BAGHDAD, Iraq – The United States is steadily losing ground to the Iraqi insurgency, according to every key military yardstick.
A Knight Ridder analysis of U.S. government statistics shows that through all the major turning points that raised hopes of peace in Iraq, including the arrest of Saddam Hussein and the handover of sovereignty at the end of June, the insurgency, led mainly by Sunni Muslims, has become deadlier and more effective.
The analysis suggests that unless something dramatic changes – such as a newfound will by Iraqis to reject the insurgency or a large escalation of U.S. troop strength – the United States won’t win the war. It’s axiomatic among military thinkers that insurgencies are especially hard to defeat because the insurgents’ goal isn’t to win in a conventional sense but merely to survive until the will of the occupying power is sapped. Recent polls already suggest an erosion of support among Americans for the war.
The unfavorable trends of the war are clear:
- U.S. military fatalities from hostile acts have risen from an average of about 17 per month just after President Bush declared an end to major combat operations on May 1, 2003, to an average of 71 per month.
- The average number of U.S. soldiers wounded by hostile acts per month has spiraled from 142 to 708 during the same period. Iraqi civilians have suffered even more deaths and injuries, although reliable statistics aren’t available.
- Attacks on the U.S.-led coalition since November 2003, when statistics were first available, have risen from 735 a month to 2,400 in October. Air Force Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel, the multinational forces’ deputy operations director, told Knight Ridder on Friday that attacks were currently running at 75 a day, about 2,300 a month, well below a spike in November during the assault on Fallujah, but nearly as high as October’s total.
-The average number of mass-casualty bombings has grown from zero in the first four months of the American occupation to an average of 13.3 per month.
- Electricity production has been below pre-war levels since October, largely because of sabotage by insurgents, with just 6.7 hours of power daily in Baghdad in early January, according to the State Department.
- Iraq is pumping about 500,000 barrels a day fewer than its pre-war peak of 2.5 million barrels per day as a result of attacks, according to the State Department.
“All the trend lines we can identify are all in the wrong direction,” said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy research organization. “We are not winning, and the security trend lines could almost lead you to believe that we are losing.”
The combat numbers are based mainly on Defense Department releases compiled by O’Hanlon in an Iraq Index. Since the numbers can fluctuate significantly from month to month, Knight Ridder examined the statistics for fatalities, wounded and mass-casualty bombings using a technique mathematicians call a moving average – averaging the number of attacks in one month with the number of attacks in the two months immediately preceding it in order to better reveal the underlying trend.
Lessel said that since the U.S. assault on the former rebel stronghold of Fallujah in November, “we have been making a lot of progress” against the insurgency.
He said the number of attacks, bombings and kidnappings is down from November, experienced insurgent leaders are being arrested or killed, U.S. and Iraqi forces remain on the offensive and more Iraqis have been providing intelligence on insurgents.
Other indications that “things are turning around” include surveys that show 80 percent of Iraqis wanting to vote in the Jan. 30 elections and more than 90 percent opposing violence as a solution to the crisis. In addition, the recruitment and training of Iraqi security forces are being stepped up, Lessel said.
“I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. We still have an insurgency that has a lot of capabilities,” he said. “When you ask is the insurgency growing, you have to ask is it growing in terms of popular support, and I don’t see that happening.”
There are some additional bright spots.
In the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad and the southern town of Najaf, the scene of intense fighting last year with Shiite Muslim rebels, millions of dollars are pouring into reconstruction efforts.
Both places are now relatively peaceful and are counted as victories, with the danger of a spreading insurgency backed by Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority largely thwarted.
Some 14 million Iraqis, mostly Shiite, are registered to vote in the Jan. 30 elections for an interim 275-seat National Assembly. They’ll choose among 111 slates comprising 7,785 candidates.
Roughly 1,500 U.S.-funded reconstruction projects are employing more than 100,000 Iraqis, and the insurgents’ campaign of attacks and threats has failed to deter sign-ups for Iraq’s new security forces.
These developments, however, have had little impact on the broader trends that have moved against the United States through all the spikes and lulls in violence.
Most worrisome, the insurgency is getting larger.
At the close of 2003, U.S. commanders put the number of insurgents at 5,000. Earlier this month, Gen. Mohammed Abdullah Shahwani, the director of the Iraqi intelligence service, said there are 200,000 insurgents, including at least 40,000 hard-core fighters. The rest, he said, are part-time fighters and supporters who provide food, shelter, funds and intelligence.
“Many Iraqis respect these gunmen because they are fighting the invaders,” said Nabil Mohammed, a Baghdad University political science professor.
The insurgents “are getting smarter all the time. We’ve seen a lot of changes in their tactics that say, one, they’re getting help from outside, and two, they’re learning,” said Sgt. 1st Class Glenn Aldrich, 35, of Houston, a 16-year Army veteran, after spending an hour recently greeting Iraqis on a foot patrol through a Baghdad neighborhood.
The resistance has grown despite suffering huge casualties to overwhelming U.S. firepower. Exact statistics aren’t available.
Insurgent attacks have shifted from small groups of men shooting at tanks with AK-47s to powerful car bombs and roadside explosives, and well-planned assaults, kidnappings and assassinations.
American soldiers have subdued Sunni hotbeds such as Fallujah and Samarra. Yet these military victories have failed to achieve the broader goal of weakening the resistance.
Guerrilla fighters leave behind a rear guard force to fight while moving the bulk of their fighters and leadership elsewhere. During and after the Fallujah battle in November, for example, Mosul and several Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad became more violent.
Some Iraqis say these aggressive U.S. military moves are counterproductive because mass destruction and the killing of Iraqis create more recruits for the insurgency.
“The insurgency will grow larger,” said Ghazi Bada al Faisal, an employee of the Iraqi Ministry of Industry and a Fallujah resident. “The child whose brother and father were killed in the fighting will now seek revenge.”
Some defense analysts are calling for a new strategy and more troops.
“We can only control the ground we stand on. We leave, and it falls apart,” said Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst at the Washington Center for Near East Policy.
White proposes sending 20,000 more troops.
But the Bush administration hopes to replace U.S. troops with well-trained Iraqis.
In late 2003, Iraqi recruits, many of them young and looking for a paycheck, were pushed through a week or so of training, given guns and uniforms and then declared graduated.
During the first major fight in Fallujah in April, many of them fled. In the second Fallujah confrontation, in November, they fought behind the main lines of battle and were infamous for spraying gunfire erratically and without warning, but fewer left their posts.
Even so, an entire national guard battalion in Mosul went absent without leave in November. Much of the Mosul police force simply collapsed under fire.
Bush administration officials say the program to train and equip new Iraqi security forces of more than 272,000 members is making progress.
Yet several independent experts said it would take at least two years before there are any meaningful numbers of Iraqi forces with counterinsurgency skills and as many as five years before the U.S. goal is attained.
“I think you can achieve success, but it will take a while and, unfortunately, there will be a lot more blood,” said Peter Khalil, who was a senior security adviser to the U.S.-led occupation authority in Iraq.
Of course, success isn’t assured and the United States will be forced to deal with an elected Iraqi government that may set limits on what U.S. troops can do – and could even ask them to leave.
U.S. military officials had repeatedly, and accurately, predicted more violence in the approach to the elections, which is likely to bring to power a Shiite-dominated government after nearly a century of Sunni rule in Iraq.
Yet hopes that the election might lead to less violence have recently given way to more dire warnings, with expectations that Sunni insurgents who feel disenfranchised in the new Iraq will turn their guns on the elected government.
“I think that we will enter a different but still dangerous period in the post-election time frame,” Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, said on Jan. 15.
Bush has vowed to stay the course.
The Pentagon dispatched retired U.S. Army Gen. Gary Luck this month to examine the training of Iraqi forces and to put a fresh eye on the anti-insurgent campaign.