Outside view: A losing strategy
By Anthony H. Cordesman
United Press International

Sep 16, 2005, 19:00 GMT

WASHINGTON, DC, United States (UPI) -- It now seems unlikely that either the draft Iraqi constitution or the election that may follow will persuade a large number of Sunnis to support the government more actively, or reduce Iraqi Sunni support for the insurgency in the near term.

If political developments do have a positive effect, it will be more out of compulsion than persuasion. It will be because a substantially larger number of Iraqi Sunnis feel they have no real chance of winning, and see the military balance shifting decisively in favor of Iraqi government forces that can largely suppress a civil war and which -- unlike coalition forces -- cannot be driven out of the country.

For this to happen, U.S. and Iraqi forces must win both an urban battle -- centered in Baghdad, Mosul, and their environs -- and a battle for the rural areas and towns and smaller cities in the west of the country. In both cases, military victories will be largely unimportant unless they can be followed up by an enduring Iraqi government presence in terms of both effective governance and effective police forces.

The article by Jonathan Finer in the Sept. 13 issue of Washington Post -- 'Informants Decide on Fate of Iraqi Detainees' -- is both excellent reporting and a confirmation of warnings I have heard from both U.S. officers and Iraqi officials.

The usual official claims are being made about tactical victories. For example, Iraqi officials made the following statement about Tal Afar: \'Six Iraqi civilians have been killed and eight others were injured. Voting centers have been opened in the town of Tal-Afar. The combat operations are over now and reconstruction missions are due to start throughout the town.

'In the last 24 hours there has been no resistance of any kind in Tal-Afar. Total of terrorists killed is 157 and 440 others were arrested. Search and sweep operations are ongoing at this stage.

'Terrorists attached explosives to the body of an Iraqi child then sent him to his family before blowing him up in the town of Tal-Afar.

'A peacekeeping force will be deployed in the town.

'I agree that the government was late in responding to what was happening in Tal-Afar.

'Eight Iraqi servicemen were martyred and six others were injured in the operations.'

The problem with such claims is that they do not necessarily indicate that this kind of fighting does more to end the insurgency that it does to provoke it. In fact, the fighting in western Iraq is again raising some of the key problems exposed in Fallujah:

The United States and Iraq both still seem to have serious problems in following up tactical operations with the kind of stability operations that are the key to any meaningful kind of victory.

A combination of U.S. and Iraqi forces can win virtually any battle or clash, but this is largely irrelevant.

What they have not demonstrated is that they can give such victories meaning in terms of governance, political support, security, or even enough lasting damage to the insurgents to compensate for the hostility its actions create.

Moreover, as the bombings in Baghdad and constant threat to the airport road illustrate all too clearly, the government has not secured hostile Sunni urban areas in Iraq`s two largest cities, much less their environs. It is also all too possible that the debate over the constitution may make things worse, and not better.

As was the case with pacification in Vietnam, nothing is actually 'won' where the government cannot safely operate with officials and police on a day-to-day basis, where citizens are not safe, and where the night makes so-called secure areas into 'no go' zones.

Unfortunately, neither the coalition nor the Iraqi government seems to provide any meaningful reporting on this aspect of operations. There are countless press releases on what essentially are tactical trivia, but no convincing report on the measures of progress that actually count.

(Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the CSIS.)