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Insurgent Attacks in Mosul Renew Debate over U.S. Strategy

December 22, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: Yesterday’s attack renewed the debate over how U.S. and coalition forces are doing in Iraq.

Milestones including the capture of Saddam Hussein last December and the hand over of sovereignty to Iraqis in June prompted the administration to suggest that stability would come with them and progress was being made.

Vice President Dick Cheney, at a campaign debate, expressed confidence in the new Iraqi government and in Iraqi forces.

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: We also are actively, rapidly training Iraqis to take on the security responsibility. Those two steps are crucial to success in Iraq. They’re well in hand, well under way, and I’m confident that in fact we’ll get the job done.

SPENCER MICHELS: During the fight for control of Fallujah last month, Lt. Gen. John Sattler, the Marine commander of operations there, said the insurgents had been beaten.

LT. GEN. JOHN SATTLER: We feel right now that we have, as I mentioned, broken the back of the insurgency and we have taken away this safe haven.

SPENCER MICHELS: Despite the general’s optimistic appraisal, the president said Monday that there will be more tough days ahead leading up to the January elections.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: No one can predict every turn in the months ahead, and I certainly don’t expect the process to be trouble-free.

SPENCER MICHELS: At the Pentagon this afternoon, Secretary Rumsfeld said the enemy in Iraq has been effective.

DONALD RUMSFELD: The enemy’s got a brain. The enemy alters its tactics. As things happen on the ground, they see what we do to respond to it. They then change their tactic.

I think looking for a peaceful Iraq after the elections would be a mistake. I think our expectations level ought to be realistic about that. These folks have a lot to lose.

The extremists and the terrorists and the people who are determined to try to take back that country are determined not to lose.

SPENCER MICHELS: Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers said the tactical changes by the enemy will require similar shifts by coalition forces.

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: This is an insurgency. We have no front lines. The front line can be the dining hall; it can be the road outside the base; it can be the police station or the governor’s office or the mayor’s office down at Mosul.

That’s their territory. They operate all over that. They can wear– and they do — wear clothes like every other Iraqi. It’s a much different thing and the mindset has to be much different.

SPENCER MICHELS: The insurgent attacks on U.S. and coalition forces have more than quadrupled since this time last year.

GWEN IFILL: So does yesterday’s attack tell us anything about the state of the insurgency in Iraq? And does the U.S. have the right strategy to defeat it?

To answer those and other questions we’re joined by Kenneth Pollack, director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

He was a Persian Gulf military analyst at the CIA from 1988 to 1995, a period which covered the first Gulf War.

Ralph Peters is a retired army lieutenant colonel. The latest of his numerous books on warfare is “Beyond Baghdad: Postmodern War and Peace.”

Gentlemen, welcome.

LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: Good to be with you.

GWEN IFILL: Since I talked to the reporter in Mosul earlier this afternoon, the U.S. has come out with their initial inquiry, the response, what they found out.

And they say that their preliminary investigation indicates that the explosion was likely caused, “by an improvised explosive device worn by a suicide attacker,” as Gen. Myers said.

And then it goes on to say there was no physical evidence of a rocket, mortar or other type of indirect fire weapon. Does that make sense to you from all the details you’ve been able to piece together, Ralph Peters?

LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: It absolutely does. The pattern of the injuries, the pattern of the blast we’re hearing about and the technique.

It just sounds as though they, our enemies, planned carefully, worked this out probably for weeks if not months and in the end did get lucky as well. And we also saw some failures… some failures of doctrine on the U.S. side.

GWEN IFILL: What do you mean?

LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: Well, what mystified me when I heard about this, Gwen, was that even in maneuvers back in the Cold War days when you were just playing war, you got your chow and you dispersed because in war if an artillery shell would hit you wanted them to kill two or three or four soldiers at most, not forty or fifty or sixty or eighty.

And what’s clearly happened in Iraq is we violated our own rules about troop dispersion in wartime. I suspect it has to do with outsourcing. This mess hall, mess facility, chow hall was run by a contractor.

And, instead of security, what we saw was convenience and efficiency. But it just baffled me that this base and this chow hall specifically, dining facility as we term it now, PC version, it had been attacked before with rocket fire, with mortars.

And we were still crowding these troops not even staggering the schedules. It just astonished me.

GWEN IFILL: Is that a force protection failure, Ken Pollack?

KENNETH POLLACK: Absolutely. I think that it gets to the central problem we’re having. It’s all well and good for Gen. Myers to say that the front lines can be anywhere.

It can be the chow hall. It can be your barracks. It can be any place you happen to be. We don’t necessarily see that taking place on the ground.

LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: You have to live it.

KENNETH POLLACK: Absolutely. This is a full-blown insurgency. It is more like Vietnam in that sense than many of the other wars that we’ve been fighting.

And yet we’ve still not fully embraced a true counterinsurgency approach to this war.

GWEN IFILL: I’m just curious. Is what we saw in Mosul yesterday, as you said, they were very smart, very organized.

Is it a smart and organized enemy or is it just dumb luck?

KENNETH POLLACK: Well, I think it’s a little bit of both in the sense that this is a decentralized insurgency. They do seem to be able to have some connectivity.

We don’t know how centralized it ultimately is, whether there is some kind of coordinating command function. My guess is there isn’t very much.

But what is clear is there’s a lot of exchange of information, services and goods among different insurgent groups. They have all got the same aim; they’re all striving for the same goal.

And they’re willing to cooperate with different groups, learn lessons, pass on the information, help them with their own attacks whenever they can.

That makes it a lot tougher for us to deal with because if there was a central brain, you could go after that brain.

LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: Gwen, and I certainly agree with that.

Amid all the complexity of warfare and insurgencies and counterinsurgencies and as complex as warfare gets, some things are simple: One if you give an enemy a prime target, they will take advantage of it.

And secondly, as we should have learned on 9/11 but keep forgetting, there are men of commitment and genius on the enemy’s side too.

We may not like that. But there are on one hand they are fanatical in their behavior — certainly the terrorists — not always the insurgents, but they’re committed to their cause.

And at the end of the day for all the military numbers and skills and tactics and innovations, this is really a test of wills. And the insurgents are testing our will.

GWEN IFILL: You made a distinction just now between the insurgents and the terrorists. What’s the difference?

LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: Well — and I’d like to hear Ken on this too — the international terrorists have their own agenda.

That is they’re really global Jihad. The local Baathist hard-liners, the Sunni Arab insurgents have an inside Iraq and to an extent an Arab agenda. Now they do overlap.

But they do… they are different organizations with different people, different long-term goals, but the one thing they do share in common is they want to derail the January elections in Iraq any way they can because while even a partial success, a badly flawed election is a serious defeat for the terrorists and for the Sunni and Arab insurgents because it just proves the idea that America is only there to conquer and we’re only there for the oil.

And by the way, this will be… no matter how flawed that election is in January, no matter how flawed, that will be the first outside of Israel, the first free election between the Nile and the Euphrates.

And there are plenty of people who don’t want it to happen.

GWEN IFILL: Ken Pollack, what is your idea of the distinction between terrorists and insurgents?

KENNETH POLLACK: I think Ralph has summarized it perfectly. I just I’ll add to that what I think is a relevant point, which is that we get bogged down in trying to describe this group or that group.

And I’ve got to say I think that the administration’s characterization of who the principal groups within the insurgency is dead wrong.

Calling these guys Baathist dead-enders is ridiculous. First, there probably hasn’t been a real Baathist in Iraq since about 1958. Baathism is not a political philosophy that guided Saddam Hussein’s regime or anyone in Iraq for that matter.

There is the truth in the sense that many of these people were former members of the regime but they’re not fighting us because they were former members of the regime or because they were Baathists.

They are fighting us because they are members of a Sunni community that feels completely alienated from the process of political reconstruction. That’s why they’re fighting us.

But as Ralph is pointing out there are a lot of other people there as well. There are foreign Jihadists who are fighting us because this is where the Americans are and they just want to kill Americans.

They’re homegrown Sunni and Shia fundamentalists like Muqtada al-Sadr. There are a whole range of groups; the one thing they have in common is they all hate us and they all want us out.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. So let’s assume that they all hate us and that the U.S., the coalition forces are supposed to be finding a way to deal with this.

Are they doing it adequately? For instance, has the center of gravity in this fight shifted from Fallujah where we had the big fight just a few weeks ago now to Mosul?

LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: Well, yes it has. And Fallujah was important. Now, when you heard the general on the air saying we broke the back of the insurgency, we have to stay with that metaphor I’d say we cut off a limb.

We didn’t break the back as we’re seeing now. It was an important step. But from the insurgents’ standpoint, from the Sunni-Arab insurgents in Iraq, Mosul is their new frontier.

They know they’ve lost the Kurdish North. And they’re looking even beyond the election to a possible break up of Iraq, maybe to seizing power again.

But they don’t want to lose Mosul. That was a traditional Kurdish city. Saddam Arab-ized it. And they’re determined that at a minimum, Mosul will be retained as a frontier outpost for the Sunni Arabs.

KENNETH POLLACK: I don’t know if Ralph would agree or disagree with this. But when I think about the center of gravity in this insurgency, I’m very concerned that we’ve not focused ourselves on the right center of gravity.

This is a true insurgency. My reading of history is that the true insurgency, the center of gravity is not a physical location; it’s not even a military issue.

It is the political and economic wellbeing of the country. It is the political and economic grievances of the population.

GWEN IFILL: So you don’t buy Donald Rumsfeld’s explanation today or defense when he says that only four of the eighteen provinces are really engaged in this and so this is really an isolated problem.

KENNETH POLLACK: No, because unfortunately, that is isolated to an important segment of Iraqi society.

We have alienated the Sunni tribesmen of Iraq. They are perhaps only 8-10 percent of Iraq’s population but they do control a big chunk of territory.

As long as the population feels dispossessed, they’re going to continue to allow the insurgency to thrive.

And historically the only way that you defeat an insurgency is by removing the underlying political and economic grievances that give rise to it.

If you don’t do that, it doesn’t matter how many insurgents you kill.

GWEN IFILL: Do you think that’s right and is it happening?

LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: I think Ken and I do disagree slightly on this to the extent that even the Sunni-Arab community is very complex.

There are some Sunni Arabs who have no interest in preserving any vestiges of the old regime. Others were dispossessed, absolutely.

I mean, the Sunnis ruled Iraq since Iraq became a nation in the early 20th Century after Versailles. And nobody likes losing power.

And they now see that in an election clearly the Shia majority wins, the Kurds will ally in a marriage of convenience with the Shia at least short term and the Sunnis, no matter how you cut it are the losers.

In real life there are sometimes losers. But I do agree with Ken that the center of gravity shifts and ultimately for me the center of gravity is the will.

Can you break their will? That’s a big question, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: With this insurgency building and whether you call them insurgents or terrorists and you see these attacks and even the highest-ranking administration officials have admitted between now and the election things are likely to continue to get worse, what is it that the U.S. forces are doing well and what are they not doing so well?

KENNETH POLLACK: Well, certainly wherever there is a standup fight, I think that the soldiers are doing quite well. Ralph has a better tactical sense of this than I do.

But you know wherever there’s a standup fight they handle it very well.

GWEN IFILL: Do you agree with that?

LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: Our soldiers have done a remarkable job under extremely difficult conditions.

They never had enough troops, never had the right equipment and often didn’t have civilian leadership that was adequate at the Pentagon.

I think when I look at what our soldiers have done and are doing it’s remarkable. The battle of Fallujah broke historical precedent.

Our casualties in that fight were less than 10 percent of what historical norms for city fighting would have predicted. So we’re fighting well, exactly as Ken said.

The problem is fighting isn’t enough. It’s a much more complex series of equations. So when it comes down to killing the enemy, by God, we can do that Gwen.

When it comes down to changing the will in Iraq, changing the beliefs, that’s beyond the power of any weapon I know.

KENNETH POLLACK: Now, one of the other things we’re doing very well is when you get out, and Ralph and I both spent time on the ground there, when you get out and see our personnel on the ground working with Iraqis they do a wonderful job working with local Iraqis.

LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: They’re great.

KENNETH POLLACK: The problem is that those kind of local successes and those are the kinds of things that the Pentagon and the White House like to point to and it’s absolutely true. The problem is they’re being swamped by the overall problems.

Because when you sit and you talk to Iraqis, what you hear from them is: why aren’t our streets safe? Why aren’t our houses safe? Why don’t we have clean water and constant electricity and gasoline and jobs?

And those overarching problems are undermining all of the local successes we have. It gets to this psychological contest that Ralph and I are both talking about which is going to be key to defeating the insurgency.

GWEN IFILL: Ken Pollack, Ralph Peters, thank you both very much.

LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: My pleasure, Gwen.