The sobering reality of the Iraq war
by Steve Chapman
Suicide bombings have gained adherents not because so many fanatics are looking for an excuse to throw away their lives, but because they work
Published June 2, 2005
Watching the recent frenzy of violence in Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney is not perturbed. Quite the contrary--he sounds practically elated. "We're making major progress," he said Monday. Iraq, he explained, is "in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency."
You know that secure, undisclosed location of his? I think we can be sure it's not on this planet.
On the same day Cheney was savoring his delusions, suicide bombers were striking in Iraq.
At least 25 people died and more than 100 were wounded when two coordinated blasts went off amid a crowd of former police officers in Hillah. That incident came the day after a spate of suicide attacks killed at least 16 people in Baghdad.
These were just the latest acts of carnage committed by enemies who killed 670 Iraqis in May--nearly 22 per day. That's on top of at least 76 American military deaths, a sharp increase from the previous two months.
In Iraq, everything that should be rising is falling, and everything that should be falling is rising. Fatalities from car bombings and suicide bombings have soared fivefold since November. Attacks on U.S. forces have been running at 70 a day, double the rate in March and April.
Iraqi government officials are the frequent target of assassinations and abductions. The governor of Anbar province, kidnapped May 10, was found dead Tuesday. There is an epidemic of death throes in Iraq, but the insurgency is very much alive.
We are not seeing major progress, and despite the wishful thinking in the White House, we aren't likely to anytime soon--if ever. One reason is that we're fighting a new kind of war that our leaders don't understand.
The administration depicts suicide bombings as a sign of desperation by vicious thugs who know their cause is doomed.
In fact, they are part of a conscious strategy that has a record of success in other places. Suicide bombing has gained adherents not because so many fanatics are looking for an excuse to throw away their lives, but because it works.
That's the conclusion of Robert Pape in his new book, "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism." Pape, director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism at the University of Chicago, compiled a database of every suicide bombing and attack in the world from 1980 to 2003. What he discovered offers a sobering contrast to the optimistic predictions emanating from Washington.
Americans have trouble imagining how the insurgents could hope to succeed without any positive vision of Iraq's future--and for that matter without any apparent agenda except slaughtering people. But the core of their appeal is the same as that of most other suicide bombing campaigns: nationalistic opposition to a foreign military presence.
"From Hezbollah in Lebanon to Hamas on the West Bank to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka," Pape writes, "every group mounting a suicide campaign over the past two decades has had as a major objective--or as its central objective--coercing a foreign state that has military forces in what the terrorists see as their homeland to take those forces out." Even the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were part of Al Qaeda's longstanding effort to force the U.S. to withdraw its forces from Saudi Arabia.
The Bush administration had the fond hope that the January elections in Iraq would strike a crippling blow against the insurgents. But the slaughter has continued unabated, which is not surprising. In the first place, democracy is utterly irrelevant to the insurgents' goal of ridding Iraq of foreign invaders. And Pape notes that these campaigns are invariably aimed at democratic governments, which are uniquely vulnerable to terrorism.
The dilemma the U.S. faces in fighting the insurgents is that military methods are not enough to solve the problem and may make it worse. If the movement is a reaction to the U.S. military presence, keeping American troops in Iraq amounts to fighting a fire with kerosene.
That explains why the longer we stay, the more suicide attacks we face. And it suggests that the only feasible strategy is to withdraw from Iraq and turn the fight over to the Iraqi government.
The alternative is to stay and keep doing what we've been doing for the last two years. But that approach has shown no signs of fostering success. It only promises to raise the cost of failure.
Steve Chapman is a
member of the Tribune's editorial board. E-mail: