War Stories

Western Targets

The Iraqi insurgency is still primarily an anti-occupation effort.

New data reveal, surprisingly, that the vast majority of the Iraqi insurgents’ attacks are still aimed not at Iraqi security forces or at civilians, but rather at U.S. and coalition troops. In other words, as much as was the case a year or two ago, the Iraqi insurgency is primarily an anti-occupation insurgency.

The statistics—compiled by the multinational military command in Iraq and reproduced in a report released Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office—raise anew a basic question in the debate over the future of U.S. policy toward Iraq: Is the presence of American troops doing more harm or more good?

Today’s New York Times reprints a bar graph from Page 6 of the GAO report, showing the trends and targets of insurgent attacks, month by month, from June 2003 through December 2005. (We reprint the graph, too, here.) The Times story accompanying the graph notes that the attacks have “steadily grown” and that attacks against Iraqi security forces “have grown faster than the overall count.” Both points are true—but they also miss the main point.

The graph’s overwhelming theme, which the Times story leaves unmentioned, is that, consistently, most of the attacks—about three-quarters, never fewer than two-thirds—have been aimed at the Western occupiers.

This is a surprising finding because so many news stories from Iraq have been reporting a rise in attacks on Iraqi security forces and in clashes between Sunni and Shiite factions. The graph confirms that those attacks have risen, sharply. But they still constitute a small percentage of the attacks overall.

The graph reveals another discouraging trend. Since August 2004, the number of attacks has stayed about the same—bobbing up and down between 2,000 and 3,000 per month, recently hovering around 2,500. The GAO report puts it this way:

According to a senior U.S. military officer, attack levels ebb and flow as the various insurgent groups—almost all of which are an intrinsic part of Iraq’s population—rearm and attack again.

Two points in this sentence are worth highlighting: Very few of the insurgents are foreign terrorists, and their ability and inclination to keep striking appears endless.

The graph and this observation, by the way, come from the same GAO report—summarized in a separate news story—that concludes Iraq will need $56 billion to rebuild the country’s infrastructure. The report also notes that U.S. reconstruction funds have dried up; that private investors are pulling out; and that the Iraqis themselves lack the training, equipment, or resources to sustain facilities once they are rebuilt. American aid workers have devised a “build-train-turnover” strategy, but the program—remarkably!—is “just beginning.” (This seems to parallel the program to train the Iraqi military. It too got seriously under way only a year or so ago, and once completed, the Iraqis will still rely on the United States or other outside forces for logistics, intelligence, border protection, and air support.)

It’s maddening. What have we been doing over there for nearly three years? Have we mucked things up entirely? Can anything be done—is it too late to rally some massive multinational effort—to keep this ravaged country from collapsing? Is anybody in the Bush administration looking at these graphs and asking the inescapable questions, much less seeking some practical answers?