Security tips hinge on winning trust
This week's attacks in Iraq point to the need for better intelligence - which may be hard to achieve.
WASHINGTON — The increasing number and sophistication of attacks in Iraq - from ambushes to suicide bombings - highlights one certainty: Occupation forces lack the on-the-ground intelligence to stop them.
That, officials and experts say, is a nearly intractable problem. To get tip-offs on enemy plans, intelligence officials need Iraqi citizens' help. That requires gaining their trust. But to earn trust, US forces must provide security - preventing attacks on those who help them and allaying fears that Saddam Hussein may return.
So far, officials and experts say, that stability hasn't been created, and the time for relationship-building is running out.
"We're at a crossroads," says former CIA director Stansfield Turner. "If we don't in the next few weeks persuade the Iraqi on the street that we're going to straighten things out ... we won't get that intelligence."
It's not that officials aren't trying. Military intelligence teams are, by their own account, "kicking down doors" and talking to detainees. FBI agents are performing forensics investigations after bomb attacks. CIA operatives are hunting for weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
Moreover, US officials are reportedly considering moving some of those CIA operatives from the WMD search to help counter insurgents. And they're training Iraqis as quickly as they can to take over security and assure the population that Iraqis themselves will govern their country.
But for now, it appears that the Iraqi opposition - perhaps with help from Al Qaeda-linked fighters - has the upper hand. Wednesday military officials said two more soldiers were killed in an attack north of Baghdad. The total number of deaths since May 1, when major combat was declared over, is now 116 - one more than were killed in the US-led invasion.
The number of civilian deaths - both Iraqis helping the US and international aid workers - continues to rise as well. Over 1,500 have been killed, including 35 killed by Monday's bombing outside the International Committee of the Red Cross building, and the assassination of Faris Abdul Razaq al-Assam, a deputy mayor of Baghdad who worked closely with US officials.
"This is the classic strategy of guerrilla warfare," says Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force colonel who has taught at the National War College. "The good thing is that people [in the administration] are really looking at things. The bad part is - and I'll quote Mao Tse Tung here - 'Guerrillas swim in the sea of the people.' And if these are foreigners, you have to ask: Why is it that nobody turns them in?"
He points to a telling incident in northern Iraq. Someone removed a manhole cover in a busy city street and placed explosives inside. Several US soldiers were injured as they crossed it. "You don't stop in the middle of the street and take a manhole cover off unless people allow you to do that," Mr. Gardiner says. In Mao's jargon, he adds, "If the sea favors fish [the guerrilla], you lose the battle."
Paving the way for Iraqis to feel secure enough to report such incidents is crucial - and extremely difficult.
In July, when Gen. John Abizaid took over Central Command from Gen. Tommy Franks, he said intelligence was key. "It's not a matter of boots per square meter," he told reporters on July 16. "If I could do one thing as a commander right now, I would focus my intelligence like a laser on where the problem is, which is mid-level Baathist leaders."
But that, too, has been difficult. According to a recent report from the Center for Army Lessons Learned, military intelligence personnel are sparsely deployed, not properly trained or utilized, and don't have nearly enough language abilities.
"The US Army does not have a fraction of the linguists required to operate in the Central Command area of responsibility," the report says. "Most military linguists working in Iraq and Afghanistan only possess, on the average, a 2/2 Forces Command rating (which basically gives them the ability to tell the difference between a burro and a burrito)."
One military counterintelligence officer, who requested anonymity, says he must work with military police (MPs). "The MP is much more concerned about security, escape ... than about the collection," the officer says. "I've had to do more than my share of [patrols and security operations]."
The CIA, for its part, won't divulge how many operatives it has on the ground. But several former operatives say there aren't nearly enough undercover spies - especially with language abilities. The agency has had losses too. On Tuesday, it named two operatives killed last weekend in an ambush in Afghanistan. That brings to four the total number of operatives killed in the war on terror since Sept. 11, 2001.
Robert Baer, a former CIA operative who once lured Iraqi agents to work for the US, says the task was impossible - and more difficult now. "We missed our chance at using the military and intelligence services of the Iraqis," Mr. Baer says. "Who's going to drive out to a meeting in Baghdad now with a clandestine agent? I wouldn't."
Still, the US has little choice but to try. Abizaid is ensconced in high-level strategy meetings. And President Bush told reporters Tuesday that the US will stay in Iraq. "Our strategy to rout [terrorists] out - which is to encourage better intelligence and get more Iraqis involved ... is the right strategy," Mr. Bush said. "We're constantly looking at the enemy and adjusting."