Predicting the Insurgency

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The latest scoop by Knight-Ridder’s Jonathan Landay and Warren Stroebel has been linked around quite a bit:

U.S. intelligence agencies repeatedly warned the White House beginning more than two years ago that the insurgency in Iraq had deep local roots, was likely to worsen and could lead to civil war, according to former senior intelligence officials who helped craft the reports.

Among the warnings, Knight Ridder has learned, was a major study, called a National Intelligence Estimate, completed in October 2003 that concluded that the insurgency was fueled by local conditions – not foreign terrorists- and drew strength from deep grievances, including the presence of U.S. troops.

The reports received a cool reception from Bush administration policymakers at the White House and the office of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, according to the former officials, who discussed them publicly for the first time.

Okay, so Rumsfeld and the people in the White House are fools. We knew that. And however wrong our intelligence agencies may have been about various things over the years, this is yet more evidence that they were always considerably less wrong than the civilians—hacks, one might call them—in the Bush administration. We’ve known that too.

But here’s a question that doesn’t really get answered in the piece. What could Rumsfeld or anyone else have actually done if they had taken the reports seriously? Was there a window of opportunity in October 2003 when the U.S. military could have shut down the Iraqi insurgency, with a change of tactics or whatnot, if only Rumsfeld had just listened to the NIE? Or was it just that the insurgency was inevitable and unstoppable and no amount of forewarning by U.S. intelligence could have changed any of that? I certainly don’t know, and it’s an important question, at least for those debating whether the occupation of Iraq was a catastrophe because it was a good idea that was completely bungled in the execution (as many a disgruntled hawk now believes) or because it was a bad idea that was bound to fail from the start.

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