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Doubts Grow about Cost and Extent of U.S. Occupation in Iraq - 2003-08-26

Iraq is turning out to be harder than anticipated, says Michael O'Hanlon, military analyst at Washington's Brookings Institution. But it is manageable, and we are beginning to manage. After a slow start, he says, things are picking up: “The basic pillars of a successful counter-insurgency strategy are in place: giving the Iraqis more control over their own politics, trying to rebuild the economy, trying to get people jobs, take care of their standard of living and then do a very targeted counter-insurgency campaign without causing a lot of civilian casualties in the process. I think these pieces are mostly being correctly pursued at the moment.”

The bombing of U.N. headquarters, destructive as it was, is only incidental to war, says John Pike, director of Global, a private organization that analyzes defense issues. He says potential terrorist targets can be located and protected: “We have to understand now that there are people who are able and willing to use truck bombs to try to destabilize the new government in Iraq, and we are going to have to take the appropriate physical security measures to make it much more difficult for them to do that.”

This does not require many more troops, says Mr. Pike - just a shift in strategy that is by no means beyond the competence of U.S. forces.

Yet more troops are needed because Americans are now penned up, says Larry Johnson, who served in counter-terrorism at the U.S. State Department: “We have in place right now a dynamic that is working against us. U.S. forces that by and large are staying in garrison. When they are in garrison, they are not out on patrolling. The reason they are not out patrolling as aggressively is partly because they have been taking casualties. As a result, once you stay in garrison, you cede territory to the bad guys. The bad guys, meanwhile, are continuing to organize.”

This means troops from other countries are needed. So some agreement must be reached with the United Nations, says Michael O'Hanlon. He suggests a plan that might satisfy both the United Nations and the Bush Administration:

“I think we should give formal control of the mission to the United Nations on the condition that Ambassador Paul Bremer would be the U.N. special representative in Iraq, at least for the first year or two, and that he would ultimately be succeeded, let's say, by a Brit or an Australian. In addition, NATO should run the military operation. It should not be a general blue helmet U.N. mission or an American mission. If you do those two things, I believe you could then get a lot of other countries to contribute forces and feel that they have a stake in this.”

Mr. O'Hanlon cautions that increasing the number of troops will not lead to any easy victory. Committed terrorists, eager for revenge on America, are crossing the Iraqi border in possibly large numbers. Web sites around the world are urging Islamists to go to Iraq to fight. Mr. O'Hanlon says we may have done the terrorists a favor by putting 200,000 Westerners within their reach.

Mustafa Alani of the Royal United Services Institute of London told The Washington Post newspaper that Iraq is becoming the focal point of a jihad or holy war against the United States. If the security situation does not quickly improve, he says, Iraq could become a paradise for jihad. "You have all the ingredients for chaos: a lawless state in which anti-Americanism is growing, a country without armed forces, a country divided between Sunni and Shia."

Larry Johnson says Americans in Iraq do present an ample target:“The U.S. presence in Iraq has become a magnet for Islamic extremists, who are trying basically to replicate what occurred when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. And frankly, from the standpoint of the Islamic extremists, they do not view any difference between what the United States did in Iraq and what the Soviets did in Afghanistan.”

John Pike adds that in a way U.S. troops in Iraq are paying the price of anti-terrorism efforts at home in America. It's easier now to attack Americans abroad: “We have made it difficult for terrorists to attack Americans here in the United States, but we have become very vulnerable to terrorism in Iraq. It is a relatively easy target for terrorists to get to. It is an easy target for terrorists to attack. And regardless of whether invading Iraq had anything to do with the war on terrorism a year ago, Iraq has become the front line in the war on terrorism today because that is where the terrorists are trying to strike at American interests.”

Terrorists are reaching Iraq from Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia, says U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. While he hesitates to blame these countries, "At a minimum I can say these fighters are not being stopped at the borders, and this is something that causes us a great deal of concern."

Larry Johnson says the borders can be sealed if the governments are willing to do so. And short of being attacked, they must somehow be persuaded: “That is not going to be accomplished by the United States making threats or by the United States alone providing pressure. Iran and Syria can be amenable to international pressure. In fact, we have seen the success of international pressure in the case of Libya right now, which has settled the Pan Am 103 case. From their standpoint, they continue to hear from the United States that they are the next enemy and they are the next target.”

This does not put them in a mood to help, says Mr. Johnson. There are more effective ways of pressuring them through quiet diplomacy.

Mr. O'Hanlon says the United States is now making up for lost time because of a lack of postwar planning. There was a dangerous assumption that liberated Iraq could more or less take care of itself. The planners, he says, had no back-up plan:

“They were focused on making the case for war and devising the war strategy,” says Mr. O’Hanlon. “And even though many people warned them in advance they would need a post-war strategy, a combination of ideology and a little bit of hubris and working 18 hour-days on other things prevented them from doing their job properly. They should have found somebody to delegate this kind of job to and done it much more seriously. But alas, they did not.”

How long will rebuilding Iraq take and at what cost in lives and resources? Nobody seems willing to say. Also at issue is the staying power of the American people. As the casualties mount, will Americans continue to support the U.S. occupation?

Some people are reminded of the Vietnam War with its slow unraveling, says John Pike. But the level of violence is hardly the same: “I think that as long as there is a clear sense of what the United States is trying to accomplish and a clear sense that we are going to be able to accomplish it, a volunteer army will continue to assist in the reconstruction of Iraq. If this becomes an intense partisan issue and if the army itself begins to question its ability to withstand casualties, it may force a reevaluation of policy. But I think we are very far away from the United States collectively deciding that this is more trouble than it is worth.”

Mr. Pike and the other analysts say the more nations that are involved in rebuilding Iraq, the less likelihood of its going wrong.