The good news

November 25, 2003|By Michael O'Hanlon

IT HAS been a terrible month in Iraq.

The total number of American combat deaths in November stands at 72 as of yesterday, which includes those who died in the downings of five helicopters - by far the highest U.S. death toll since the invasion. Nearly 20 more coalition soldiers, most Italians, have also died.

Under such circumstances, it is difficult to hear the good news - of improved electricity and water and phone services, lower crime rates and the reopening of virtually all schools, hospitals, courts and banks in Iraq. Throughout much of the world, and even the United States, there is increasingly a tragic sense that the insurgents now have the upper hand.

The recent display of U.S. firepower in Operation Iron Hammer, while it may have achieved some gains, seemed as much an effort to give the coalition a psychological boost as anything else. Yet it has done little to change perceptions.

Things could still get worse in Iraq. But at the risk of speculating, it seems more likely that they will start getting better. We are already witnessing improvements in the Iraqi quality of life; we may soon start to see improvements in the security situation.

The reasons are twofold. First, Baathist holdouts and foreign jihadists have now used most of the plausible weapons and tactics available to them. Escalation will be increasingly difficult. Second, anyone in Iraq associated with the United States must realize he is a possible target. While tragic, it also means that more are likely to protect themselves robustly.

While the Iraqi resistance has shown increasing competence and coordination, all of its tactics are taken from the standard insurgent and terrorist textbooks of the last decade. Use of roadside bombs is reminiscent of attacks by Hezbollah on Israeli forces in Lebanon. Ambushes on vehicle convoys smack of mujahedeen resistance against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Truck bombs and suicide bombers follow patterns established by Hamas, al-Qaida and others.

The good news is that there are few standard, simple new tactics left to exploit. Of course, insurgents could keep hurting us by using the same tactics repeatedly or escalating their frequency. They have worked in the past. Indeed, to date, coalition forces have developed relatively poor defenses against such methods. For example, we still are not very good at countering improvised explosive devices.

But there is some good news.

First, now that we know what tactics are being used, we can take at least some limited steps. We can clear roads of debris where bombs are often hidden, hasten to deploy electronic jammers to make it harder to detonate such devices remotely, place armored meshes around vehicles to intercept rocket-propelled grenades and avoid flying helicopters at predictable altitudes over predictable sights, especially in daylight.

Second, the shock value of new kinds of attacks should be less in the future because there will probably be fewer such innovative attacks. To be sure, every lethal attack will be tragic, even if it is of a type seen before, and will sow doubt among coalition forces as well as Iraqi citizens that the U.S.-led operation has the upper hand. But the psychological impact of further attacks will still probably be less since they will not be innovative or escalatory.

Also working to the coalition's advantage is that everyone associated with the United States has been warned that he is vulnerable in Iraq. That's bad news in one sense, since it will test the coalition's fortitude and has caused the departure of many international aid workers and diplomats from Iraq. But this fact makes it less likely that America's friends will leave themselves vulnerable in the future. The United Nations has found that its mission in Baghdad did not take proper precautions; the same can undoubtedly be said about many others trying to help build a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Such oversights will be less likely now.

Nevertheless, things could still get worse in Iraq.

For example, someone could find a way to hijack an airplane or helicopter and fly it into a troop barracks. More likely, and worse, frustration with the U.S.-led operation among ordinary Iraqis could lead to a snowballing resistance that the modest numbers of Baathists and jihadists are incapable of mounting as many citizens take up arms against a foreign force they see as an occupier rather than a liberator. The CIA has just warned of such a possibility.

That said, there is reason for optimism. Given the major efforts at economic recovery and political transition the coalition is now making in Iraq, the chances of a mass resistance movement still seem slight, even if too high for complete comfort. And Mr. Hussein's loyalists have shown little capacity for military innovation. Perhaps they are up to mounting a state-of-the art protracted guerrilla fight now. But their limited numbers, limited military skills and lack of appealing ideology make that outcome relatively unlikely.

More likely than not, they have just reached their peak effectiveness, and the next few months will see a gradual improvement in the security scene in Iraq.

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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