The Insurgency's Psychological Component

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, September 3, 2007

At the core of this fall's debate over Iraq lies one simple question: Can an increased number of U.S. troops subdue the Iraqi insurgency?

The question turns out to have complex answers, and not just because the political stakes are so high. Washington is already buzzing with arguments over Gen. David H. Petraeus's upcoming report about the effect of the U.S. "surge," but beyond the politics, social scientists have come up with some empirical answers.

Their analyses show that the outcome of the troop increase hinges on whether the insurgency is primarily a mathematical phenomenon or a psychological phenomenon.

If the insurgency follows the rules of conventional mathematics, increasing the number of U.S. troops should produce a greater counterinsurgency effort and a more peaceful Iraq. That is what one analysis found. Alex Braithwaite of Colorado State University tracked insurgent attacks across Iraq's provinces over a six-month period from January to June 2005. On average, there were 16 attempted attacks in each province each week. Braithwaite found an inverse relationship between insurgent attacks and the presence of U.S. troops.

"The insurgency is most severe where U.S. troop presence is low," Braithwaite said, as he presented his findings last week at the American Political Science Association meeting in Chicago. "U.S. troops dampen the effects of the insurgency."

But if Braithwaite's finding is good news for the Bush administration and other proponents of the war, there is also troubling evidence that the insurgency simultaneously has a psychological component. Increased levels of U.S. troops might produce tactical victories against insurgents -- but might also paradoxically provide the strategic fuel that grows the insurgency.

One of the most prominent advocates of this position is the political scientist Robert Pape of the University of Chicago. Increasing troops in Iraq, Pape argues, will win the United States a lot of battles with insurgents but also make it more likely that Americans will lose the war.

Pape's conclusions are based on a detailed examination of suicide attacks over the past 25 years. His central finding is that, contrary to conventional explanations, suicide attacks follow a certain strategic logic. From 1980 to 2006, Pape has counted 870 completed suicide attacks -- with the Iraqi insurgency accounting for the majority of such attacks in recent years.

Of the total, Pape has found that 824 of the attacks, or 95 percent, have come from groups that are fighting against military occupations of their homeland. Pape found that 85 percent of all the suicide attacks in the last quarter-century have come about in response to U.S. combat operations. There were eight times as many suicide attacks in Iraq in 2006 as there were in 2003.

While suicide attacks account for only a part of the overall Iraqi insurgency, Pape argues that these attacks provide the most reliable measure of the state of the insurgency. Furthermore, they are among the deadliest sources of mayhem in Iraq today. Every case that Pape counts has been corroborated by at least two independent sources. Pape's figures are considered so rigorous that U.S. government officials now use his database, and he gets funding from the Defense Department.

"If you look at the chart [of suicide attacks] from 2004 to 2006, you see Iraq and Afghanistan exploding," Pape said. "American combat operations are directly associated with suicide terrorism. There was no suicide terrorism, and we go in and now there is suicide terrorism."

Pape believes his findings offer empirical proof that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not lowered the risk of suicide attacks. Contrary to President Bush's argument that those wars provided the best way to lower the risk of suicide terrorism, Pape says the data show that launching overseas wars appears to be a way to increase the risk of suicide attacks. Improved homeland security, rather than foreign military occupations, the political scientist argues, is the way to lower the risk of suicide terrorism.

Unlike many of the other theories circulating in Washington, his theory can be put to a simple test, Pape said. For the first time, Pape said in an interview at the political science convention in Chicago, the troop buildup in Iraq has aggressively targeted Shiite groups, such as Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Until now, suicide attackers have been largely limited to Iraq's minority Sunni population. Pape believes that U.S. operations against Shiite groups will cause increasing numbers of Shiites to see the Americans the way many Iraqi Sunnis do -- as occupiers, rather than liberators.

If foreign occupations do indeed provide the strategic fuel for insurgencies, Pape said, Americans should expect to see a spate of Shiite suicide attacks. He said he could not predict when the insurgency would take that disturbing turn but said it would be soon: "We're heading toward the cocktail of conditions that favor suicide terrorism from the Shia."

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