Blind In Baghdad

The United States Still Does Not Comprehend The Nature Of Its Adversaries

John Prados
10 min read
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Last November the United States began its pre-Iraqi election offensive with a full-scale assault on Falluja, then said to be the center of the resistance to the coalition occupation and the Iraqi interim government. With newly trained Iraqi government troops showcased in the attack, U.S. commanders intended to break the back of the resistance. Instead, Falluja furnished additional evidence that the United States still does not comprehend the nature of its adversaries.

The attack on Falluja made rapid progress, with the weeklong battle ending in mopping up efforts. But the insurgents had disappeared, not fought, except for those left to keep the Americans occupied. Other insurgent groups simultaneously made numerous attacks of their own in Baghdad, Mosul and elsewhere, including the car-bombing of a heavily protected convoy bearing Amb. Charles A. Duelfer, director of a principal U.S. intelligence unit, the Iraq Survey Group. With total numbers of American casualties (killed and wounded) having passed 10,000, and more than a thousand deaths in Iraq since July 2003—when an overconfident President George W. Bush exclaimed “Bring 'em on!”—how is it possible that Americans have yet to understand the enemy?

The failure to appreciate the Iraqi resistance—due to a combination of wishful thinking and limitations in the field—is both a policy and an intelligence problem. The Bush administration was so wedded to its initial view that all Iraqis would welcome a U.S. invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein that for months—well into 2004—it was an article of faith that the enemy must consist solely of Saddam regime remnants and foreign terrorists, with unspecified “criminals” thrown into the brew.

But the killing of Saddam’s sons in the summer of 2003 and the capture of Saddam himself that December would have demoralized the resistance had it been as U.S. authorities described it. Even the rise of Shiite resistance in the form of Moqtada Al Sadr’s militia, which fought pitched battles against U.S. forces in Najaf, Baghdad, and other Iraqi towns, did not induce the American authorities to alter their description of the adversary.

Fuzzy Math

For more than a year U.S. spokespersons, from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to John Abizaid, the commanding general, to CIA officials, estimated the enemy’s number at 3,000-5,000. During the same period, coalition forces conducted hundreds of operations, fighting an earlier battle at Falluja as well as major engagements at Najaf, Tikrit, Baquba, Baghdad and elsewhere, frequently claiming to have killed hundreds of enemy fighters. The number of Iraqis killed is estimated in the range of 10,000 to 20,000, with one scientific study suggesting as many as 100,000. In the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, it emerged that coalition forces had arrested some 44,000 Iraqis. Coalition forces have thus neutralized many times the number of assessed adversaries without appreciably affecting the level of resistance. How can that be?

Actually the number of insurgents in Falluja before the U.S. attack in November was put at 3,000 to 5,000 by American military officers, the same as earlier estimates of the size of the resistance as a whole, and the estimate of the percentage of Iraqi government security forces who are resistance infiltrators (5 percent of a total of 100,000, by the Bush administration’s own claims) adds up to another equal number of enemies.

Excluding the invasion itself and the high point of fighting during Ramadan in 2003, 2004’s numbers of American soldiers killed have exceeded 2003’s peak levels every month except February. And all this after the capture of Saddam.

There is a fatal flaw in the Bush administration’s characterization of its enemy. Consider developments last summer, when the insurgents adopted the tactic of going after civilian employees of contractors working in the country, frequently taking hostages, for which Iraqi resistance groups then claimed responsibility. Early last year the administration began describing the perpetrators as outside agitators, that is, foreign terrorists epitomized by the Jordanian Abu Musab Al Zarqawi.

Indeed, Zarqawi took credit for beheading one American hostage and taking others. But many more groups than Zarqawi’s stepped forward, and others have become widely known. There is the Iraqi National Islamic Resistance (a.k.a. the “1920 Revolution Brigades”), the National Front for the Liberation of Iraq (an alliance of almost a dozen smaller groups), the Iraqi Resistance National Front (also a union of subgroups), the Hamzah Faction, the Iraqi Liberation Army, the “Awakening and Holy War,” the White Banners and the Al Haqq Army. All of this is before you get to the remnants of Saddam’s regime or Sadr’s militia, the Al Mahdi Army. And there are Shiite factions other than Sadr’s, such as the Imam Ali Bin-Talib Jihadi Brigades.

Groups revealing themselves through hostage-takings include the Assadullah Brigades, the Islamic Retaliation Movement, the Islamic Anger Brigades, the Khalid Bin Al Walid Brigades, the Black Banners group, the Islamic Army in Iraq, the Ansar Al Sunna Movement and the Al Tawhid wa Al Jihad. Some of these groups undoubtedly consist of just one or a few persons, while others may be front groups for the same organizations. A few have an affinity for the al Qaeda view of jihad, but the point is that the opposition in Iraq is something new in the annals of guerrilla warfare: a decentralized constellation of resistance units with different but complementary goals. It is significant that the U.S. Army issued a fresh version of its standard field manual for counterinsurgency operations last October—the first since the Vietnam War.

Meanwhile the Pentagon’s highest estimates of foreign fighters remain in the hundreds. In short, Zarqawi cannot be the leader, nor can his group be the core, of the Iraqi resistance. It has been important to the Bush administration to identify foreign terrorists as the core of the resistance, because this argument links the Iraq War to the war on terrorism and al Qaeda, but the very act of advancing it has helped blind the Bush people to the realities of Iraq.

Intelligence Failures

There are plenty of practical, structural reasons for intelligence failure as well. Relations are strained between U.S. military intelligence and the CIA in Iraq, especially after the prisoner abuse scandals that began at Abu Ghraib. There is a sense among the uniformed services that the CIA got off scot-free for its high-handed treatment of Iraqi prisoners, spiriting some out of the country, maltreating others, and steadfastly refusing to cooperate with investigations that seriously threatened military intelligence and special operations personnel.

For their part, CIA people resent the surging military operations that have forced the diversion of their own linguists and experts from the Iraq Survey Group and other agency activities. The current chief of military intelligence in Iraq, Brig. Gen. John Defreitas, would probably dispute charges that there is any lack of cooperation, but in fact there is little evidence to indicate a positive relationship.

The Abu Ghraib affair carries meaning on a number of levels. For one, all those revelations about the laxity of the military intelligence chain of command constitute evidence that U.S. intelligence officers in Iraq have been focused overwhelmingly on current operations—not surprising given the seriousness of the situation. At the same time, the pressures put on the interrogators to obtain information from prisoners indicates the desperation of U.S. intelligence officers to get anything useful about the resistance.

The stories of the “ghost prisoners,” kept off the books by the CIA, and the others the U.S. military quite obviously manipulated, have also sent a clear message to Iraqis of all political persuasions—be leery of the Americans. Thus the human intelligence that might open a window to the inner workings of the resistance is closed off to coalition intelligence units. Moreover, if the Iraqi provisional government security forces are as heavily penetrated as suggested by both U.S. and Iraqi interim government spokespersons, the resistance has much better intelligence than U.S. coalition authorities.

The CIA has problems of its own. Most especially, the paucity of capable linguists and case officers who can work in Arabic. In addition, in the wake of the Cold War in the early '90s, the agency adopted a policy of deliberate short-sheeting: Under a tiered system, intelligence subjects would be rated for urgency, and operational or analytical resources would be shifted to handle the top tiers as necessary. Apart from other consequences (encouraging generalists rather than retaining area experts) the policy involved a personnel practice of sequential temporary-duty assignments. With the competing—and obviously top-tier—intelligence requirements of both Iraq and the war against terrorism, the CIA now has intractable demands for its already limited resources. Sixty to 90-day tours of duty are common both at CIA’s Baghdad Station and within its Counterterrorism Center.

In fall 2003, an agency station chief was pulled after sending home a pessimistic evaluation of prospects in Iraq—that the country was on a “glide path to civil war.” The agency’s explanation that the officer’s reassignment had not been a disciplinary measure was technically accurate—having taken over that summer, he had completed his tour. Needless to say, it is extremely difficult for CIA officers to immerse themselves sufficiently in the Iraqi environment in just 60 or 90 days to make positive contributions. During the Vietnam War, the agency found it hard to get results from officers on two-year tours, and Iraq is more difficult.

With U.S. authorities, including the CIA station, largely confined to a few bases and the notorious Green Zone in Baghdad, their movements outside these places are highly observable and easy to obstruct, and running agents among the resistance is nearly impossible. That was another reason why prisoner interrogation became so central to the U.S. intelligence effort.

The favored CIA information-collection tool is the unmanned aerial vehicle, the Predator drone, same as the military, closely followed by other sources of technical intelligence. These means have their uses but are strictly limited against an adversary consisting of a decentralized constellation of resistance groups without a central command, a defined communications network, or a set organization that can be exploited for information breakthroughs.

Conversely, the coalition forces offer well-defined targets susceptible to infiltration by resistance agents among the many Iraqis who are employed by the Americans to do everything including laundry and cleaning. In short, there is little reason to expect U.S. or coalition forces to achieve a correct intelligence picture of the resistance.

There are political reasons why the Bush administration resists refocusing its picture of the enemy, as well as technical obstacles to intelligence presenting an accurate picture. In guerrilla wars, the insurgent generally has the initiative unless countered by a well-informed counterinsurgent force. The Iraq War can be expected to continue, as similar wars have, with the enemy escaping from search-and-destroy missions like that in Falluja.

The highest-level analysts of U.S. intelligence, the National Intelligence Council (NIC), compiled a report in summer 2004 that projected several possible scenarios, of which the most optimistic was a continuation of the present situation. Iraq’s descent into civil war remains a distinct possibility.

At the time, amid the fierce 2004 presidential election campaign, the leak of these intelligence conclusions—which Bush acknowledged as real—was dismissed as an effort to influence American politics. But in truth the NIC report is telling the Bush administration that it cannot foresee the outcome in Iraq. In other words, the intelligence is not there to draw conclusions. America remains in Baghdad, as blind as before, but even more deeply involved and at a mounting cost in blood and treasure.

John Prados, a senior analyst with the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C., is the author of Hoodwinked: The Documents That Reveal How Bush Sold Us a War (2004). This article reprinted from January/February 2005 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. t

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