurish, ill-trained and poorly equipped Iraqi security forces. This same phenomenon occurred in Bosnia in the mid-to late-nineties, when American public support for U.S. involvement in peacekeeping there was lukewarm. American soldiers were ridiculed by the peacekeeping forces of other nations for rarely coming out of their fortified bastions.
What is the result of a policy designed more to avoid a catastrophe before the election than to pacify Iraq? Answer: One of the worst weeks of violence since Americas occupation began. Last week, 125 people were killed in suicide bombings of a police station and an Iraqi Army recruiting station and a violent raid on an Iraqi police station to free prisoners. In addition, guerillas, seemingly tipped off that a VIP would be visiting, attacked the motorcade of John Abizaid, the American general in-charge of all U.S. forces in the Middle East. Most of those attacked or killed in this recent spate of attackssave the U.S. generalwere Iraqi police or military people perceived as collaborating with the American occupation.
Although U.S. officials claim that security in Iraq is improving, a confidential and little noticed report by the American occupation authority itself belies those statements and confirms the intuitive impression that attacks by insurgents are getting worse. The occupation authoritys findings, as reported by Londons Financial Times, state that January has been the highest rate of violence since September 2003. The violence continues despite the expansion of the Iraqi security services and increased arrests by coalition forces in December and January. The report concludes that in recent months, attacks against international and nongovernmental organizations, strikes using mortars and explosives (including roadside bombs), strikes in Baghdad and attacks that were non-life threatening have all increased substantially. Also, attacks on military targets rose faster than strikes on their civilian counterparts.
Yet the only recent public indication of underlying security problems was made by Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of Iraq, who was forced by last weeks mayhem to admit that the indigenous security services would not be ready to guarantee public safety in time for the ostensible mid-year turn over of Iraq to the Iraqis, I think its quite clear the Iraqi security forces, brave as they are, and beaten and attacked as they are, are not going to be ready by July 1. Ideally suited for his job, Mr. Bremer has a gift for understatement.
So if the Iraqi security forces are in shambles and insurgent attacks are rising, the casual observe might ask why are the Americans pulling back to fortified garrisons outside Iraqi cities? Answer: That policy saves the lives of American soldiers while leaving the Iraqi citizenry to the wolves. Strangely, the U.S. military admits this increased risk to Iraqis. So much for the Bush administrations high-flying rhetoric about making Iraq a better place for its citizens. If a civil war eventually breaks outas a U.N. representative recently warned and as the occupation authority worried euphemistically in its reportSaddam Husseins regime could seem like the good ole days for Iraqis.
So although the Bush administrations policy may be achieving its primary goalavoiding a sharp escalation in the U.S. body count before Novemberthe voting public should not mistakenly conclude that the United States is winning this war. A reckless Bush administrationlike the Johnson and Nixon administrations during the Vietnam Warhas stumbled into a war that it can neither win nor escape from gracefully.