Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Surgin' & Stumblin' in Baghdad

A key factor in the loss of confidence in the war in Iraq has been the succession of claims of victories that turn out to be flat out wrong. From the deck of an aircraft carrier to the streets of Baghdad, these gaffes have undermined the credibility of the Bush administration in the eyes of the American people.

When George Bush bought the neo-con pitch one more time and ordered the troop surge in Baghdad, skeptics questioned whether it would merely present the insurgents and terrorists with more American targets to attack.

After getting off to a slow and shakey start the surge proceeded and was quickly heralded as a great success by the Maliki government as the death rate of Baghdad civilians plunged to a mere 10 a day. Wow, it seemed to be working.

What was actually happening was that the militias and the insurgents and the terrorists were pausing to take the measure of this effort. They needed a few days to locate the weaknesses and work out how to exploit the vulnerabilities.

One of these vulnerabilities was the tactic of establishing neighbourhood outposts where squads of American soldiers would be based to provide security for the locals. Prior to this the US forces mainly ran patrols and then retired to the safety of their garrisons.

The outposts are compounds consisting of a few buildings that are reinforced with sand bags and concrete barriers to form small forts at key points within Baghdad neighbourhoods. Their main vulnerability comes in being isolated from other American forces. That leaves them tempting targets for hit and run attacks.

This came home to roost yesterday. An outpost north of Baghdad in the town of Tarmyia was attacked, essentially swarmed by insurgents. One or more suicide bombers crashed their cars into the compound. After the explosions other insurgents brought the outpost under small arms fire. The result was two US soldiers dead and 17-wounded.

Will the surge succeed? Probably not. This wasn't the idea of military commanders in Iraq. It was the brainchild of Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute that was embraced by president Bush. It is George Bush substituting his judgment for that of his generals. That doesn't sound like a formula for success.

The real question is what does America do if the surge fails to halt the sectarian violence in Baghdad? There is no Plan B. This may be a "make or break" moment in Bush's war of whim against Iraq.

Meanwhile the US forces haven't been able to come to grips with the Shiite militas, including Sadr's Mahdi Army. They've gone to ground, left town or found some safe place to lay low while Iraqi security forces and the US army battles the Sunnis and al-Qaeda. The failure to neutralize the Shiite militias may come back to haunt Bush, especially if he launches air strikes against Shiite Iran.

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