Despite the recent elections in Iraq, which brought that country one step closer to full sovereignty and independence, attention in the United States remains firmly fixed on an issue closer to home: if and when Washington should pull out its troops.
Since Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) broached what had been a taboo subject, the domestic debate over withdrawal has bogged down in partisan squabbling. The deadlock involves more than just politics. Part of the reason it’s so hard to decide whether U.S. troops should leave Iraq is that no one can accurately predict what will happen if they do. And that’s because no one knows who, exactly, they are fighting.
Almost three years into the war, Washington still has very little sense of the size or power of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Whether the Sunnis would keep fighting if the Americans left, or, in a nightmare scenario, march on Baghdad, depends in large part on whether they have enough manpower or firepower for the job.
Yet nobody seems to know the answer. Since Vice President Dick Cheney famously predicted in May that the insurgency was “in its last throes,” both the White House and the Pentagon have scrupulously avoided providing any hard numbers for the fighters who remain. Last January, Gen. Mohammed Shahwani, Iraq’s intelligence director, estimated that there were as many as 40,000 hard-core Sunni fighters. In October, Gen. John Abizaid, the head of Central Command (which includes Iraq), set the figure at “no more than 20,000.”
As for U.S. policy analysts, the only thing they can agree on is that, in the words of Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution (who tracks developments in Iraq’s security and reconstruction), “nobody knows, and our estimates could easily be off by 50 to 100%.“
Nor is there much agreement on how powerful the insurgents are, or whether Sunnis fighters could stage a violent grab for power if U.S. troops went home. Writing in the current issue of the Atlantic, Nir Rosen, a journalist who spent 16 months in Iraq following the invasion and who now favors a U.S. withdrawal, argues that “Sunni forces could not mount” a major assault after a U.S. pullout because they “wield only small arms and explosives, not Saddam’s tanks and helicopters, and are very weak compared with the cohesive, better armed and numerically superior Shiite and Kurdish militias.“
However, other Iraq experts disagree. Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, who opposes withdrawal, points out that although the Sunni Arabs may be numerically weak (they make up only about 20% of Iraq’s population), they have powerful advantages. “Sunni Arabs were the officer corps and military intelligence [in Saddam Hussein’s army], and the more experienced NCOs, and they know how to do things that the Shiites and Kurds don’t.” Before the invasion, Cole said, they “were also the country’s elite and have enormous cultural capital and managerial know-how“—know-how now that may be sufficient to take on the much larger Kurdish and Shiite militias, not to mention the newly elected Iraqi government, should the Americans leave.
At least, that’s the argument. Who is right—and why is it so hard to reach consensus? Part of the problem is inherent in any type of armed struggle. Military strategists since Karl von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu have written about the “fog of war” and the near impossibility of obtaining accurate information on the battlefield. Even during conventional conflicts such as the Cold War or the Persian Gulf War, the Pentagon has never been good at accurately estimating the size of its enemy.
The difficulty multiplies exponentially when the war is unconventional—that is, a counterinsurgency. Part of the problem is that in Iraq, the insurgents have split into small, ill-defined factions—up to 100 by some reports. And unlike regular soldiers, they don’t stand up to be counted. Even if they did, determining who is a full-fledged “insurgent“ (as opposed to a supporter) is difficult. And Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago and the author of “Dying to Win,” a survey of suicide bombing going back to 1980, warns that estimating the size of terrorist factions in Iraq is especially hard because “most suicide bombers are walk-in volunteers, not longtime members of the terrorist organizations“—which means that their numbers constantly fluctuate.
Much of the difficulty in estimating the size of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, then, is structural, and would exist in any such conflict. This war, however, is not just any conflict. If it is distinguished by anything, it is this: Since before the fighting even began, so many critical, supposedly well-established “facts”—from the presence of weapons of mass destruction, to Hussein’s ties to Al Qaeda, to the number of capable Iraqi troops trained by the U.S. government—have turned out to be false, or at least unverifiable. U.S. forces, meanwhile, continue to suffer from a shortfall of reliable intelligence, a problem that has dogged them from the start.
This leaves Washington policymakers with an unappealing choice: Stick with an increasingly unpopular and bloody counterinsurgency that it still does not fully understand, or leave the fight as they entered it, running essentially blind.