The tone of news from Iraq shifts as press coverage moves through different cycles, slow and fast. January's election created an ambiance of success, but gridlock in the formation of a new government and more lurid violence from the insurgents has caused a new tide of pessimism. This see-sawing of perspective creates a deficit of credibility. At this point it is difficult to rely on the media for significant indices of the state of affairs in Iraq. Amidst all the spin and sound-bites, however, several factors seem to indicate future trends.
Though tactical shifts made by the US general staff have brought the casualty rate down, US soldiers continue to die at an average rate of more than one a day, during both "hot" and "cold" news cycles of insurgent violence, with wounded far exceeding that number. This fact is significant as force security is priority number one of the US soldiers stationed in Iraq. If the presence of 140,000 of the most technologically advanced soldiers in world history can not prevent the insurgency from killing 10 or more of their number weekly one can only imagine what the insurgency will be capable of once that force of soldiers has departed Iraq.
For its own part, the insurgency has remained persistent, if not consistently frequent and intense. Amid all reports of its "slowing down" or "speeding up" one must remember that time is on the side of the insurgency. Building a government is a slow, difficult process, where tearing one down can generally be achieved in short bursts of intense effort, timed carefully. The insurgents have very little incentive to stop fighting- their extreme politics will make them marginal to any system that emerges from a successful program of democratic nation-building. Their chances of successfully reconstituting Iraq on their terms are very low, but for the Islamic extremists among them that fact provides little deterence and for the Ba'athists among them days of past glory just might fuel dreams of future triumph.
It must be as clear to the insurgents as it is to me and to other observers world-wide: US forces will not remain in Iraq indefinitely. Once the new Iraqi constitution is approved by the end of 2005 the clock will begin running down marking time to the end of the Coalition occupation. UN resolutions call for an end to the Coalition occupation in 2006. As that will be a mid-term election year it will be very difficult for the Bush administration to justify extending the US presence in Iraq beyond the UN mandate.
The insurgency must know this timetable as well as anyone, and so their strategic situation amounts to a waiting-game. The continued presence of US forces until then might erode some of the insurgency's capacity, though the opposite effect might well result. Persistent adaptation and innovation in contention with US forces might make for a more capable and deadly insurgency in the wake of a US withdrawal. The surest deterrent to insurgent success between now and 2006 rests with the conduct of the new Iraqi government. If the winners of January's elections can come together forge stable and effective institutions (which hinges most crucially on whether they themselves respect the institutional accomodations they negotiate with one-another) the new Iraqi goverment will almost certainly emerge victorious from the civil conflict that will inevitably follow the Coalition withdrawal.