Victory in Iraq still elusive


    Iraqi and foreign guerrillas have proven themselves masters of
    political and psychological warfare, but remain far from prevailing in
    the bomb-and-run war they continue to conduct.

    That is the
    conclusion of an exhaustive study of the insurgency in Iraq just
    concluded by one of the most respected U.S. military experts, Anthony
    Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

    A frequent Pentagon critic who has made repeated research trips to Iraq
    to analyze the war, Cordesman contends in an analysis released Thursday
    that victory remains very much up for grabs.

    While “insurgents
    continue to carry out a large number of successful killings,
    assassinations, kidnappings, extortions and expulsions,” Cordesman
    wrote, the anti-U.S. forces are “not able to increase (their) success
    rate, establish sanctuaries, win larger-scale military clashes, or
    dominate the field.”

    As the combat has ground on, both sides of
    the U.S. debate about the war’s progress have seized on the number and
    types of insurgent attacks to bolster their argument. This week, for
    example, the Pentagon hailed a drop in American casualties in January,
    calling it the lowest rate since the spring of 2004.

    In
    contrast, war critics pointed Thursday to a U.S. government audit that
    showed guerrilla attacks have decimated the reconstruction effort,
    causing the cancellation of more than 60 percent of water and
    sanitation projects along with a $1 billion plan for six power plants.

    Cordesman’s 59-page study, however, examines the rate, type and location of insurgent attacks over time.

    Among his findings:

    _ While the number of attacks on coalition and Iraqi forces, as well as
    on Iraqi civilians, rose by 29 percent in 2005, the “success rate” of
    the attacks _ those that caused casualties or damage _ has held
    relatively constant at 24 percent.

    _ The total number of
    roadside bomb, or “improvised explosive device,” attacks nearly doubled
    from 5,607 in 2004 to 10,953 last year. But the success rate tumbled
    from about 30 percent in 2004 to just 10 percent in 2005.

    _
    Attacks have ebbed and flowed, with marked acceleration evident before
    elections and other important moments. Before the Oct. 15 referendum
    last year on the new constitution, attacks peaked at about 700 a week.
    By last month, however, they had dropped by almost half, to about 430
    weekly.

    “There have, as yet, been no decisive trended or tipping
    points, simply surges and declines,” Cordesman wrote. “There are cycles
    in an evolving struggle, but not signs that the struggle is being lost
    or won.”

    He contends that it is only Iraqi government forces,
    which the United States is furiously training and equipping, who can
    end the insurgency.

    “Much of the reason the insurgency continues
    is that Iraqi forces are not yet deployed in the strength to replace
    coalition troops and demonstrate the legitimacy of the Iraqi government
    in the field,” Cordesman wrote.

    But Cordesman also depicts an
    insurgency especially skilled at morphing as necessary to counter
    advances by its enemies, and consistently successful in exploiting the
    Arab and foreign media, pushing assorted symbolic “hot buttons,” and
    fostering conspiracy theories that U.S. forces have trouble debunking.

    The insurgents have learned that media reporting on their attacks
    serves as an indicator of their success and has taught them which
    high-profile targets to go after in the future. Cordesman calls these
    attacks “weapons of mass media.”

    They also are adept at
    exaggerating the number of casualties caused by U.S. attacks and know
    that, if they take shelter in mosques, shrines or other “high-value”
    sites, they can twist any American assault into an “anti-Muslim” act.

    One of their most masterful strategies was to turn the road from the
    “Green Zone” headquarters of U.S. forces in Baghdad to the airport into
    a highway of death and destruction. From Jan. 30 to May 4, 2005, alone,
    they staged well over 100 attacks on Humvees, cars, trucks and other
    vehicles traversing the road _ regardless of the countermeasures U.S.
    forces employed.

    The message the insurgents sent was: Look how
    strong we are and how weak the Americans are. “Attacking the airport
    road was an almost perfect way of keeping up constant psychological and
    political pressure,” Cordesman wrote.

    Even so, Cordesman wrote, the insurgency has little of permanence to show for its efforts.

    “Much of its activity consists of bombings of soft civilian targets,
    designed largely to provoke a more intense civil war or halt the
    development of an effective Iraqi government, rather than progress
    towards control at even the local level,” he wrote.

    (Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)shns.com)