Another bad week for Iraq benchmarks
By Martin Sieff
Published July 22, 2005
WASHINGTON -- There should be no question about what was the week's most important "benchmark" on progress, or lack of it, in defeating the insurgency and building state institutions in Iraq:
It was the publication by the New York Times Thursday of a newly declassified Pentagon report to Congress acknowledging that only a "small number" of Iraqi security forces were yet capable of fighting the insurgents on their own, without any U.S. military formations to back them up.
This admission was made in what the New York Times described as "a short written response" by Gen. Peter Pace, the incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent last week to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Gen. Pace's assessment was made in response to calls from Republican and Democratics at his Senate confirmation hearings on June 29 to supply a frank and accurate assessment of the state of training and preparedness of Iraqi forces.
Gen. Pace certainly gave that: According to the New York Times report, he told the senators that half of Iraq's new police battalions were still in the process of being constituted and were not in any condition to conduct independent operations, while the other half of the police/security forces and no less than two-thirds of the new Iraqi army were not yet capable of "planning executing and sustaining" counter-insurgency operations, even with U.S. and allied support.
This assessment should have come as no surprise to readers of this column, or, indeed, to anyone who has followed the numbingly monotonous reports of continued suicide bomb massacres and other insurgent onslaughts in Iraq. And it certainly confirms what U.S. military intelligence sources have been telling UPI and anyone else who would listen for many months now.
But it is immensely significant that the incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs should have said as much in such clear and uncompromising terms to the main political watchdog body of the American Republic charged with overseeing military affairs.
And it was also striking, as the New York Times reported, that Sen. John McCain of Arizona, President George W. Bush's main rival for the Republican presidential nomination in the 2000 campaign and the front-runner, insofar as there is one, for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, should have been in the forefront of the concerned bipartisan senators pressing for the assessment.
Gen. Pace's plain talking also suggests a very different tone in his leadership of the military from that of his predecessor, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers. Myers was a favorite of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and took care never to contradict him or embarrass him on any public occasion. And as an Air Force officer, he shared Rumsfeld's enthusiasm for high-tech wonder weapons, especially space-based ones, and Rumsfeld's disdain for the need to put large numbers of low-tech "grunts" on the ground in Iraq, or anywhere else.
Pace's frankness suggests that new approaches and far more open discussions and assessments about strategy as well as tactics in Iraq may be coming down the pipeline in the future.
Otherwise, the raw data coming out of Iraq over the past week continued the depressing trends of recent weeks with little change. According to the Iraq Index Project of the Brookings Institution, 10 U.S. soldiers were killed in the seven days from July 13 to July 20, an increase on the six killed in the previous week.
This brought the total number of U.S. fatalities in Iraq from all causes since the start of military operations to topple Saddam Hussein to 1,768, of whom 1,363 were killed in hostile incidents. Nine of the 10 fatalities in the July 13-20 period were killed in such incidents.
The number of U.S. troops wounded from the beginning of hostilities on March 19, 2003 through Wednesday, July 20, totaled 13,559, the IIP said. That was an increase of 76 over the previous seven days, making an average of just under 11 U.S. troops injured a day in the California-sized nation of 25 million people.
This, at least, marked a striking improvement on the far more alarming figure of 293 U.S. soldiers injured during the previous week from July 6 to July 13, an average of more than 40 a day. And this in turn suggested that the insurgents were either being degraded significantly by U.S. and allied military operations or, at the very least, were being forced to regroup and were not capable of sustaining their previous intense spike of activity.
However, the combination of Gen. Pace's frank assessment and the fact that the around 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq remain far too few in the views of most counter-insurgency specialists to provide the levels of security and manpower that are needed to snuff out the insurgency once again offered grounds for tempering this optimism.
This was especially the case as another 65 Iraqi police and army troops were killed by insurgents during the week of July 13-20. This is still a little less, on average, than the 296 killed during the month of June but not by much, and it was marginally more on average than the 113 killed in the first 13 days of this month.
In all, 2,644 Iraqi military and police have been killed by the insurgents in the 25 months since the beginning of June 2003, the IIP said. That averages out at somewhere over 100 a month overall, but the figure remains stubbornly high over the past couple of months, and more than double the overall average. On current trends, the number of Iraqi police and military killed this month may be the second highest of the entire insurgency, second only to June's figures.
The number of multiple casualty bombings so far in July and the casualties inflicted by them also remain grimly high. As of July 20, there had been 18 such incidents killing 223 people and wounding 421 more. These figures, awful as they were, still indicated a slight improvement on the 32 bombings in May that killed 381 people and wounded 919 more, but not on the 30 bombings in June that killed 228 people and wounded 528 more.
The very best interpretation that can be put on these figures, factoring in Gen. Pace's warning, is that a long slog still lies ahead for the United States and its armed forces in Iraq and that even if there will be light at the end of the tunnel, it still looks like a very long tunnel.