Winning hearts and minds

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FORMER United Nations weapons inspector and Bush critic Scott Ritter raised eyebrows last March even among those opposed to the US invasion of Iraq when he predicted that the United States would lose the war, and would be forced to leave Iraq “with its tail between its legs.”

The US war machine is after all the mightiest and the most technologically advanced in all of human history, its firepower capable of destroying entire continents and even the entire planet. The idea that the poorly-trained and poorly-armed Iraqi armed forces could survive the massive US air assault, and even defeat US forces, seemed preposterous.

Today that possibility doesn’t seem as unlikely as it seemed then, and Ritter’s prediction not as absurd.

The US invaders quickly took Baghdad and eventually all of Iraq between March and April, and US President George W. Bush declared the end of major combat operations last May 1. Despite Bush’s theatrics—he appeared in a flight suit over TV on the deck of a US aircraft carrier with a streamer proclaiming “Mission Accomplished” behind him–the war is far from over. Resistance to US occupation is increasing in both ferocity and frequency, and has so far killed more US troops than during the actual invasion itself.

US intelligence says the resistance is primarily directed and waged by remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime, which seems likely. As Ritter said in a recent article, “the reality is that the Hussein regime was not defeated in the traditional sense.” The regime’s best-trained and most loyal forces, including the entire Iraqi intelligence and security groups, were not destroyed, nor did they surrender during the US “shock and awe” air and ground assault, but simply blended with the population. These forces, said Ritter, probably constitute the main force of the resistance to US occupation.

However, there are signs that other groups have also taken up the gun, among them fundamentalists fighting for an Islamic state, as well as nationalists who want US troops out and for Iraqis to rule Iraq.

A recent US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) top secret report, said the US newspaper Philadelphia Inquirer, also raised fears that even the majority Shi’ite Muslims opposed to Saddam Hussein may be joining the minority Sunnis in opposing the US occupation.

The same report warned that more and more Iraqis are supporting the resistance, in the belief that the US occupation forces can be defeated. Unless corrective measures are taken immediately, said the report, the US drive to “rebuild the country as a democracy” could collapse under the weight of an increasingly bleak political and security situation.

As if to underline the pessimism of the report, suicide bombers destroyed an Italian military police base in the town of Nassiriya last Wednesday, and killed 18 Italians and nine Iraqis. At about the same time, the US governor in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, was in Washington for urgent consultations with senior US officials over the situation in Iraq.

The “corrective measures” the CIA has suggested should be taken seem to consist of a two-pronged change in US strategy. The first is to accelerate the “transfer of power” to Iraqis, towards making security an increasingly Iraqi responsibility; the second is to bring the war to the resistance.

Among the first indicators of the “new” tactics are the possible reorganization of the Iraqi Governing Council towards accelerating the “transfer of power” to Iraqis, and the bombing of a warehouse US intelligence said was being used as a meeting place of Iraqi guerillas.

Neither tactic is new. Both have been tried before without success. The United States implemented a policy of “Vietnamization” during the Vietnam War (1964-1975) by trying to shift the burden of fighting the guerillas of the National Liberation Front (the Viet Cong) to the South Vietnamese Army. The US similarly tried to bring the war to the guerillas by bombing their supposed strongholds and even North Vietnam.

The problem was that the South Vietnamese Army was too corrupt, too inefficient and too brutal to engage the Viet Cong effectively and to win over the population. Bombing guerilla strongholds, on the other hand, often led to civilian casualties, which fueled further resentment against the US and its Vietnamese clients.

While the Iraqi situation is vastly different, winning the war there, as in Vietnam, requires the support of the population.

The members of the Iraqi Governing Council are mostly former expatriates without popular support, and are regarded as US puppets. Should there be “a transfer of power” to Iraqis, it is almost certain that a prime qualification will be their willingness to serve US interests. In that sense, any transfer of power will be solely in a formal sense.

The US is at the same time determined to prevent the rise of an Iraqi fundamentalist state, no matter if that should be the wish of the majority Shi’ites. The US will “rebuild Iraq into a democracy” only if the democracy that will be built will be in accordance with US strategic goals (to secure the energy sources it needs, and to maintain a credible armed presence in the Middle East)—and therefore no democracy at all.

“Transferring power” to Iraqis is thus likely to be regarded as a subterfuge to fig-leaf continuing US control over Iraq. The belief that the US will not allow Iraqis to independently chart their future is in fact dominant among the residents of Baghdad, say recent findings by the US’ own Gallup poll. Only five percent of those polled believe that the US invaded Iraq to help the Iraqis, and only one percent believe that it was to establish democracy.

On the other hand, aggressive raids and bombings, said one US defense official, may be counter-productive. The bombing of buildings in urban areas, for example, is likely to cause more civilian casualties, which in turn will fuel further resentment. On the other hand, said the US defense official, “kicking in doors,” lining up the men in households, blindfolding and beating them, searching households and manhandling women, as US troops have been doing in their desperate effort to seek out members of the resistance, will hardly win Iraqi hearts and minds.

“Winning hearts and minds” is at the heart of guerilla and counter-guerilla operations. While that seems easy enough to do—in the Philippines the armed forces regularly send out medical and dental teams to treat rural folk, and even soldiers to help them dig ditches and irrigation canals—winning popular support is far easier for guerillas undistinguishable from the rest of the population, and who know both the physical as well as social terrain. Against a foreign force, they have the further advantage of speaking the language, and of immersion in the culture of their own societies.

These advantages on the part of the guerillas translate into corresponding disadvantages for counter-guerilla forces, especially those that are foreign, as US troops are.

That the key to a US victory in Iraq, as it was in Vietnam, is the support of the population seems fairly clear to US planners, including L. Paul Bremer. Despite the Gallup poll results and the CIA report, Bremer thus appeared reluctant to grant that the US occupation is losing the battle for Iraqi hearts and minds.

“We’ve looked at the polls. We’ve talked to people. We make our own assessments. I think the situation with the Iraqi public is, frankly, not easy to quantify,” said Bremer.

If he should know only one thing, the US proconsul in Iraq should at least know what the public he’s supposed to be bringing democracy to is thinking. That he doesn’t is an admission of confusion as forlorn as the prospects for an end to the violence in Iraq.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com, November 15, 2003)

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