More paths to failure in Iraq. Part III of a series.

Summary:   This is Part 3 of this series, looking at more pathways to failure in Iraq.  Only when we abandon our dreams of victory can salvage what we can and plan for successes after Iraq.  Links to the other chapters are at the end.


History repeats itself because we fail to learn from it.

“Our nation has been led to war by the arts of imposition, by its own credulity, through means of false hope, false pride, and promised advantages of the most romantic and improbable nature.”
Lord Chatham (Pitt the elder) to Parliament on 11 December 1777

“The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.”
— John Maynard Keynes, preface to The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936)

Option #4 – victory will result from more American Trainers to work with the Iraq Army.

History shows the wide range of motivations for which young men will march to war.  To defend their land and people.  For loot – both monetary and in other desirable forms.    For God.  For the true ideology.  For revenge.

Why does the Iraq Army fight?  Or, what can American trainers (foreign infidels) say that will motivate them to kill their neighbors?  Probably nothing.  “Iraq” appears to be a dream.  I believe the only “real” national Army indigenous to Iraq is the Kurdish Peshmerga.  Many or most accounts of effective fighting by the “Iraq Army” are no such thing, but the Peshmerga fighting Arabs and Turkman.  They do not fight for an “Iraq” state.

As Stratfor and others have said, we need Iran’s help.  Not for the almost-delusional reasons they give, imagining that Iran controls most of the Shiite militia.  Iran does have the power to unify Iraq almost immediately.  If only they would invade Iraq …

Pause for a heretical thought:  is our training helping the Iraq Army?

Much of the commentary about Iraq illustrates our inability to clearly see a 4GW world, to break free of old paradigms.  Note these symptoms:

  • Our obsession with “training” as the key to building a National Army, instead of finding men willing to fight for the Iraq nation.
  • Our surprise that the insurgents have developed sophisticated tactical ops and IEDs — how is this possible with no schools or PhD instructors?  Without subscriptions to Parameters or Proceedings?

Perhaps we train the Iraq Army only how to lose a 4th generational war.  Perhaps ideas like the strategic corporal and OODA loops hurt us more than they help, by encouraging this excessive intellectual development — theorizing — an excessively academic attitude.

Why do men fight?  For what?  Understand these things and perhaps we might help build an army that can win in Iraq.

Option #5 – if only the Iraq Government would crush the militias

Could we win if Iraq’s Prime Minister “unleashed” the Iraq Army against the major Shiite militia?  That is, if he sent a largely Shiite army to fight Shiite militia, whose leaders are his Administration’s key supporters.  Recommendations such as this suggest that America’s #1 problem is excessive use of Columbian nasal dust by American elites (good business for poor Latin American farmers; disastrous for the US).

It is not going to happen.  Replacing him with someone who will do so is likely to work as well for Iraq as replacing Ngo Dinh Diem did for South Vietnam in 1963.

False Reason #4 to stay in Iraq:  it’s just a matter of the right force levels.

Although ignored before the war, three years of failure have taught us the importance of force levels:  the ratio of our soldiers to the total local population.  This insight might have proved decisive before the war.  Unfortunately, it is – like most American thinking about military strategy – probably almost irrelevant.

Consider occupied Europe during WWII.  The Germans lightly garrisoned most of Western Europe, relying mostly on security services (i.e., Gestapo and SS).  Equally or more important was the aid of the native security services (e.g. local police, the Milice in France).  And far more important was that the losers acknowledged their defeat, as legitimate conquest under the rules of western culture.  Even so, in Norway large numbers of troops were required to hold the conquest (more, of course, were stationed there to prevent UK from re-taking it — so the force ratio is difficult to determine).

But consider Eastern Europe.  Despite little danger of external re-invasion, massive forces were needed to hold the conquered areas.  There are no simple formulas to calculate the number of troops required to hold a foreign territory.  Cultural and other specific circumstances trump all other considerations.

What we have learned in Iraq is that we have nowhere remotely like the necessary troops.  Worse, our fellow Coalition members are rapidly exiting the struggle.

False Reason #5 to stay in Iraq:  we just fighting radicals, a small element of Iraq’s people.

Iraq has ethnic divisions, such as Arab vs. Kurd vs. Turkman.  It has religious divisions, obviously. But what is the basis for assuming that the fighters are not mainstream representatives of these groups?  Is this more of the delusional thinking that got us into Iraq, and led to the astonishing series of mistakes that have brought us to this desperate point?  There are foreign elements, which can be considered “radical”, but most sources consider them marginal at this point (although perhaps important earlier in setting Iraq afire).

False Reason #6 to stay in Iraq:  most of the fighting is in a small area, a few provinces.

True, but this is not good news.  This brings us to the vital insight necessary to understand the war in Iraq at this point in time.  There is no insurrection.  Many of us described the war in Iraq as an insurgency by October 2003.  Rumsfeld resisted acknowledging this reality as late as November 2005.  Now – blind as usual – the top officers of the US military “see” the insurgency, but only after it has evolved into something else.

  • There is no insurgency in the Kurdish regions, but that does not mean that the posers in the Green Zone rule them. It means that the Kurdish insurgents have won. They now control the Army (Peshmerga), levy taxes, fight for control of their border regions, enact and enforce laws.
  • Similar, there is little presence of the Iraq government in the southern regions, as power has passed to local entities – enforced by local militias.
  • There is little or no government in the disputed Sunni provinces.  There civil war rages, each side (or all sides) seeking to establish control.

Governments have specific characteristics.  The more of these they possess, the stronger. Just to hit the high points…

  • Control of armed force
  • The ability to levy and collect taxes
  • An administrative mechanism to execute its policies
  • Territory in which it is the dominant political entity.
  • Control of borders
  • Legitimacy in the eyes of its people (obeyed, even if hated)

The national government of Iraq has none of these.

False Reason #7 to stay in Iraq:  we’re getting better at counter-insurgency.

“America’s Army and Marines are changing this strategic mindset rapidly through improved training, doctrine and tactics.”
— Thomas P. M. Barnett, 9 December 2006  (source)

How many times have we heard this since the initial wave of enthusiasm for counter-insurgency warfare during the Kennedy years?

President Kennedy attended a demonstration exercise of the Green Berets.  These multi-lingual PhDs swung through the trees to stage ambushes, ate snakes, and for the big finale one strapped a rocket to his back and flew through the air.  Everyone was ecstatic.  Except the French ambassador.  “Interesting.  We tried all this in Indochina, and still lost.”
— David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest  (1972)

For fifty years we have heard about new military reforms and innovative tactics, and still see no substantial results.  We’re told that the Army or Marine Corps have learned from past failures — and the next war shows that they have not.  It’s time to call the game off and consider why these efforts — however promising — produce such small results.  Deep structural factors in our State and Defense Departments prevent development of effective US capability to fight and win 4GWs.

For a brief analysis of this problem, see Lessons Learned from the American Expedition to Iraq.

But the newspapers say that we’re getting better at counter-insurgency warfare.

Our big “wins” in Fallujah and Tal Afar have in common that they offer no paradigmatic solutions (for us, at least).   We destroyed much of Fallujah.  Then we promised to rebuild it, and did almost nothing.  We flooded the small town of Tal Afar with troops, put a wall around it, and declared victory.  Tal Afar will in time likely resemble Fallujah as a center of resistance and a symbol of “why we fight” for the Sunni Arabs.  If this is what it takes to “win” then we’ve already lost.

False Reason #8 to stay in Iraq:  the Brit’s success in Malaysia gives a formula for victory.

The UK success in Malaysia offers few lessons for us in Iraq.  The differences are more important than the similarities.

  • The UK had ruled Malaysia since 1824, giving them great logistical and intelligence resources that we lack in Iraq.
  • The UK had vital assistance from a functional Malaysian government, its army and police forces – and a “Special Constabulary” raised to fight the insurgents.  For example, the government was able to require everyone over 12 to carry an identity card at all times.  The Iraq national government is virtually a phantom by comparison.
  • The insurgents (Communists, members of the minority Chinese population) had no safe haven across the Thai or Burmese borders to which they could retreat under pressure. Iraq has open borders.

It took 12 years to crush the Malay insurgency.  Twelve years in Iraq at the current rate will cost trillions of dollars, disproportionate to any conceivable gain.  Nor is it likely the US public will support such a long war.  Also, the UK methods were barbaric to a degree probably unacceptable today.

“The corpses of guerrillas were routinely put on display. Decapitation was also practiced: A photograph of a Marine commando holding two insurgents’ heads caused an outcry in the spring of 1952. … Nearly the entire Chinese population of 400,000 to 500,000 were forced from their homes and were resettled into some 400 heavily guarded barbed-wire villages. They were deprived of all civil rights, and they endured great physical and emotional abuse.”
Why Malaya Is No Model For Iraq”, Caroline Elkins, The New Republic, 19 December 2005 — Free link here.

For more information on this see “Getting the job done: Iraq and the Malayan Emergency”, Dr Milton Osborne, Perspectives (published by the Lowry Institute), 21 February 2005

False Reason #9 to stay in Iraq:  we have a history of successful nation-building

The post-reconstruction South.  The Philippines after the insurrection.  Germany and Japan after WWII.  South Vietnam.  Except for the Philippines, all these are myths of successful nation-building by America.

We’re due some credit for the success of German and Japan after WWII, certainly for our extraordinary magnanimity in victory.  However, that many Americans take so much credit for Europe’s post-war success is a classic case of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy.  Another inconvenient contrary fact:  East Germany recovered without our help after WWII, despite far greater post-war looting and oppression by the USSR.  Perhaps after the horrors of 1914 – 1945, Europe was ready to take another path.  Perhaps we were just present at the creation, to borrow a phrase from Dean Acheson.

The South reintegrated into the Union after defeat despite the botched reconstruction.  They retained a form of their “peculiar institution” after a successful post-war insurrection.  After the long war and reconstruction period, the South’s resistance – with the KKK as its military arm – was rewarded with a shameful compromise – perhaps understandable after so much blood shed on our battlefields.  The North and West turned their attention to growth, while the South oppressed its involuntary African immigrants at the cost of relative isolation and poverty.

Only after WWI and WWII did the South fully rejoin America as full partners.

But we won a military victory in Vietnam.  Undefeated on the battlefield, we lost because Congress ended military aid in December, 1974.

How sad that our enemies do not fight according to our ways, so that we can easily defeat them.

“To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
— Sun Tzu, The Art of War, circa 500 B.C.

“You know you never defeated us on the battlefield”
“That may be so,” he replied, “but it is also irrelevant.”
— Conversation on 25 April 1975 in Hanoi between Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr. (Chief of the U.S. Delegation, Four Party Joint Military Team) and Colonel Nguyen Don Tu (Chief, North Vietnamese  Delegation), from Introduction to On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War by Harry G. Summers Jr. (1982)

Our peril in the 21st Century shines in the inability of so many Americans, including those in the military, to understand the source of our defeat – even after 3 decades has past.


“{This war is} unjust in its principles, impracticable in its means, and ruinous in its consequences.”
— Lord Chatham (Pitt the elder) to Parliament on 10 November 1777

So we stumble on to greater failures in Iraq, with larger consequences.  It need not be so.

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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