The Obama administration may consider Afghanistan the main military mission but the number of casualties, both civilian and military, from the fighting in Iraq are higher than those in Afghanistan. A bomb killed an American soldier in Baghdad yesterday, bringing to at least 20 the number of U.S. troops killed this month in Iraq, the most since September 2008. While more U.S. troops are dying in Afghanistan, civilian Iraqi deaths far outpace those in Afghanistan.
Insurgent attacks in Iraq are well below 2007 or 2008 levels, but they remain as high or higher than those in Afghanistan. Crunching CENTCOM provided statistics, CSIS’ Anthony Cordesman wrote recently, “Peace” in Iraq has been the Afghan equivalent of “war.” The monthly attack average in Iraq first dropped below 400 in June 2008, remained at about that level through November 2008, and has since averaged below 200, he writes. Most of the attacks are IEDs, although suicide bombings are increasing, which has led to a sharp jump in the number of Iraqi civilians killed in recent weeks.
Looking closely at the monthly attack figures, it is striking to note that the number of “complex” attacks, those involving small arms, snipers, ambushes, mortars, rockets and surface-to-air fire, barely register now, compared to their prominence from 2004 to around mid-2008. A breakdown by type of attack in the Baghdad area for the month of April is illustrative:
• 49 IEDs • 9 magnetic IEDs • 13 car bombs • 3 suicide bombs • 11 assassinations • 32 mortar attack • 3 Katyusha rockets • 6 hand grenades and 1 RPG.
Compare those figures to April of last year:
• 118 IEDs • 13 car bombs • 3 suicide bombs • 22 assassinations • 216 mortar attacks • 32 Katyusha rockets • 1 hand grenade.
Complex ambushes, mortar and rocket attacks are the signature tactics of the Sunni insurgent groups, such as Ansar al Sunna, that operated for years in the largely rural areas south of Baghdad. One thing the “surge” did, with more troops patrolling a greater area, was make clandestinely setting up and firing rockets or mortars much harder for the insurgents. That much of the Sunni insurgency voluntarily left the battlefield and joined the U.S. supported and funded “Sons of Iraq” program also greatly cut down on such attacks.
Suicide attacks and car bombs are signature Al Qaeda in Iraq. While AQI has clearly been weakened, particularly since their 2005-2007 heyday, small bomber cells remain active. Rooting out such cells can take many years, the conflict in Ireland providing a good example. American military commanders recognize that completely eliminating the terrorist threat in Iraq is unrealistic. In fact, Iraq commander Gen. Ray Odierno has repeatedly warned that there may be an “irreducible minimum” level of violence in Iraq.
Odierno told Pentagon reporters earlier this month that intelligence reports confirmed the recent high profile attacks were the work of Al Qaeda, but that the group’s clandestine bomber cells are under severe pressure because of improvements in Iraqi and U.S. human intelligence: “What we're finding is actually the vests and the bombs are not as sophisticated as they were before.” As master bomb makers are eliminated, the quality of the bombs will tend to decline, although they can obviously still cause signficant casualties.
Odierno said the intent of the attacks was to spark sectarian retaliation, many of the bombings occurred in predominantly Shiite areas, but so far there has been no retribution in the form of militia attacks, a recurring feature of the pre-surge Iraq.
“I think, because of some of the success that we've had - that we've splintered al Qaeda, that we've splintered many of the Sunni insurgent groups - that there might be some coalescing of these groups out of necessity,” he said.
Iraq's insurgents continue their internet recruiting campaign: “Every time there's any incident, what you'll see is they'll attempt to start recruiting again on their Internet sites. You'll start seeing recruiting going up... they'll show the event and they'll say, come, we want you to come join the jihad. And so we're seeing a little bit of that. But we have not seen any increase at all in the cells.”
Stephen Biddle, senior defense analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote a paper this month titled, “Reversal in Iraq,” saying that the cease fire currently holding in the sectarian war in Iraq is extremely fragile based as it is on a “radically decentralized” collection of stand-downs: “there are over two hundred separate parties to local, bilateral agreements that were reached mostly between individual factions of former combatants and the U.S. military.” These decentralized agreements have resulted in a “patchwork quilt in which former rivals, who retain their weapons, their organizations, and often their leaders, coexist uneasily in close proximity.”
Transitions from civil war to peace are notoriously volatile, he writes, and the Iraq transition may be more fragile than the historic norm. “Parties to intense ethno-sectarian warfare do not just forget the mass violence of the past overnight.” Biddle writes that the best U.S. option is to slow the pace of the troop withdrawal. It’s well worth reading his entire paper.