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Stories or statistics? Read and compare to find the truth!

5 September 2007

Part III of a series about our Long War

There is no substitute for being on the ground if you want a sense of where Iraq may be headed. The reality is almost always different when you smell it up close.

Ralph Peters, “Iraq Inspection“, New York Post (4 September 2007)

As we move through our new “long war” the fog surrounds us at home as much as those at the front. We cannot know the truth; we can only try to understand. We have two tools to do so. First, through quantitative measures – statistics, trends, and sampling. Second, through first-person accounts.

Statistics give us a blurred vision of Iraq. First, there is no functioning central government to reliably collect data. Second, like most war zones Iraq has no neutral sources of data. Still, as described in Part II of this series, publicly available statistics show little or no improvement in significant metrics during the “Surge.”

Eyewitnesses give us color, impressions, and insights – what Peters calls “smell.” Pro-war websites showcase descriptions from those “who’ve been there” – often disputing the other source of first-person testimony: journalists. These clashing accounts show the limits of eyewitnesses. Can foreigners briefly walk around a large and complex foreign land – with little knowledge of the local culture and none of the language – and draw reliable conclusions? Or do they return with stories, Iraqi dirt on their shoes, but all preconceptions intact and misperceptions reinforced?

There is a drastic solution. We could wire observers and send them to every corner of Iraq. We would learn much from transcripts of their conversations with the locals. Insurgents would capture some, perhaps many. Transcripts of their interrogation, torture, and execution would also be enlightening, especially to our pacifists and die-hard multiculturalists.

I anticipate few volunteers for this role, although it exemplifies the harsh moral dilemmas of fourth generation warfare. What are the lives of a few hundred volunteers, perhaps members of the military, compared to the 4,000+ Coalition soldiers lost so far? Is this price too high to pay for accurate intelligence? Such calculations appear routine for our enemies.

Other than through such drastic measures, how can we make the best of what data we have? Discarding the chaff of reports by untrained and inexperienced observers, that leaves those by different kinds of professionals. Here we look at two articles by professionals, each with a different perspective on the war. Both deserve careful reading, from which you can draw your own conclusions.

The first is “Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt” (29 August 2007) by David Kilcullen – trained as an anthropologist and military officer (a powerful combination for this purpose). This is his first long article since completing a tour in Iraq as senior counterinsurgency adviser to the Multi-National Force.

For a description of Kilcullen’s impressive background, see appendix #1 of Part I.

Kilcullen gives us a glimpse into our plan for victory in Iraq. To what extent is Kilcullen’s article a realistic description of what’s happening in Iraq? Consider this excerpt, about measures to support the uprising of Sunni and Shiite tribes against al Qaeda. As he describes it, this is a major development in the war: “The uprising began last year, far out in western Anbar province, but is now affecting about 40% of the country.”

Kilcullen explains how Coalition forces have nurtured the revolt, so that it furthers our strategic goal – building a stable Iraq which has a strong central government.

Having watched this thing develop at close hand over several months, I believe the risk mitigation measures that we and the Iraqi government are currently putting into place stand a better-than-even chance of preventing major negative side-effects from the uprising. The risks are still significant, but with appropriate mitigation they are probably manageable. Such mitigation measures include:

  • Developing programs, up front, to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate tribal forces in Iraqi society (a so-called “DDR” plan);
  • Ensuring the government does not provide weapons to any group until its loyalty is demonstrated and members have sworn allegiance to the new Iraq;
  • Conducting biometric registration of tribal fighters, and registering their weapon serial numbers (to discourage side-switching, detect infiltrators and reassure the Iraqi government of its control);
  • Linking tribal loyalty to local governance structures, and then directly to the central government, through traditional tribal control mechanisms such as deera (tribal boundaries; tribal forces could not work outside these without an agreement with the neighboring sheikh) and Sulh (traditional tribal reconciliation processes, leading to compacts within and between communities);
  • Vetting and training tribal security forces as a pre-condition for their enrollment into paid, government-sponsored organizations like the Police and Army; and
  • Providing advisers, liaison officers and support infrastructure (ideally from the Iraqi government with our help) to prevent human rights abuses and enforce appropriate operational standards.

Sounds wonderful. I wish we could implement this in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, it raises many questions, among them:

  • What sources confirm that these plans are in action – not just like so many before them, doomed to remain paper monuments to our false optimism about the Iraq War? Are we being told what we want to hear?
  • Is this article an example of “taking a button and sewing a vest on it”? That is, taking a few facts and building a structure of conjecture and wishing on them. How do we know – General Petraeus, while undeniably bright and competent, is under extraordinary pressure to produce results.
  • Or worse, might this be part of an active information operation directed at the American people, to prop up support for the Iraq War?

Another perspective: are the Sunni Arabs properly grateful to us? Although lacking in public services – clean water, sewage treatment, and electricity – we have brought them supervision by state-of-the-art police technology (“biometric registration of tribal fighters”).

Another View: Journalists

In pursuit of answers we can compare Kilcullen’s views with articles from journalists in Iraq. During the Vietnam War these often proved more accurate than public statements by our civilian and military officials. Our second sample report is “The Former-Insurgent Counterinsurgency” by Michael R. Gordon, [co-author with LtGen Bernard Trainor, USMC, ret., of Cobra II, a detailed study of the March 2003 invasion] published in the Sunday New York Times Magazine (2 September 2007).

Gordon has written a fascinating picture about America’s class structure, our deep optimism, and Martin van Creveld’s observation that all COIN is rooted in lessons from lost wars:

The key figure of the article is Lt. Col. Mark Odom. We learn much about him.

{his father} Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, a director of the National Security Agency under President Reagan … He attended Middlebury College and later completed a master’s thesis on the Balkans conflict at King’s College, London. … Odom’s office at Forward Operating Base Falcon contained an impressive library of national security literature, including an inscribed copy of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s “Second Chance,” Raphael Patai’s tome on “The Arab Mind” and a well-thumbed copy of Samuel P. Huntington’s “Political Order in Changing Societies,” … He seemed the very model of the scholar-warrior.

Especially revealing is a text that Odom brings to Gordon’s attention.

The colonel also had a copy of Jean Lartéguy’s out-of-print classic, “The Centurions.” The novel, about French paratroopers who served in Vietnam and later fought in the battle of Algiers, has a memorable passage in which one officer says to another: “We no longer wage the same war as you, colonel. Nowadays it’s a mixture of everything, a regular witches’ brew . . . of politics and sentiment . . . religion and the best way of cultivating rice, yes, everything, including even the breeding of black pigs. I knew an officer in Cochin-China who, by breeding black pigs, completely restored a situation which all of us regarded as lost.”

Such sentiments occur in almost every counter-insurgency waged by foreigners. Local successes in doomed wars. Tiny flickering bright spots in the dark. First person optimism floating in a sea of statistical darkness. Repeated every few years until conventional Armies come to understand 4GW.

The first half of the article is upbeat, much like Kilcullen’s article. After this gung-ho beginning the article turns detailed, anecdotal, and gloomy. The second half makes Kilcullen’s description of this “bottoms up reconciliation” (to use the current jargon) look like fiction. We see little of the highly controlled, complex integration of the Sunni tribes back into the Iraq polity.

Much of this reads like a reply to Kilcullen’s article.

Executing the policy, however, has been extremely tricky. In effect, the American command has been moving on two parallel and possibly conflicting tracks. One represented a decentralization of power, as the American military organized Sunnis into local security forces. The second track was to centralize power in the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad and to strengthen national institutions like the largely Shiite Iraqi Army. The key to squaring the circle is to establish a link between the new Sunni forces in the field and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s risk-averse government.

On this key subject, “squaring the circle” of Iraq politics, neither this article nor any other have much good to report. Unfortunately that is the key to attaining our strategic goals; all else is secondary. Without a viable political settlement, Iraq becomes with a failed state or a plaything of its neighbors.

Considering this brings a grim conclusion to Gordon’s article:

But if the effort to forge a link between the central government and the new security groups falters, the United States might simply be laying the groundwork for a heightened round of civil strife. The Iraqi government and the security forces it controls might become alarmed if Sunni security organizations were to sprout around the country and begin to network, and Shiite militias might also respond by stepping up their attacks.

“We have not made political progress at the national level,” Odom said. “We have taken on a decentralized effort with the concerned citizens at the local level and somehow hope that we can tie it back into the local and national government at the end of the day.”

Is “hope” a reliable option for our operations in Iraq?

Everyone must choose their own path to determine the truth. I will continue to rely on the available numbers, imperfect as they are, to tell us about the Iraq War. So far they have accurately told the grim tale, while most first-person accounts appear to have been too optimistic.

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