WASHINGTON — Almost a year after acknowledging they were facing a well-armed guerrilla war in Iraq, the Pentagon and commanders in the Middle East are being criticized by some top Bush administration officials, military officers and defense experts who accuse the military of failing to develop a coherent, winning strategy against the insurgency.
Inadequate intelligence, poor assessments of enemy strength, testy relations with U.S. civilian authorities in Baghdad and an inconsistent application of force remain key problems many observers say the military must address before U.S. and Iraqi forces can quell the insurgents.
"It's disappointing that we haven't been able to have better insight into the command and control of the insurgents," said one senior official of the now-dissolved Coalition Provisional Authority, recently returned from Baghdad and speaking on condition of anonymity. "And you've got to have that if you're going to have effective military operations."
It was July 16, 2003, when Army Gen. John Abizaid stood at a Pentagon podium during his first news conference as head of U.S. Central Command and declared -- after weeks of Pentagon denials -- that U.S. troops were fighting a "classic guerrilla-type war" in Iraq.
Now, after a year of violence and hundreds of U.S. combat deaths, some officials and experts are frustrated that a more effective counterinsurgency plan has not materialized and that the hand-over of power to an interim Iraqi government last week was unlikely to significantly improve the security situation.
"We're going to have the same cast of characters in Washington and the same commander [Abizaid] in the field," said Andrew Krepinevich of the Center of Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, an expert on counterinsurgency warfare. "What gives you a sense of confidence we're going to become a lot more competent at something we haven't shown a great deal of competence at doing for a year?"
Some top American officials bristle at the criticism and say the U.S.-led coalition's plan has been consistent from the beginning: to bring security to Iraq in preparation for an eventual hand-over to Iraqi forces.
"Our strategy is not complicated. It is to train Iraqis as quickly as we possibly can and as efficiently as we possibly can, and to set the conditions so they can take charge of their own security," said a senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
And, the administration argues, U.S. forces handed a strategic defeat in April to both Shiite and Sunni Muslim insurgents, forcing them to lower their sights. Rather than confronting U.S. forces, those insurgents have turned to bombing Iraqi infrastructure and attempting to assassinate leaders of the new Iraqi government.
"They now cannot defeat us on the battlefield, so they are changing their tactics," the official said.
Yet one of the biggest problems for U.S. military and intelligence officials remains the paucity of hard intelligence about the structure of the insurgency.
For example, when Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked recently during Senate testimony whether the Iraqi insurgency was being coordinated from a central hub, he responded: "The intelligence community, as far as I know, will not ... give you an answer, because they can't give me an answer."
Military experts point out that a counterinsurgency is the most difficult type of war to wage. With the exception of the successful British effort in Malaya in the 1950s, history is littered with examples of unsuccessful counterinsurgency strategies carried out by great powers. As the French learned in Algeria in the 1950s, the United States in Vietnam a decade later and the British in Northern Ireland, the most difficult part of any such operation is to separate the insurgents from the civilians from whom they draw strength. This, some top Pentagon officials say, has been one of the U.S. military's difficulties in Iraq.
"The hope that the Iraqi people, upon having Saddam [Hussein] deposed, would step forward enthusiastically and embrace this new opportunity, turned out to be more optimistic than it should have been," Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told Congress.
"That, I think, has led to the opportunity for the terrorists then to be able to operate without fear of being exposed by the population."
The three-week desert war during the spring of 2003, ending in the collapse of Hussein's regime, vindicated the idea that a small U.S. ground force, combined with billions of dollars worth of military technology, could make quick work of a larger, yet hollow, enemy army. It was a conventional war that the U.S. military had trained and been equipped for since emerging from the jungles of Vietnam three decades ago; a strategy executed with success during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.