War Stories

The Ramadi Experiment

What do the Iraqi insurgents really want?

The decision to pull the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division out of the “Sunni Triangle” city of Ramadi—and to turn local security over to Iraqi officers—might be the most significant step since the U.S.-led occupation began six and a half months ago. If the Ramadi experiment succeeds, it could serve as the road map to a responsible exit strategy. If it fails, it will dramatize the depths of our predicament, the utter lack of good options, the tenacity of the—dare we say it?—quagmire that bogs us down.

The experiment, which the division’s commander, Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., said Monday could take place as soon as January, will not only test the worth of the newly trained Iraqi security officers, who reportedly number 1,600 in that city of 250,000 residents. More critically, it will reveal vital clues about the insurgents—their aims, their tactics, and their level of popular support.

If most of the insurgents want, above all, to kick out the foreign occupiers, then the 82nd’s retreat to the outskirts of town denies them a target and a rallying cry. If they want to wreak chaos, impede a new order, or reinstall the Baath Party, then the withdrawal will have no effect; indeed, if the Iraqi police prove less effective than the 82nd Airborne, the violence could even worsen.

A verdict on this question will take a few weeks, or possibly months, to reach. The insurgents, after all, are probably a loose coalition of sorts, composed—in unknown proportions—of Baathist rebels, foreign terrorists, and non-ideological Iraqis who are ticked off at the occupation, either because they’re proud nationalists or because they seek revenge for the killings of family or tribal members.

If the Ramadi experiment works, this last group—the simply angry Iraqis—might drop away. The question, then, becomes: What do the citizens of Ramadi want? If the more militant insurgents continue their attacks, though this time around against Iraqi targets, will the townspeople continue to turn a blind eye; will they continue to root for, or remain neutral toward, the insurgents? Or will they begin to cooperate with the (now local) authorities and help finger and capture the bad guys?

If the latter scenario unfolds and if the Iraqi police are competent at restoring order, then there’s hope for a civilized way out. If the former scenario takes grip, or if the Iraqi police just aren’t up to the task, then the 82nd will have to move back in, the American forces in general will have to stay put (or be replaced on something close to a one-for-one basis), and there will be scant hope of coming home for a long time—and perhaps less hope, as well, for the Bush administration’s current plan to turn over political sovereignty by the summer.

The Bush administration is pursuing a twofold strategy to enhance the prospects for the transfer of sovereignty—first (as Gen. Swannack revealed Monday), to pull back American forces where possible; second (as Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, announced last week), to step up American military offensives against those insurgents who can’t otherwise be contained.

Yet if the impending troop withdrawal in Ramadi is a calculated gamble, the stepped-up campaign in Tikrit and elsewhere—a series of air raids known as Operation Iron Hammer—seems, at least so far, a desperate muddle. The first big bombing run targeted a building that insurgents had been using as a meeting place. The insurgents weren’t in the building at the time, nor did the U.S. commanders believe them to be. A high-ranking U.S. officer was quoted as saying that the point of the raid, and of subsequent raids, was not so much to kill the guerrillas as to impress them. “We were sending a message,” the officer said, and “the message is, ‘We’re coming.’ ” Gen. Sanchez made the same point, saying the idea was to “send a very clear signal that our intent is to defeat” the insurgents.

Using force to send signals is a dangerous path. The Pentagon Papers —the top secret Defense Department study that Daniel Ellsberg leaked in an attempt to end the Vietnam War—is rife with memoranda between high-ranking officials in Lyndon Johnson’s White House and Robert McNamara’s Pentagon, confidently asserting that a “program of progressive military pressure,” consisting of “very carefully designed” strikes, will send a “pattern of communications” to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, destroying their “will” to keep fighting. The problem, of course, was that the North Vietnamese and VC didn’t see the bombing raids as a delicately coordinated message (an “orchestrated crescendo” was how one Pentagon memo put it), but rather as bombing raids—to be endured, resisted, and fought back against.

It must be emphasized: Iraq is not Vietnam, and the Fedayeen are not the Viet Cong; today’s smart bombs are far more accurate than yesteryear’s dumb bombs; Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and Gen. Sanchez in late 2003 are, for all their flaws, less arrogant than McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, and Gen. William Westmoreland were in 1964-65.

Still, some parallels and principles are worth noting. To the extent that the insurgents in today’s Iraq consist of punks, mercenaries, and inexperienced recruits, then using force to send signals might work; a few big explosions might deter some from coming back. However, to the extent that the insurgents are committed to their struggle—whether out of ideology, nationalism, tribal loyalty, or familial blood-feud—the signals will get lost in translation; they probably won’t be seen as signals at all. The bombing may even be counterproductive: If it accidentally kills some civilians, it will only swell the ranks of the insurgency, as the victims’ relatives take up arms and vow revenge.

The Bush administration is juggling several balls at once. If everything works in tandem—the Ramadi experiment succeeds, U.S. soldiers lower their profile, the insurgents are slaughtered or slink away, and sovereignty is transferred to the Iraqis on schedule—the act will be seen as a triumph. If the Iraqis truly take charge, other countries might even be persuaded to send troops to keep the peace and guard the borders (something the Iraqis themselves will not be able to do alone for years); they would, after all, not be serving an American-led occupation but assisting the new Iraq. However, if any one of the balls drops to the ground, the whole enterprise gets riskier than ever. The course of Ramadi could determine the course of all Iraq.