The US military strategy in Iraq has been consistent for months now: Use aggressive military operations to disrupt the flow of foreign fighters entering the country and the insurgent support lines that run along the Euphrates River west to the Syrian border. Simultaneously, the US is training Iraqi troops to fill the security vacuum that persists in the center and north of the country.
By any metric of tactical military success, it's working, say analysts. US forces have strung together victory after victory. Marine and Army operations from Najaf in the south to Fallujah in the heart of the Sunni triangle and on to Mosul in the north have ended with thousands of insurgents killed and captured and tons of enemy munitions destroyed with minimal US casualties.
This is what Vice President Dick Cheney probably had in mind when he told "Larry King Live" last week that the insurgency is in its "last throes."
But if another measure of success is used - a reduction in the number and lethality of insurgent attacks - the US and the new Iraqi government are failing. In the past two days, for example, US Marines and Army soldiers carried out Operations Spear and Dagger (designed to disrupt insurgent capabilities between Baghdad and Syria). At the same time, separate suicide attacks killed 20 policemen in the Kurdish city of Arbil and 23 people in a Baghdad restaurant popular with policemen, while insurgents overran a police station in southern Baghdad, killing eight officers.
The gap between tactical victories on the one hand, and few tangible improvements in the overall Iraqi security situation on the other, is creating a widening disagreement over whether the US is winning or losing the war in Iraq.
The Bush administration and its supporters insist the current course is the right one and, given enough time, will succeed. Administration officials say there's anecdotal evidence that more and more Iraqis are turning from the insurgency, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Fox News on Sunday. The insurgents "are losing the Iraqi people," the US and its allies are "making steady progress," and political developments inside Iraq point to "a strategic breakthrough," she said.
Retired Marine Col. Mackubin Owens, now a professor at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., wrote in a commentary for the New York Post earlier this month that US offensive operations are yielding more gains than many in the press are crediting, and points especially to US efforts in the province of Anbar along the Euphrates River towns that serve as support lines for foreign fighters entering the country for Syria, and for domestic insurgents within the country.
He argues that capture of key insurgent leaders, including up to two dozen lieutenants for the Jordanian Al Qaeda affiliate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is yielding intelligence that has had "a cascading effect, permitting the Coalition to maintain pressure on the insurgency."
But the doubters - who anecdotally seem to include a growing number of US forces on the ground - say that Iraq's war is beyond the point where it can be won by force of arms and that "staying the course" is a recipe for a deeper Iraqi quagmire. They see few signs that the conditions for a political settlement, between the country's newly empowered Shiites and its now disenfranchised Sunni Arabs, are emerging. They point to the evidence of mounting attacks, and the increasingly sectarian nature of the violence, to back up their views.
"It's indisputable that the insurgents are enormously more popular among the Sunni Arab community today than they were two years ago,'' says Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern History at the University of Michigan. "Every time you hear a suicide bomb has gone off ... I guarantee you that means there are 3,000 Iraqis who saw the preparations and decided that this would be a good thing."
The situation is creating increasing restlessness within President Bush's own party. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska told US News & World Report magazine last week, "Things aren't getting better, they're getting worse.... The White House is completely disconnected from reality."
On NBC's "Meet the Press" over the weekend, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona said: "Too often we've been told ... that we're at a turning point. What the American people should have been told and should be told ... [is] it's long; it's hard; it's tough."
Professor Cole says that Secretary Rice was correct to point out over the weekend that the key goal is to drain popular support for the insurgency within the Sunni Arab communities in the center of the country, but he disagrees that there's evidence this is happening. "If people decide ... that these guys are dirty rotten rats, and they start turning them in, then the insurgents are toast,'' he says. "But their support is not only deeper now, it's wider, too, and there's opinion polling to back this up."
The attacks of the past few days maintain the insurgent trend of the past half-year or so of targeting lightly armed and less well-protected Iraqi security officers instead of Americans. Through Sunday, 1,095 Iraqi soldiers and police have been killed this year, and that compares with 1,300 Iraqi military and police casualties in the previous 21 months, according to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count (www.icasualties.org/oif/), a nongovernmental organization that tracks civilian and military casualties. Car bombings surged from 65 in February to 135 in April, and major attacks per day rose from around 40 in February and March to 70 in April and May.
US commanders and soldiers in Iraq frequently complain they don't have the manpower to deal anything resembling a decisive blow. Soldiers operating in tough Iraqi provinces like Anbar say they feel as if they're watering the desert: They can win any neighborhood or mid-sized city they care to and make it "bloom" for as long as they're present in strength, but their efforts wither when they inevitably leave and move on to the next engagement.
"We've won every fight they've given us, but there always seem to be just as many people fighting us as when we got here,'' says one career Marine officer, who recently finished a tour in Iraq.
Anthony Cordesman, a former director of intelligence for the Office of the Secretary of Defense who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and has produced a series of detailed studies on the war in Iraq, quotes a Marine counterinsurgency expert in Iraq in a recent paper as saying "seizing the components of suicide bombs [is] like making drug seizures: comforting, but ultimately pointless.... Both sides are still escalating to nowhere."
In cities like Fallujah, once thought to be decisively won by the US, engagements are on the rise, with three firefights on Sunday ending with 15 insurgents killed. In the city of Tal Afar in the north, violence still rages, despite three major US offensives there in the past two years; and while the once notorious Haifa Street in central Baghdad was pacified by joint US and Iraqi military efforts this spring, suicide attacks continue in other parts of the city.
"The Iraqi Government and US can scarcely claim that they are clearly moving towards victory,'' Mr. Cordesman wrote at the end of May in "Iraq's Evolving Insurgency,'' a 70-page analysis of the situation (www.csis.org/ features/050512_IraqInsurg.pdf). While Cordesman acknowledges large weapons seizures made by "tireless" US operations in the country, he doubts the supply of weapons and bombmaking materials is going to dry up soon.
"Few experts - if any - feel that the insurgents face any near-term supply problems given the numbers of weapons looted from Iraq's vast arms depots during and after the fighting that brought down Saddam,'' he writes.