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What should we do in Iraq?

9 December 2006

Summary:  This is part 2 in a series looking at the Iraq War.

Advice from past to the present.

Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.
— Advice from Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith in a letter to President Kennedy, dated 2 March 1962, printed in Galbraith’s Ambassador’s Journal (1969)

In my view it is time for a major adjustment. Clearly, what US forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough.
—   From a classified memo by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sent to the White House suggesting new options in Iraq, dated 6 November 2006.

 Have we been defeated in Iraq?  To some, defeat implies a victor. North Vietnam and its allies in the South defeated us thirty years ago. Nothing like that has occurred in Iraq. The collapse of Iraq has no obvious victors. Even Iran might suffer if the instability spreads across the Middle East’s porous borders.

But there are other ways to lose. We’ve found one.

Where’s the evidence that we have lost in Iraq?  The cost in money? Perhaps a trillion dollars, including the costs of not only the war but also the long tail of post-war costs – borrowed from the Central Banks of Asian and OPEC nations.  (See “Official Iraq war costs don’t tell the whole story“, McClatchy Newspapers, 5 December 2006)  The cost in blood? Almost four years of war have resulted in thousands of Coalition dead, hundreds of thousands of dead Iraq civilians, and countless more wounded and disabled.

Neither of these is a significant indicator that we’ve lost.

Instead, look to the total disconnect between our tactics and strategy. Our daily actions in Iraq have not and cannot produce a good long-term outcome. Worse, the war’s proponents have no new ideas as to how we can achieve victory. None, that is, that appears likely to work.

In February we can read Martin van Creveld’s new book and learn what happened and why in Iraq: The Changing Face of War: Lessons of Combat, from the Marne to Iraq.  Until then, defeat can serve to describe the War’s result as well as any other label. We have paid much and achieved nothing in Iraq that any rational person considers of value.  This is the Iraq War today.

For its part, the US is pressuring the Iraqi government to disassemble the militias — and to install Cabinet members who will further this goal. To this end, U.S. forces launched two raids into areas dominated by Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr on Nov. 11 and Nov. 13. The second raid — in Shula, a neighborhood controlled al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army — was large enough to demonstrate the full power of a coordinated U.S. push backed by armor and aircraft. The fact that this raid did not target Sadr City, al-Sadr’s center of power, likely means the strike was not intended to seriously damage the Mehdi Army. However, it did prove that the US is still a formidable force in Iraq. 

“Iraq Update”, Stratfor, 15 November, 2006

This describes a punitive raid, sending troops to kill and destroy civilian targets in hope of influencing their leaders to fear and obey us. Worse, it meets the textbook definition of terrorism. I doubt any expert on Iraq believes that the Iraq Government, as currently configured, can disassemble the militias – or that such strikes advance any rational goal.

Strategy must drive tactics. Now we must develop both a new strategy and some reasonable (and likely to succeed) means to implement it.  Not an easy task, and one that few developed nations have achieved when fighting 4th generation wars. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, conventional armies lose if they do not win – insurgents drive them out by not losing.

Developing a strategy starts with setting goals.  Our current goals – more modest than before, perhaps still beyond our reach?

Victory will be the day when the Iraqis solve their political problems and are up and running with respect to their own government, and when they’re able to provide for their own security.
    
Vice President Cheney

I’d like our troops to come home, too, but I want them to come home with victory, and that is a country that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself.
    
President Bush

The Bush administration’s goals probably assume that the Iraq state allies with us. They would not consider it as a US victory if a stable Iraq were run, for example, by bin Laden or Muqtada al-Sadr.

Option 1: more force, perhaps send more troops

This option works best for those who believe running up a high “body count” means that the General need not read Clausewitz or John Boyd. With so many bombs, why do we need a strategy?

Vietnam, 1960′s:

At an early intergovernmental meeting on the importance of psychological warfare, one of Harkins’ key staffmen, Brigadier General Gerald Kelleher, quickly dismissed that theory. His job, he said, was to kill Vietcong. But the French … had killed a lot of Vietcong and they had not won. “Didn’t kill enough Vietcong,” answered Kelleher.
     From The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam (1972)

Iraq, 2006 …

We must kill – not capture – Muqtada, then kill every gunman who comes out in the streets to avenge him. … And after we’ve killed Muqtada and destroyed his Mahdi Army, we need to go after the Sunni insurgents. If we can’t leave a democracy behind, we should at least leave the corpses of our enemies.
     Ralph Peters, “KILL MUQTADA NOW“, New York Post, 26 October 2006

What really matters is what our forces are ordered – and permitted – to do. … That means killing the bad guys. Not winning their hearts and minds, placating them or bringing them into the government. Killing them. …Killing Sunni Arabs would be fine, of course. …To master Iraq now – if it could be done – we’d have to fight every faction except the Kurds. Are we willing to do that? Are we willing to kill mass murderers and cold-blooded executioners on the spot? If not, we can’t win, no matter what else we do.
     Ralph Peters, “Arabian Nightmares“, New York Post, 15 November 2006

We will hear more recommendations like this, to take the gloves off and do what works in counter-insurgency warfare. Hostages, torture, reprisals, and genocide. The basics.

We have done the first three in Iraq, on a small scale. This has not worked, hence, the calls to do more. That’s the logic of escalation. In Vietnam we saw how it works. The resulting damage to the US was severe, both internally and externally. Those advocating this path should explain why the outcome would be different this time.

A warning about escalation

It is the nature of escalation that each move passes the initiative to the other side. To the extent that the response to our move can be predicted, it is probably ineffective. Worse, the history of insurgencies shows that we seldom accurately anticipate the enemy’s response. Once on the tiger’s back we cannot be sure of picking the place to dismount.

A paraphrase of an October 1964 memo from George Ball, Undersecretary of State, to Secretary Defense McNamara and National Security Advisor MacGeorge Bundy.  From The Pentagon Papers.

Option 2: to win in Iraq, adopt a bold and creative new strategy

Leaders of great powers, confident of their wisdom and strength, often respond to setbacks with bold moves. Today some people, although perhaps not senior military officers, suggest that the US respond to failure in Iraq with another set of bold strategies.

America has a golden opportunity to turn the tables in the Middle East. Were America to withdraw to Kurdistan, all fears of a regional war would disappear. A US security guarantee would deter Turkey, a fellow NATO member, and Iran as well. In exchange for that guarantee, the Kurds would have to renounce all claim to parts of Turkey. … In addition, they would have to help root out any PKK elements in the North and considering many Iraqi Kurds never supported them, this would likely be a non-issue.

Democratic, modern and liberal, Kurdistan is a natural ally of not only the United States, but of Israel too. Considering both the US and Israel are allied with Turkey, and the Kurds with America, further regional stability would be created and a serious geopolitical shift would occur. With solid guarantees from America and Kurdistan, Turkey could be co-opted into a powerful new Turkish-Israeli-Kurdish axis. On top of that, the Middle East would gain another democracy. If all that isn’t a big bang, then what is?

     Posted at “Coming Anarchy” on 1November 2006

Can such gamesmanship snatch success from the current chaos in Iraq? Probably not.

First, why this enthusiasm to see the Kurds as a liberal, democratic people? Their history shows extraordinary tenacity and ferocity, but nobody yet knows what form of government will take hold in “Kurdistan.” Or what role it will play in the region.

Second, realpolitik requires alliances not with small, perpetually threatened weak states, but with the important ones: Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Alliances with the Kurds and Israel put us in serious opposition to all of these. Each of these states – more so their people – wishes to eliminate either the Jewish state or any Kurdish State – or both.

Third, we can ally with the Kurds but that does not make them friends. Not only are we infidels but worse, we are inherently opposed to their generations-long goal of unifying the Kurdish people in a Kurdish State. That is, unless we betray our alliance with fellow-NATO member Turkey.

Under these circumstances, a US-Kurd alliance will likely be weak and temporary – probably giving us more problems than benefits.

Just as success follows success for the wise, desperate gamblers double their stakes only to see failure follow failure. Our failures result from deep structural weaknesses in the US Government, hence the eerie similarities between the Vietnam and Iraq Wars.  Until these are corrected, we should stick with simple, high probability of success strategies – as we’ve proven likely to screw-up implementation of any requiring subtlety of conception or execution.

Option 2b – The not so bold and half-smart solution: retreat to our desert bases

Stratfor has long recommended that we abandon Iraq’s urban areas (returning only to bomb them as needed) and relocate our forces into massive desert bases. From these we can achieve what they see as our original and primary goal of the invasion: secure bases from which to project military power throughout the Middle East.

Like the invasion itself, this seems poorly conceived, perhaps absurd. Let’s withdraw from the urban battle zones and watch the ethnic and religious groups fight to a conclusion. This might be fast or quick – who knows? The only certainty is that the winners then owe us nothing, and will likely order us out. Just like our previous plans: failure guaranteed in advance – brought to you by the best and the brightest of the American governing class.

Option 3 – Vietnamization

… a U.S.-backed coup may be the only alternative to endless anarchy. We’ve got to prepare the national military to take on the local police. And the insurgents. And the militias. And the foreign terrorists.
     Ralph Peters, “Iraq’s New Secret Police“, New York Post, 15 November 2006 — “Military gov’t may be the best answer.”

With all of the best intentions in the world, we have fallen into a tragic error. We have taken sides in a civil war, just as we did in Vietnam. …The only answer is to speed up the creation of reasonably competent Iraqi army and police forces. Once these minimum conditions are met, the United States should get out. We can assist the elected Iraqi government in foiling particularly dangerous future insurgent attacks by the use of air power or Special Forces operating from bases outside the country. But we should not uphold any government that must depend on our military power for an indeterminate period to survive.

     “We Cannot Win the War in Iraq“, Bevin Alexander, posted on his blog (25 September 2005)

Unfortunately, there is no longer an Iraqi polity, no political structure holding the allegiance of Iraq army and police. There are only regional, ethnic, and/or religious leaders.  The Green Zone placeholders pretending to be a government are mostly either representatives of these groups or colonial satraps. We pretend that there is an Iraqi government so that we have something through which to implement our policies. But it does not control territory, levy and collect taxes, or control its borders, or command troops – the key attributes of a government.  (Note that the Kurdish government in the North does all these things. Their insurgency against the Iraq state has succeeded.)

I am now prime minister and overall commander of the armed forces yet I cannot move a single company without Coalition approval…
     Nuri al-Maliki, Prime Minister of Iraq, interview with Reuters, reported by the New York Times (29 October 2006)

The US can give al-Maliki air power, but not what he most needs: legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraq people.  There may no longer even be either an Iraq State or Nation, just a brightly colored space on our maps. The failure of the Iraq Study Group to realize this dooms their recommendations to irrelevance.  Reassembling its shards is a task for Iraq’s people; doing so is beyond our power and ability. Hoping for Iraq to reappear is a dream, not a strategy.

Something else is taking form in the area formerly known as Iraq. The major force impeding its development appears to be the US military. For more on this see:

A common element of plans for victory: a false vision of the light at the end of the tunnel

  1. Two to six months: expected duration of the Rolling Thunder bombing program, after which North Vietnam would yield and negotiate. It ran from February 1965 until October 1968.
  2. In the summer of 1965, dissenting senators going to the White House, uneasy about the number of the troops there, and the rumors that more, many more were on their way, were assured by the President that they need not worry. They should just sit still for six months; all we wanted was negotiations, and those would come by Christmas.” 
    (Halberstam, p. 611)
  3. When questioned by several Congressmen in April 1969, Kissinger replied that a breakthrough was imminent. “Be patient, give us another 60 to 90 days. Please be silent for the time being.” 
    (Halberstam, p. 663)
  4. We agree our forces need work but think that if, as we are asking, the rebuilding of our forces was in our own hands, then it would take not 12-18 months but six might be enough. Nuri al-Maliki, Prime Minister of Iraq 
    (Interview with Reuters on October 26, 2006)

For 52 more such quotations, see “This is a defining moment in Iraq. The next six months will be crucial. Again. And Again.  (12 Novembe 2006).

False Reason #1 to stay and continue fighting in Iraq

Victor Davis Hanson explains that we have “A Lot at Stake in Iraq” (National Review Online, 14 November 2006):

… if we fail, others will immediately capitalize on the newfound sense that the United States is weakened …Iran will accelerate its nuclear acquisition, Syria and Iran will be even more emboldened, Latin America will go even harder left, China will carve out a wider swath, and so on.  … If we lost in Iraq and fled, … the United States would never in our lifetime intervene successfully again on the ground abroad – convinced it would inevitably lose.

I think we are also close to seeing the permanent end of any Anglo-American military collaboration. And there would be legitimate questions raised also whether the U.S. military could win any future war — given the knowledge that, barring some instantaneous victory, the American public would not allow it the time or the latitude to destroy its enemies… 

Perhaps all these things and perhaps worse will happen following our defeat.  There were similar predictions of doom if we lost in Vietnam – dominos falling across Asia – which proved false.

More importantly, can these outcomes be avoided? If not, then we have already been defeated.  “Staying the course” is no magic talisman to avoid defeat. In fact, this matches the layman’s definition of insanity – mindless repetition of action, hoping for a different outcome. “It’s like pasting feathers together and hoping for a duck”  (John Holbo, posted on Crooked Timer, 26 September 2006)

In The March of Folly  Barbara Tuchman describes how the Renaissance Popes provoked the Protestant Secession, and draws an anogy with Vietnam that applies to us in Iraq.

Disregard of the movements and sentiments developing around them was a primary folly. They were deaf to disaffection, blind to the alternative ideas it gave rise to, blandly impervious to challenge, unconcerned by the dismay at their misconduct and the rising wrath at their misgovernment, fixed in refusal to change …  (page 125)

{America is inflicting}…grievous damage on the lives of a poor and helpless people, particularly on a people of different race and color…. This spectacle produces reactions among millions of people throughout the world profoundly detrimental to the image we would like them to hold of this country.
Ambassador George Kennan at the 1966 Fulbright Hearings on the Vietnam War before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (page 335)

How sad that to avoid this disaster we need only have follow the ancient military maxim “Feed Success, Starve Failure.”

False Reason #2: to preserve our credibility

My objective is to succeed, and I’ll tell you why. Failure in Iraq would be a disaster for your grandchildren. … We’d be disgraced. Our allies would no longer support us.
     President George Bush, interview with Fox News’ Bret Hume on “Special Report” (4 December 2006), from the transcript at The Hotline.

They tell you that your dignity is tied to it. … This dignity is a terrible encumbrance to you, for it has of late been ever at war with your interest …
     Edmund Burke’s speech to the British Parliament on 19 April 1774, discussing the taxation of tea imported into the American colonies – like the Iraq War, a measure who’s cost far exceeded its benefits. From Tuchman, page 198.

It should not be supposed that honor and dignity are better served by persisting in a wrong measure once entered into than by rectifying an error as soon it is discovered.
     Benjamin Franklin

Like the Vietnam War, the original goals of the Iraq War are almost forgotten, superseded by new and even more foolish ones. Such as demonstrating unlimited willingness to persevere in a lost cause, to demonstrate our resolve and build credibility.

The idea is that the war is costing huge amounts of money and lives with no real prospect of success and a distinct danger that it is making things much worse. However, to do the logical thing would send the signal to our enemies that we will give up if fought to a pointless bloody standstill. … It is certainly true that one of the benefits of doing something stupid is that it saves you from having to spend money on maintaining your reputation as an idiot. However, is the reputation of an idiot really worth having?
     “Reputations are made of …“, Daniel Davies, posted on Crooked Timer, 29 November 2006.

At some point the belief that American willpower can achieve victory in any conflict becomes the Green Lantern theory of geopolitics, where the only limit to our power is the strength of our will. This seems idiotic, for good reason. It can be suicidal as it provides no clear signal when to stop, before ruinous disaster becomes inevitable.

Amid this time of change, I have a message for those on the front lines. To our enemies: Do not be joyful. Do not confuse the workings of our democracy with a lack of will.
     President Bush, Hume interview cited above.

The US electorate regularly elects fools to high office, and on occasion acts unwisely – but we usually recognize and correct mistakes. Our inability to build credibility through sustained idiocy is our strength – not a weakness.

False Reason #3: stabilizing the Gap and bringing democracy to the Middle East

Losing these delusional and arrogant goals – which lured us into Iraq – is a necessary part of our recovery process. We are not heroes authorized by God to kill Iraq’s women and children in order to bring about a better world.

It was obvious even before the invasion that we lacked the necessary wisdom. Now it is obvious that we lack the necessary power.  To paraphrase one of Barbara Tuchman’s conclusions in March of Folly (page 12*):  Rulers often pursue the unworkable at the expense of the possible. This is the most common of government follies.

What about the sacrifices made by our troops!

We owe a debt to those who suffered and to those who died, both to American troops and those of other Coalition nations who followed us to Iraq.

We can repay this debt and honor their sacrifice by learning something from the experience. Our soldiers paid dearly for our education. Losing for even higher stakes, getting even more of our troops wounded and killed, is to consider them as expendables – like poker chips – spent to maintain our arrogance and hubris.

On a deeper level, their heroism and sacrifice does not depend on our wisdom in waging this war. The nation called; they went. Many paid with all they had to give.

Staying in Iraq means more crosses in Arlington, monuments to our stupidity.

For more information about the Iraq War

Other articles in this series:

Reference pages with links to other sources

Afterword and contact info

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