It's all very well for Jack Straw yesterday, and President Bush on Tuesday, to declare bravely that we will keep the troops in Iraq for as long as it takes. That's not the problem. What is beginning to concern the American, as the British, public is not that the troops are about to be withdrawn but that they will stay for years in an occupation of low-grade warfare and rising local distrust. To accept casualties in the task of liberating a people from tyranny is one thing, to lose them because the Iraqis don't want us is quite another.
Hence Washington's urgency in trying to gather international forces to take over some of the high-profile work of enforcing law and order. Hence, too, the current effort by Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, and Paul Bremer, the chief US administrator in Iraq, to pin the blame for the attacks on Allied troops on continued Baathist resistance. General Wesley Clark, the commander of the Kosovan war, went one stage further in an interview yesterday and declared that we were seeing a ethnic struggle in which the Sunnis were trying to hold onto power against the Shia majority.
If this is really what the occupying powers believe about Iraq, then the public is right to be worried. It's not just that we don't seem to have an "exit strategy" for the future - we don't even seem to have a "what are we doing there" strategy in the meantime.
One of the accusations levelled against the Americans is that they entered the war without a proper plan for governing the country after they won it. This is the opposite of the truth. Rarely can an army have entered a country with such detailed programmes. The US newspapers and magazines were full of the details months before the invasion took place - who was to get which job, where the contracts were to go, how teams of US personnel would shadow the civil servants of each ministry and American troops would work alongside the local police.
The trouble was that - as the benighted Richard Garner, the man chosen by the Pentagon to act as first proconsul of Iraq, complained bitterly as he was removed from his post after barely a month - the US plans were based on an assumption of conventional Iraqi defeat which never happened.
What the Pentagon had expected was a destruction of the Iraqi military and security forces that would then have left a civilian administration in power and still operational. The task of the occupying forces would be to control central and local government and gradually democratise it. Instead it found an army that never put up much of a fight but melted away with its arms, an infrastructure that was on the verge of total collapse and a civil administration that fell to pieces the moment the Allied tanks rolled into view. The idea that the invading forces could simply walk in and take command of a machine to run the country proved totally wrong.
So here we are, two months after the war was officially declared at an end, with services still to be fully restored in most parts of the country, the US civil administration hurriedly redrafted and elections postponed. The question is: what have we learned?
The answer would seem to be: not very much. It isn't just ex- Baathists sniping at coalition troops but - as the British found at Majar in south-eastern Iraq - tribal groups in the Shia areas. Some of the attacks may come from Baath forces, but the root problem seems more the extent to which tribal and criminal gangs have moved to fill the vacuum left by a collapsed civil authority.
Nor can opposition to US rule be viewed simply as the Sunni resisting giving up power to the Shia. This week has seen the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most powerful voice among Shia clergy and a man who has previously promoted co-operation with the occupying powers, issue a fatwa condemning US plans to appoint a convention to draw up a new constitution. His intervention is, at least in part, a reflection of the pressure he is coming under from Shia groups who want rid of the occupiers altogether.
If the occupying forces do see the fight essentially as a mopping-up operation of Baathist remnants, they stand not just to underestimate the sources of trouble but also to take action that will only increase local resentment and intensify the resistance in the future. Reconstruction demands security, yet security involves disarming of groups that will bitterly resist (and have done so).
Broadening the national make-up of the occupying force won't solve that problem. Local tribes will be just as resentful of searches and arrests by the Poles or Indians as by Americans or British. Holding early elections may risk consolidating the power of the groups that have already seized it. Yet delaying elections will only promote resentment of foreign rule.
What the we ought to be doing now is not sending extra troops but pouring in civil engineers and technicians to get the country on the move. What we should be doing with security is to internationalise it by calling in the United Nations. What we will more probably do is just stick at it, plugging on and hoping that circumstances will eventually turn for the better, all the time losing more men to ambush and more votes at home. It's a grim prospect but, until we understand better what we're up against, it's the likely one.Reuse content