Iraq's "impossible" insurgency



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Recently on MSNBC's "Hardball" program the ever-comical Christopher Hitchens described the situation of the Iraqi insurgents as "militarily impossible." Unfortunately, Hitchens failed to back his assertion with evidence, and the viewer was left wondering what the devil the man had had to drink before the show, for it is common knowledge that over the past several decades the record of insurgencies against occupying military powers has actually been quite impressive. A few examples will suffice to drive that point home.

Despite killing roughly a million Algerians, the French were forced out of Algeria. The Soviet empire was forced out of Afghanistan after 10 years of fighting and perhaps as many as 1 million Afghan dead. The Israelis were pushed out of Lebanon. And here at home, the United States, following the withdrawal of the French, suffered defeat at the hands of North Vietnam, despite killing some 2 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. [1]

Fundamentally, each of those struggles pitted a powerful, well-equipped, well-trained modern military force against a smaller, more primitive force that could be characterized, at least to a first approximation, as an insurgency similar to the one the United States is facing in Iraq. Sometimes the insurgents enjoyed state backing; sometimes they did not. Obviously the terrain and fighting conditions varied, from jungle to mountain to desert, and featured both urban and non-urban combat. In each case, however, the insurgents enjoyed a superior knowledge of the land, language, and customs where the fighting took place.

With the exception of Vietnam, the insurgents were rarely able to inflict devastating battlefield casualties and seriously deplete the ranks of the occupying military force. Or more to the point: both absolutely and relatively speaking U.S. losses in Iraq either exceed or are comparable to the losses suffered by the Soviets in Afghanistan, the French in Algeria, the Israelis in Lebanon, and the first four and last two years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Moreover, the U.S. casualty rate in Iraq has accelerated since the early days of the occupation.

All of that should make people very skeptical of Mr. Hitchens's claim that the Iraqi insurgency has fallen into a militarily impossible situation. Insurgencies have demonstrated their ability to defeat modern armies despite suffering massive losses while failing to inflict comparable losses on the occupying power, and many of the trend lines in Iraq are heading in the wrong direction. It appears that a conclusion opposite to that of Mr. Hitchens is warranted.

Now, as implied by much of the preceding discussion the situation in Vietnam differed in important ways from the other historical examples, and that fact provides people such as Hitchens with an opportunity to make their case. Let's see whether we can pin down an important distinction between Vietnam and the other conflicts, and then formulate a line of argument that supports Mr. Hitchens's assertion. This will allow us to evaluate a real argument instead of mere assertion, however confidently delivered.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Vietnam and the other conflicts is that the fighting there often involved conventional North Vietnamese military units fighting against conventional U.S. military formations: Vietnam wasn't simply a guerrilla war. As an immediate corollary of that, and as stated above, U.S. losses in Vietnam were often severe. For example, in 1968 the United States suffered some 100,000 casualties or about 8,300 casualties per month over the course of the entire year. By way of comparison, the Iraqi insurgency has inflicted an average of 540 casualties per month since the invasion. While the gap narrows when the casualty totals are adjusted for total troop strength, the losses suffered in 1968 still greatly exceed the losses incurred in Iraq.

Perhaps people such as Hitchens can find a sort of perverse comfort in the logic suggested by those numbers: Vietnam teaches that you really have to kill or wound a lot of American soldiers to defeat the U.S. military; and since the Iraqi insurgency will never be able to inflict such horrific losses, it follows that the Iraqi insurgency is in a militarily impossible situation.

Obviously, that line of argument ignores the Soviet, French, and Israeli examples. But let's stipulate, for now at least and for the sake of argument, that those examples really are irrelevant to the current situation in Iraq. Let's further stipulate that the Iraqi resistance has no hope of victory unless it can start producing U.S. casualties similar to the most intense period of fighting in Vietnam, 1966-1970.

Clearly those concessions strengthen the position advocated by Hitchens and his ilk, and arm them with an actual argument. Nevertheless, there's still plenty of room for speculation and debate, for the question now becomes: Is there good reason to think the Iraq war will explode into the kind of conflict that darkened the landscape of Vietnam from 1966 through 1970, ultimately resulting in a U.S. withdrawal? In the remainder of this essay a line of argument will be developed suggesting that a qualified "yes" is probably the correct answer to that vitally important question.

The first four years of Vietnam were almost mild compared to the current U.S. military situation in Iraq; it was only after 1966, and continuing only until 1970, that the United States started to suffer heavy losses in Vietnam. Thus, the Iraqi insurgents seem to be positioned relatively well with respect to the Vietnamese of 1960-1965. Furthermore, the Iraqi insurgency has only intensified since the early days of the occupation, with clear evidence of increased operational sophistication, adaptability, intelligence capabilities, and lethality. All of that does not bode well for the Hitchens thesis. But do the Iraqi insurgents really have the latent ability to evolve into the kind of force that can challenge the U.S. military as the North Vietnamese did before them? [2] Once again the answer is a tentative "yes" and the supporting argument a simple one.

On a per capita basis the Iraqi insurgency is far more effective at inflicting U.S. casualties than the North Vietnamese were. In fact, as will be shown below the Iraqi insurgents are about twice as effective at producing U.S. casualties as the North Vietnamese. Hence, if the Iraqi insurgency is able to increase its ranks by a factor to be estimated below, it will gain the ability to inflict on U.S. forces at a level similar to that of 1986-1970. In what follows we will rely solely on official Iraq statistics or numbers affirmed by the Pentagon and will focus on the bloodiest year of Vietnam for American forces, 1968.

From January 1, 1968, to January 1, 1969, the North Vietnamese wounded or killed 101,982 U.S. personnel. During that same period North Vietnamese strength in the field averaged 376,000 men. Hence, in the year specified the North Vietnamese inflicted 271 U.S. casualties for every 1,000 North Vietnamese combatants.

In early November 2003, General John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, said that the number of fighters operating against U.S. and allied forces did not exceed 5,000. By October 2004, U.S. military officials had revised the figure upward, with new estimates ranging from a low figure of 8,000 fighters to a maximum of 20,000. From November 1, 2003, to October 31, 2004, Iraqi fighters killed or wounded 7,452 American servicemen. [3]

Those numbers translate into a high estimate of 932 U.S. casualties per 1,000 Iraqi insurgents per year — assuming the number of insurgents averaged 8,000 men — to a low estimate of 373 U.S. casualties per 1,000 insurgents, if we adopt the 20,000-insurgent figure. Either way, the effectiveness of the Iraqi insurgency tops that of the North Vietnamese. For future calculations we will use the average implied by those numbers.

Accordingly, every 1,000 Iraqi fighters managed to kill or wound 532 U.S. servicemen during the year spanning early November 1, 2003, to October 31, 2004. That number, in turn, implies that the Iraqi insurgency is twice as effective at killing or wounding American soldiers as the North Vietnamese were. This figure, all by itself, is staggering and loaded with implications for the correct analysis and understanding of this war. If true, this number seems to imply that the Iraqi insurgents represent an elite group of fighters; or that U.S. forces, or perhaps U.S. tactics, are relatively poor. Perhaps some combination of the three is the case, or some other set of factors. Perhaps the calculation cannot be trusted because the numbers aren't reliable. For the purpose of this paper, however, we will accept the military's figures and proceed with an analysis of what seems like an alarming outgrowth of the preceding analysis and a good reason to reject the reformulated and strengthened Hitchens thesis.

The insurgents' effectiveness in causing U.S. casualties implies, ceteris paribus, that an Iraqi insurgency of about 180,000 men would be able to inflict 1968-like casualties on U.S. forces. Of course a much smaller Iraqi force could easily match the casualty totals characteristic of every other year of Vietnam. As a lower bound, an insurgency of about 55,000 men could match the casualty totals of 1970. With that in mind the question now becomes: What are the prospects of the Iraqi insurgency's increasing in strength to a low of 60,000 men and a high of 180,000?

The short answer is that the prospects of the insurgency's growing to 60,000 men are excellent, while the 180,000 benchmark would represent a real recruiting challenge for the resistance. Put differently, the confluence of several factors makes a 60,000-man insurgency almost inevitable, while rendering an 180,000-man insurgency a more distant but still live and frightening possibility. Therefore, Vietnam-level casualty figures may be in the offing for the not-too-distant future. But what, exactly, are the factors influencing the insurgency's strength?

It appears the insurgency is primarily an indigenous network of Sunni men. Keeping that in mind, we must recognize that Iraq is awash with angry and idle young Sunni men, many of whom have military training. Indeed, by disbanding the Iraqi Army and Iraq's security and intelligence services, the United States all but guaranteed that potentially combustible state of affairs. The take-home point is that the insurgency enjoys an excellent natural recruiting pool by which it can augment its ranks.

A large recruiting pool, however, is useless to the insurgency in the absence of social forces or incentives pushing people to join. Do any such forces or incentives exist in Iraq? Indeed they do, and five come quickly to mind.

  First, feelings of patriotic duty are working on the Iraqi psyche much as they would on the American mind had some foreign power occupied U.S. soil. There can be no doubt that this provides a powerful inducement for men to enlist in the insurgency, an inducement intensified by the religious, cultural, and linguistic differences separating the Iraqis from their American occupiers. It has been 800 years since the Mongols sacked Baghdad, but to this day Iraqis spit at the mere mention of Hulagu Khan.

  Second, tribal and family loyalties probably push young men to join the insurgency, especially if they have lost a family member to American fire.

  Third, the sorry state of the Iraqi economy coupled with the inability of the United States to even return the Iraqi infrastructure to its pre-war basis gives Iraqis added incentive to join the fight against the United States.

  Fourth, the WMD (weapons of mass destruction) debacle and the sense that the U.S. government lied and had ulterior motives for invading Iraq undoubtedly drive young men into the arms of the insurgency. This factor may prove especially important if a large number of Iraqis believe their country was invaded to benefit Israel or to steal Iraqi oil. The sorry example of Abu Ghraib obviously doesn't help matters.

  Fifth and finally, the continuing political and social marginalization of the Sunni population, especially when coupled with the rise of a Shiite and Kurdish power structure bent on blood revenge against Sunnis, creates yet another powerful incentive to join or actively support the insurgency.

All of those factors seem to make a three-fold increase in the size of the insurgency all but inevitable. The emergence of a 180,000-man insurgency, however, is another story and one that cannot easily be settled — only feared.

Now, with all of the above theorizing in mind it's fair to ask whether any empirical evidence exists that the insurgency is growing in size. According to a January 2005 piece by Knight Ridder reporters Tom Lasseter and Jonathan S. Landay, such evidence does exist: "At the close of 2003, U.S. commanders put the number of insurgents at 5,000. Earlier this month, Gen. Mohammed Abdullah Shahwani, the director of the Iraqi intelligence service, said there are 200,000 insurgents, including at least 40,000 hard-core fighters. The rest, he said, are part-time fighters and supporters who provide food, shelter, funds and intelligence." ("Analysis: Iraqi insurgency growing larger, more effective," January 21, 2005.)

If we take the 40,000 figure as the more reliable estimate for the number of those who qualify as insurgents, and the 160,000 remaining people as indicative of the existence of broad community support for the insurgency, then the numbers make some sense and are sobering. However, because those numbers have yet to be confirmed by the U.S. military they will not be used in any calculations here or form the basis for any conclusions. Rather, they are simply presented for the reader's benefit.

A few additional pieces of indirect but empirical evidence, drawn from other conflicts, may also help illuminate the prospects of the Iraqi insurgency's significantly growing in size. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the Mujahidin managed to expand from a force of about 30,000 to a force of about 100,000 men. During the Algerian war for independence the ALN, the military arm of the National Liberation Front (FLN), evolved from a ragtag group of a few hundred men to a fighting force of 30,000 men, and in only three years' time. Both conflicts show that insurgent forces can significantly grow in size over relatively short periods of time.

The Knight Ridder report points to a serious shortcoming in the analysis provided in this essay: the Vietnam figures can be taken as factual, while the Iraqi figures are definitely open to question. Was the American military being honest in its assessment of the insurgency's numbers? Does the military even have the intelligence capabilities and resources to produce a reliable estimate? Perhaps the insurgency was actually much larger than the estimates used in this paper and, as such, not as effective at causing U.S. casualties as implied by the above analysis. Then again, to the extent that the Pentagon's casualty statistics are in error or are incomplete, perhaps they underestimate the total number of wounded U.S. servicemen, potentially offsetting any errors in the military's estimates of insurgent strength, thus preserving the main conclusion of the present study. Unfortunately, answering those questions is beyond the scope of this paper. Indeed, such questions may not even permit an honest answer at this juncture. So, where does that leave us? What can we honestly and fairly conclude, given the state of the evidence?

Before drawing any conclusion, let's quickly summarize the ground we've covered. According to the Pentagon's own figures, a low-ball estimate shows that the Iraqi insurgency is about twice as effective at killing and wounding American soldiers as the North Vietnamese were, with all that this entails. We decided to take up one apparent implication of that shocking figure and argued that, contrary to the Hitchens thesis, the Iraqi insurgency was in a position to start inflicting Vietnam-level casualties, assuming the insurgency could expand its ranks to 60,000-180,000 men. We then provided five theoretical or sociological reasons to think a 60,000-man insurgency was in the offing, while a 180,000-man insurgency seems less likely. We also briefly surveyed some empirical and historical data which demonstrated the real growth potential of insurgencies.

From the foregoing analysis it is fair to conclude that there is a good chance the Iraqi insurgency will grow to a 60,000-man force and start inflicting roughly 28,000 U.S. casualties per year. Perhaps Mr. Hitchens and his comrades would rethink their assessment of this war should such a dark and sad day befall us. In the final analysis, it appears the insurgents are more effective at producing U.S. casualties than the North Vietnamese, and, while we probably won't see a repeat of 1968, a repeat of 1970 does not seem at all far-fetched.

December 5, 2005

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1.  Vietnam casualty figures:
www.rjsmith.com/kia_tbl.html and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_War#Casualties.

Soviet casualties in Afghanistan:
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_invasion_of_Afghanistan and www.infoplease.com/ce6/history/A0802662.html.

French casualties in Indochina:

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2.  From this point forward my references to "North Vietnamese" should be understood as also including Viet Cong fighters.

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3.  For information on U.S. casualties in Iraq, see this useful page at Antiwar.com: "Casualties in Iraq: The Human Cost of Occupation," ed. Michael Ewens.

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