The Iraq Dilemma: Frying Pan or Fire?

by George Friedman
THE STRATFOR WEEKLY  12 November 2003  by Dr. George Friedman    Summary    U.S. President George. W. Bush has hastily convened his war   council to decide strategies for the next phase of operations in   Iraq. What first ...
12 November 2003
by Dr. George Friedman


U.S. President George. W. Bush has hastily convened his war
council to decide strategies for the next phase of operations in
Iraq. What first must be assessed are the nature, intent and
capabilities of the Iraqi guerrilla forces. Imperfect
intelligence about this might force the Bush administration to
implement strategies based on worst-case-scenario assumptions.


A war council convened in Washington on Nov. 11, appropriately
the same day as the U.S. Veteran's Day holiday. The war council
clearly was not planned -- the U.S. administrator in Iraq Paul
Bremer was hurriedly recalled to Washington. The White House
meeting included all the major decision makers concerning U.S.
strategic policy, including Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and
Condoleezza Rice. All the players were at the table; President
Bush was dealing the cards.

Clearly, the strategic situation in Iraq was the driving issue.
Major guerrilla activity remains concentrated in the Sunni
triangle, north and west of Baghdad. In that sense, the
guerrilla's position has not improved. However, coinciding with
the advent of Ramadan, the Iraqi guerrillas intensified their
tempo of operations substantially, but not decisively. That is to
say, the guerrilla activity increased, but its strategic
significance did not. The guerrillas are far from capable of
compelling a U.S. retreat from Iraq by force of arms. Indeed,
they are incapable of seizing and holding any territory, as their
allies in Afghanistan are capable.

The military situation is relatively stable and, from a strictly
military standpoint, tolerable. However, the political situation
of the United States is not. There, the inability of the Bush
administration to either forecast the guerrilla war or
demonstrate a war-termination strategy has weakened the
administration, although far from decisively.

The most severe political damage the guerrillas have done has
been in the Islamic world. In Iraq, the United States wanted to
demonstrate its enormous and decisive military power to impose a
sense of hopelessness on radical Islamists who were arguing that
American power and will were vastly overrated. Whatever the
reality of the guerrilla campaign, the perception that has been
created in the Islamic world is precisely the opposite of the one
the United States desired. Rather than imposing "shock and awe,"
the inability to suppress the guerrillas has confirmed to
Islamists their core perception -- that the United States can
defeat conventional forces but cannot deal with paramilitary and
guerrilla forces. Therefore, the United States can be defeated
over time if Islamists are prepared to be patient and absorb

This is not the message that the administration wants to send
either to the Islamists or to Iowa. The administration's
assumption going into the war was that the collapse of Iraq's
conventional forces coupled with the fall of Baghdad would
terminate organized resistance. There was a core failure in U.S.
intelligence that seemed not to realize that former Iraqi leader
Saddam Hussein had a follow-on strategy that he apparently
learned from the Taliban.

Contrary to U.S. perception (more the media's than the
military's), the United States did not defeat the Taliban in the
winter of 2001-2002. The Taliban declined conventional combat in
front of Afghanistan's cities and instead withdrew, dispersed and
shifted to guerrilla operations. Hussein, realizing that he did
not have the ability to defeat or even engage the United States
with conventional forces, prepared a follow-on strategy. He
prepared the ground in the Sunni triangle for extended guerrilla
war. He hid supplies, created a command structure and detailed
forces for extended resistance. Joined by foreign Islamists early
in the campaign and reinforced later, this organization has
managed to maintain operations against U.S. occupation forces,
increasing the tempo of operations in late October.

Intelligence failures are inevitable in war, but this failure has
created a serious dilemma for Bush's war council. The Ramadan
offensive and its political consequences force the administration
to craft a response. Standing pat is no longer an option. But
there is a range of responses that might be made and choosing
among them requires a clear intelligence estimate. At this point,
no single, clear intelligence estimate is available. What is
more, given the intelligence failure concerning the guerrillas,
it isn't clear if the president can choose his course based on
the intelligence given him.

The intelligence failure had its roots in a fundamental weakness
in U.S. Iraqi intelligence that goes back to 1990s failures.
Those weaknesses could not have been corrected in the past six
months or so. Therefore, the president cannot regard the best
estimate available as authoritative. Indeed, past record aside,
the U.S. intelligence community has not clearly understood the
guerrillas' command structure, their size and composition or the
resources they have available. This is not to say that tactical
intelligence improvements have not been made. It seems to us that
piecemeal insights have been achieved concerning the operations
of individual guerrilla units. But the fact is, on the broadest
level, that U.S. intelligence seemingly lacks a clear, strategic
sense of the enemy.

As best as we can tell, the guerrillas appear to consist of a
main body of Iraqi military trained for this mission and uniquely
loyal. Its size is uncertain, but it doesn't seem to be
recruiting volunteers into the main group, although it is using
volunteers and paying others to carry out specific tasks. If the
main force were recruiting, then matters would be simplified for
the U.S. -- recruitment would provide opportunities for planting
agents inside the guerrilla force.

The guerrillas understand this, which increases their opacity.
What augmentation they receive is coming from Islamists from
outside Iraq. These Islamists cannot simply operate independently
because they do not know the terrain sufficiently, but many are
experienced fighters from other Islamist wars. Therefore, they
seem to serve as a sort of special force, training and carrying
out special operations like suicide attacks. If we assume 30
organized attacks a day, that each group can carry out one attack
every three days, and that each unit contains about 20 men (based
on the size of U.S. unit captures), then there would appear to be
a main force of roughly 1,800 people and a few hundred foreign

President Bush is now facing the classic problem of political
leaders in war. He must make military and political decisions
about Iraq based on his estimate of the situation, yet he cannot
completely rely on the best estimate of his intelligence people.
In general, there are three possible views of the Iraq situation.

1. The guerrillas have increased their operations on a permanent
basis and this is a steady upward curve.

2. The guerrillas have temporarily surged their operations during
Ramadan and it will return to lower levels in December.

3. The guerrillas are facing disaster and have launched a
desperation attack during Ramadan in a last ditch attempt to
unbalance the United States into a foolish action.

It's difficult to believe that the guerillas can continue to
increase the operational tempo indefinitely. This would require a
substantial reserve force available in the villages -- already
trained and recruited -- that could dramatically increase the
size of the present force. This isn't really possible unless the
guerrillas are willing to accept potential intelligence
penetration by the United States. A large reserve cannot be
discounted, but given the presence of U.S. forces throughout the
region, some intelligence would have indicated this before now,
unless the community were entirely sealed shut. We assume that
primarily foreign recruits would augment the guerrilla force --
not an insignificant pool but not a quantum leap either, given
infiltration constraints.

We also tend to disbelieve that the guerrillas are facing
disaster and are engaged in an Islamic Hail Mary. There haven't
been enough contacts between U.S. forces and guerrillas to
significantly thin their ranks, nor have there been the mass
defections that one would see if a force were in the process of
disintegrating. Therefore, in our view, scenario three is

That leaves scenario two -- a temporary surge. Unless our numbers
are widely off base --and that is certainly a possibility -- it
is difficult for us to imagine the guerrillas maintaining this
operational tempo indefinitely. The campaign began with Ramadan.
It has been more intense than what went before, but the intensity
indicates a force working overtime, not a surprisingly larger
force. Given the politics and symbolism, the surge in operations
is certainly understandable. It would also indicate the
probability of an explosive culmination at the end of Ramadan.
But if we were to bet, we would bet that this is a temporary

But we aren't the president -- it's easy for us to make bets. He
is playing the game for real, while we have the luxury of no
responsibility for the decision. If he cannot rely on U.S.
intelligence, he cannot rely on us. Under those circumstances, he
is obligated to assume the worst-case scenario -- scenario one.
That is, the Iraqi guerrillas have permanently increased their
operational tempo and may well increase it more down the road.

If we are right, then his best course is to wait until early
December, and then, while the guerrillas regroup and rest, hit
them hard with an offensive. Then, turn to the Iraqi Governance
Council and dictate the terms of a transfer of power to them. If
we are wrong, and the guerrillas are gaining in strength, then
waiting would be disastrous. The U.S. will never be given a clear
shot at a counteroffensive; the guerrilla attacks would intensify
and the U.S. political situation inside of Iraq would
deteriorate. Under that scenario, the longer the U.S. waits, the
harder it will be to get the IGC to cut a political deal.

Under any circumstance, the United States needs an indigenous
force to bear the brunt of the fighting. The IGC has little real
legitimacy in Iraq as an institution and less appetite for
serving the U.S. cause -- particularly if military events appear
to be moving against the United States. Therefore, the IGC seems
unlikely to be prepared to solve the U.S. problem, even if it
could, which is dubious in the extreme.

Hence, the war council. Bush must make a decision about what to
believe is going on. Having been poorly served by intelligence,
particularly the optimistic briefs he was given in April and May,
it will be enormously difficult for him to go with scenario two
and wait things out. However, he is also unlikely to gain the
cooperation he is hoping for from the IGC, unless scenario two is
the case. Therefore, the war council must consider the abysmal
possibility that scenario one is in play and that the IGC will
not be helpful.

If true, then there are components of the IGC that might be
valuable on their own -- namely, the Shiites. The Shiites are as
opposed to the Sunni guerrillas as the United States. The last
thing they want is Hussein's return or a Wahabi-influenced
government in Baghdad. On the other hand, they are certainly not
prepared to create an Iraqi army out of the Shiite community and
hand it over to U.S. command. They are seeking a Shiite-dominated
Iraq -- meaning one that excludes the U.S. from long-term
presence as well. On the whole, their goal is an Islamic republic
generally based on the Iranian Shiite model. It is the last thing
the U.S. wanted in May, but, this is November and what the U.S.
wants and what it can have are very different things.

It would seem to us that there are two strategies on the table:

1. Assume that scenario two is at work, wait until December and
then deal with the IGC from a position of relative strength.

2. Assume that scenario one is at work and lock in a deal with
the Shiites before the situation gets any worse and the Shiite --
and Iranian -- price gets any higher.

Each scenario carries substantial risks and no intelligence
guidance available is sufficiently authoritative. The temptation
to wait and hope for the best is strong, but a miscalculation
could lead to an impossible situation in which the Shiites have
the Americans by the throat while the guerrillas are hitting
other parts of the body. Paying the Shiite price now, if
unnecessary, creates a long-term problem -- the Shiites will be
charging a high price for their services.

The administration has toyed with this Shiite-Iranian alignment
for months now without coming to a definitive decision,
constantly hoping that things would get better. Now, the choice
is only between things remaining the same or getting worse. Given
the intelligence problems, we suspect that Bush needs to work
from the worst-case scenario. That means he will bypass the IGC
and work directly with Shiite leaders to lock in a deal quickly.

And now it becomes a question of whether the Shiites are feeling
(c) 2003 Strategic Forecasting, Inc. All rights reserved.