While electricity generation now exceeds pre-invasion levels, markets are plentiful, and virtually all school-aged children are back at their desks, the war for Iraqi "hearts and minds" remains very much up in the air, say independent analysts who have recently returned from that country.
"This could go either way," Kenneth Pollack, a former Middle East analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), told an audience gathered at the Brookings Institution here Tuesday.
"There’s a great deal of good going on Iraq, but there’s also a great deal of bad."
Like many experts, Pollack, who supported last spring’s invasion, is growing increasingly concerned that U.S. military tactics in trying to defeat resistance to the occupation might in fact be creating new enemies among the population.
Serious political mistakes have also undermined the prospects for eventual US success, according to these analysts.
Charles Duelfer, another Middle East specialist who served as a deputy chief inspector of the United Nations disarmament team in Iraq, said the early dissolution of the Ba’ath Party and of the Iraqi army and security services were potentially fatal mistakes that have permanently alienated a key part of the population and, in their eyes, transformed them into enemies.
Duelfer, who supported the aim of ousting former president Saddam Hussein, told the same group at Brookings that the military’s increasingly aggressive strategy in the so-called "Sunni Triangle" of central Iraq was only compounding the problem.
"These raids are highly embarrassing and insulting for a lot of Iraqis," said Duelfer, currently based at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. "The echo from this has created a feeling (among Iraqis) that … the US doesn’t know what it’s doing."
After taking steadily rising casualties over the summer and into the fall, the US military has tried to "take the war to the enemy" in a much more aggressive fashion since early November.
New tactics have included bombing and strafing by combat helicopters and even fixed-wing aircraft, more frequent raids on homes and hideouts of suspected resistance fighters, and more arrests.
While the number of daily attacks on US units which had doubled by late October to more than 30 since the summer fell sharply last month, November was still the deadliest month to date for US soldiers in Iraq. Seventy-nine were killed, including 39 in the crashes of four military helicopters.
But while some Pentagon officials hailed the drop in the number of Iraqi attacks as signaling a potential turning point in the war, others pointed to a rise in attacks on Iraqi targets, mainly police, municipal officials and others who have been working with US forces.
Also, November saw a record number of non-U.S. occupation officials, including some 16 Italian carabinieri and eight Spanish intelligence agents, killed.
There was also a geographical expansion of armed resistance to the occupation, a development that clearly concerns both independent analysts and military planners alike.
While US military officers have claimed that more than 90 percent of the military resistance was taking place within the Sunni Triangle, Lawrence Korb, a senior defense official in the Reagan administration, said after returning from a trip to Iraq earlier this month that the actual figures showed the central region accounted for only 60 percent of the attacks on US and coalition forces.
"Even when we were in safe areas and were driving to see a Shiite cleric (in the south)," Korb told the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), "(the military authorities) made us wear flak jackets, and they had Humvees and armored personnel carriers escorting us with guns pointed at the population. This is the so-called safe Shiite area," he said.
Experts note a serious "disconnect" between the US military and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) under L. Paul Bremer.
Retired Rear Admiral David Oliver, who just returned from six months working with the CPA in Baghdad, told reporters last week that the two have "opposing goals." On the one hand, Army Gen. Ricardo Sanchez’s forces are focused on the "tactical and immediate" goals of keeping order and hunting down suspected Ba’ath loyalists, while Bremer is trying to win the confidence of the Iraqi people.
"The military’s goal has nothing to do with the (coalition’s) success," Oliver told Defense News. "In my opinion, it is a mistake that … Gen. Sanchez does not work directly for Bremer."
The CFR’s Korb made a similar point, asserting that the "dual chain of command" Bremer reports to the Pentagon and the White House, while Sanchez reports to the Central Command was creating tension between Bremer and the military over issues such as how much force can be used in populated areas.
"The more force you use, the higher the risk that you will alienate the population. The less force you use, the more you put your troops in danger," said Korb.
"The military guys are mainly concerned about their troops and their military mission, (but) Bremer obviously has a different agenda."
Pollack said one of his greatest complaints was precisely the military’s "obsession with force protection," a worry he said was shared by British occupation officials as well.
While heavily armed US transports speed through towns and villages from mission to mission, the local population continues to suffer extremely high rates of crime.
"What I heard from Iraqis is that they are terrified of going out on the streets at night," said Pollack, suggesting that the military should return to patrolling the streets, preferably with new Iraqi police and soldiers.
But Bremer and the CPA, ensconced behind kilometers of razor wire and other defenses, are also too isolated from the population, according to virtually all of the analysts who have returned recently.
"People feel there’s no way to interact with the CPA," Duelfer said. "I’m not sure that it knows what’s going on," he added, beyond what is reported to it by members of the Iraqi Governing Council, most of who have very little if any political support.
"The CPA in Baghdad remains over-isolated from the military, is an over-centralized bureaucracy, is slow to respond or non-responsive to coalition forces and workers in the field, and relies far too much on contractors, plans too much in theory, and is not realistically evaluating developments in the field," according to Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in an influential report concluded after a visit to Iraq earlier this month.
The answer, according to Pollard, is "lots more people" including civil affairs specialists, translators and interpreters and infantry who can patrol the streets.
But that may be politically impossible for the Bush administration, which has already committed itself to drawing down at least 30,000 soldiers from the present levels of almost 140,000 by next summer, when the presidential election campaign will be in full swing.
"We have to start looking fast to our friends overseas," according to Pollack, echoing similar suggestions from Cordesman and Korb.
Inter Press Service