Three blind men examine the Iraq Elephant

First in another series of Iraq situation reports.

As with the fable about the blind men and the elephant (look here for several versions), we can look at Iraq from different perspectives.  Each gives different insights.

One day, a rajah’s son asked, “Father, what is reality?”

“An excellent question, my son.  Come, we will go to the marketplace.”

So the rajah and his son went outside and mounted their royal elephant.  When they got to the marketplace, the rajah commanded, “Bring me 3 blind men.”  When the blind men arrived, the rajah commanded, “Place one blind man at the elephant’s tusk, one at the elephant’s leg and one at the elephant’s tail.”  When that was done, the rajah said, “Describe the elephant to me, blind men.”

The man at the tusk said, “It’s like a spear.” The man at the leg said, “It’s like a tree.” The man at the tail said, “It’s like a rope.”

As the men started to argue, the rajah said to his son, “Reality, my son, is the elephant.  And we are all blind men.”

Many optimists about the gain confidence from reports by those who have served with US forces in Iraq, including the “war bloggers”.   But the reports of strangers in a strange land – especially people with guns occupying foreign land, knowing neither the language nor the culture – must be handled with care.  As told in another version of this story…

One day six wise, blind elephants were discussing what humans were like. Failing to agree, they decided to determine what humans were like by direct experience.  The first wise, blind elephant felt the human, and declared, “Humans are flat.”  The other wise, blind elephants similarly felt the human and agreed that humans are flat.   (Both these stories are from here.)

For another perspective we can ask a wise man what we are doing in Iraq.  Such as Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired), who says…

General Petraeus has abandoned the counterinsurgency manual in favor of the tactics which served us so well in Vietnam: massive firepower on civilian areas, search-and-destroy sweeps, and funding Popular Force militias.   {note additional detail on this in the comments}

Search and destroy sweeps

Although characterized in many different ways, these have been a component of each American plan to pacify Iraq.  Offensives based on some form of local intelligence, launched at something we define as an enemy in Iraq.  Baathist dead-enders, Sunni Arab insurgents, Shiite Arab insurgents, Al Qaeda in Iraq (supported by local Sunni Arabs or Iran or external Al Qaeda affiliates)… it is a long and ever-changing list.  Always different, always similar.


Another of the Iraq – Vietnam parallels, alike but somewhat different.

The use by the US of popular force militias (esp. Kurdish and Sunni Arab militia) has been a wild card in Iraq, of uncertain long-term impact.  It has reduced US causalities, had some effect on overall violence levels (ethnic cleansing and urban balkanization may have had more impact), but at the cost of eroding both power and legitimacy of the Iraq central government.  A selection of new stories shows confusion about their benefits, costs, and risks.

American-backed killer militias strut across Iraq, The Times, 25 November 2007 — Excerpt:

Members of the Baghdad Brigade receive $300 a man each month from the Americans, who also provide vehicles, uniforms and flak jackets.  In return the brigade keeps out Al-Qaeda, dismantles roadside bombs and patrols the area, a task performed with considerable swagger by many of its 4,000 recruits.  The US military is delighted with the results achieved by the brigade in Abu Ghraib and by similar groups in other former “hot spots” of sectarian conflict that have seen a sharp decline in violence.

For Shi’ites such as Kahiriya Musa, however, a Sunni militia represents another potential source of terror in a country where millions have been traumatised by ethnic cleansing.   A 50% cut in car and roadside bombs, shootings and rocket and mortar attacks since June has brought hope that some of the 5m Iraqis driven from home may soon be able to go back.  Yet many – Kahiriya Musa among them – are too frightened of the new militias and the ethnic cleansers in their ranks to risk moving.

Officials in the Shi’ite-led government also fear the burgeoning of fresh forces beyond its control.  The question being asked in government circles is: have the Americans achieved a short-term gain in security at a cost of long-term pain that may be inflicted by the Sunni militias, which are already threatening to go to war against their Shi’ite counterparts?

‘It Boils Down to Trust’, Spencer Ackerman, The Washington Independent, 23 January 2008 — Excerpt:

One of the signature achievements of the surge … has been the creation of so-called “Concerned Local Citizens” groups – that is, bands of tribal fighters, mostly Sunni and including many former insurgents, who have agreed to take U.S. cash (and in some cases weaponry) if they pledge to fight al-Qaeda.  The groups, also known as Awakening Councils, currently stand at 80,000 fighters, 80 percent of which are Sunni.  They’re outside the chain of command of the regular Iraqi security forces.  And the U.S. military, for months, has relied on the councils for information, including targeting information, about who the U.S. should go after in the name of fighting al-Qaeda.

But many of these groups consist of former insurgents. Many have an agenda that isn’t the U.S.’s. How does the U.S. really know that these groups are truly targeting al-Qaeda, instead of manipulating the U.S. military?

According to Rear Admiral Greg Smith, a spokesman for the U.S. military command in Iraq, it’s simple.  Trust.  “The sense is, as we partner with tribal chiefs, the chief knows who’s working for him,” Smith said when I asked him about the reliability of these bands on a blogger conference call this morning. “You’ve got to put some trust and confidence in these people.” That trust, he said, isn’t built overnight, and the U.S. will have a “relationship” with a tribal leader before committing resources to him or including him in a program.

But is that all it amounts to?  Trust?

“It boils down to trust,” Smith confirmed. “And over time, you can earn it or lose it.”

‘If there is no change in three months, there will be war again’, The Independent, 28 January 2008 — Excerpt:

A crucial Iraqi ally of the United States in its recent successes in the country is threatening to withdraw his support and allow al-Qa’ida to return if his fighters are not incorporated into the Iraqi army and police.

“If there is no change in three months there will be war again,” said Abu Marouf, the commander of 13,000 fighters who formerly fought the Americans.  He and his men switched sides last year to battle al-Qa’ida and defeated it in its main stronghold in and around Fallujah.  “If the Americans think they can use us to crush al-Qa’ida and then push us to one side, they are mistaken,” Abu Marouf told The Independent

… The Iraqi government fears ceding power to the Awakening movement which it sees as an American-funded Sunni militia, whose leaders are often former military or security officers from Saddam Hussein’s regime and are unlikely to show long-term loyalty to the Shia and Kurdish-dominated administration.

Part of Abu Marouf’s force is paid for by the Americans.  Ordinary fighters are believed to receive $350 (£175) a month and officers $1,200, but some receive no salary.  He makes clear that he wants long-term jobs for himself and his followers and that “they must be long-term jobs”.  There is more than just money involved here.  The Sunni tribal leaders want a share of power in Baghdad which they lost when Saddam Hussein was deposed.

The US calls the Awakening movement groups “Concerned Citizens”, as if they were pacific householders heroically restoring law and order.  In fact, the US has handed over Sunni areas to the guerrilla groups such as the 1920 Brigades and the Islamic Army who have been blowing up American solders since 2003.

…But, far from America having won a victory in Iraq, violence has fallen largely because the United States has handed power to the guerrillas who fought it for so long.

Massive firepower on civilian targets

(A)  Airpower

The great undercovered story of the Iraq War.  Tom Engelhardt has been one of the few covering this key aspect of the war.  A journalist — no military expert — he has told a story ignored by most warbloggers and military experts.  For example, look at the low volume of coverage of the air war at StrategyPage, the Small Wars Council, and by Stratfor.  Here are his major articles on the air war, essential reading for anyone seeking to understand our activities in Iraq.

  1. Incident on Haifa Street, 19 September 2004
  2. Dahr Jamail on Life under the Bombs in Iraq, 2 February 2005
  3. Icarus (Armed with Vipers) Over Iraq, 5 December 2005
  4. Michael Schwartz on Iraq as a Killing Ground, 10 January 2006
  5. Air War, Barbarity, and the Middle East, 28 July 2006
  6. Nick Turse on America’s Secret Air War in Iraq, 7 February 2007
  7. Nick Turse: The Air War in Iraq Uncovered, 24 May 2007
  8. Bombs Away Over Iraq, 29 January 2008

Tom Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture — Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a GenerationHere are excerpts and reviews.

(B)  Artillery

Even less often discussed than airpower (and used less often), artillery played a role.  As seen in these posts.

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts about the war in Iraq:

  1. The Iraq insurgency has ended, which opens a path to peace, 13 March 2007
  2. Beyond Insurgency: An End to Our War in Iraq, 27 September 2007
  3. Iraq, after the war, 20 May 2008
  4. Slowly the new Iraq becomes visible, 18 July 2008

10 thoughts on “Three blind men examine the Iraq Elephant”

  1. Before anyone gets upset about the “massed bombings” phrase, I don’t know of any use of anything resembling the Arc Light sorties flown by strategic bombers in Vietnam. I’m just drawing a parallel in mindsets between the two conflicts.

    What I’m alluding to is the practice of using airpower as the destructive device to destroy the enemy. This is entirely appropriate in maneuver or attrition warfare, where the enemy is another military combatant. But even when conducted with precision weapons, mistakes in identification will be made, particularly in densely populated civilian areas, and it’s impossible to completely avoid collateral damage to the population.

    I totally empathize with our forces on the ground who have to deal with a confused and highly dangerous situation. What the world sees, however, as in Vietnam, is the US using high-tech, stand-off weaponry to engage light infantry mixed in with the civilian population – van Creveld’s strong fighting the weak.

  2. Note that our operations, both ground and (more often) air, frequently appear to be punitive in intent. This was also common in Vietnam. As one of countless examples, here is an excerpt from an “Iraq Update” from Stratfor (15 November 2006):

    “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…”

    This describes a raid, sending troops to kill and destroy civilian “targets” in hope of influencing their leaders to fear and obey us. 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.

    Note the DoD definition of terrorism (from JP 1-02):
    “The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate overnments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.”

    We can take cover beyond the modifier “lawful”, although that has little meaning in Iraq – where both our militiary and our mercs operate without the supervision (and often against the wishes) of the local government.

  3. With pictures we could better understand the nature and effect of US bombing in Iraq. Neither DoD (understandably) or the US media provide pics, so we must guess — or watch Al Jazeera. That is something to think about when advocates tell us that US media coverage is strongly slanted against the war.

  4. Winston Churchill chronicled the demoralizing effects of using technology to defeat men at Omdurman:

    Three days before I had seen them rise — eager, confident, resolved. The roar of their shouting had swelled like the surf on a rocky shore. The flashing of their blades had displayed their numbers, their vitality, their ferocity. They were confident in their strength, in the justice of their cause, in the support of their religion. Now only the heaps of corruption in the plain, and the fugitives dispersed and scattered in the wilderness, remained. The terrible machinery of scientific war had done its work. The Dervish host was scattered and destroyed. Their end, however, only anticipates that of the victors; for Time, which laughs at science, as science laughs at valour, will in due course contemptuously brush both combatants away.

    If anything, using air power rather than gattling guns only aggravates this dehumanization. It provokes outrage and contempt and those thereby vanguished will challenge it when they can.

  5. I concour, the use of airpower in these dense urban and civilian populated regions is counter-productive to the longer term stratgic goal of “winning hearts and minds.” As someone else mentioned Creveld does a masterfull job of explaining.

    Large scale aireal bombardment that Chet refered to, of the Ho-Chi-Mihn trail in Vietnam was charcterised by those with a critical eye as to be “Killing Flys with a slegde hammer.” With literally hundereds, if not thousands of tons expended, to kill even a single Vietcong “insurgent.”

    How much physical property damage is inflicted , and how many bystanders, neutrals, even partisans who might be swayed to our side, if given a chance, compared to confirmed bad guys get killed in these tactical airstrikes in Iraq ? The truth probably being, that airpower has little, or no place at all in this variety of 4G conflict, but the USAF, & USN both have a whole lot to try and prove in this scenario, in oder to justify thier position and lest God Forbid, thier funding diminish in favour of land forces.

    And that is a sad situation, and underscores one variation of the myriad low intensity 4GW, ongoing in the United States itself. Before the US can ever hope to win at 4gw elsewhere, it needs to get it’s own situation fully undercontrol. Not much hope of that ever happening,,,. MaXimillian

  6. The problem with using air-power is neither the killing of insurgents, nor of bystanders – both are very useful. Terror works.

    The problem is that when you bomb you don’t get prisoners and intelligence. And that intelligence is what counts. The hired terrorists are largely unimportant. It is even worse when your information comes from some local faction – Zeus throwing his thunderbolts from on high can be duped quite easily.

    As regards “the Surge” everything I hear confirms my original opinion. White House was so remote from the reality that it was unable to command its own troops in Iraq. As the result, the soldiers took matters in their own hands and created “Awakenings” etc.

    There is only one problem with it. The military victory was achieved in 2003. Now we should be speaking about a political victory. Such a victory could be defined as the political situation favourable to America. What America needs in Iraq is a strong, but not too strong state which can oppose Iran and pump oil. It does not have to be said that this state should be friendly to America.

    How near are Americans to such a victory? Farther than ever. The middle class, necessary for any even partially modern state, ran away. Petraeus abandoned the Iraqi state, which is controlled by Shia, and began supporting Sunni militias. This means abandoning the original purpose for which American army was occupying Iraq, after it became apparent that there are no nuclear weapons there.

    That purpose – the democratisation of Iraq – was stupid and impossible to achieve. But now there is NO political objective at all. The Army and Petraeus are making do with short-term solutions. It is impossible to say whether they are helping or hindering the policy – since that policy doesn’t exists. Army cannot generate it on their own, neither legally not intellectually.

    American Army now serves to keep the lid on the situation and stop Iran from any adventures. This situation could continue forever, were it not for one problem – keeping the American Army in Iraq costs a lot. At some point, it will have to return home. And then what? At present, it seems that Iraq will fall into pieces, and the government will lose any ability to influence the situation. The civil war will restart, with newly created Sunni militias opposing Shias.

    Concluding – the real war in Iraq have not even started. All parties are waiting in the starting block for the race to begin.

  7. “The problem with using air-power is neither the killing of insurgents, nor of bystanders – both are very useful. Terror works.”

    Perhaps. But the few times actual attempts at analysis of air power’s impact have been made by non-AF advocates, they data has not shown this. Going way back to the Strategic Bombing survey after WWII.

    Certainly the dismal record of developed nation interventions in 3rd world insurgencies since WWII — in which air power has usually played a large part — shows no clear victories and a few maybes (e.g., Malaysia, where the credit goes to the Brits or locals — depending on the chronicler).

    I strongly agree with your reasoning about events in Iraq. Note this listing the various statements of our goals and benchmarks in Iraq. Not much visible progress toward these, despite the vast sums America has borrowed and spent there.

  8. Good article in Asia Times on Afghanistan (which is using similar tactics, with similar sucess) about the limited US resources spent on non-combat operations:

    Personally, when I read about “20 insurgents killed by a precision bomb” I automatically mentally translate that into “1 insurgent killed by bomb, 19 civilians killed by bomb, 5 new insurgents created”. Thats when I’m in an optimistic mood. When I feel pessimistic, I take out the one insurgent killed.

  9. Oldskeptic — my feelings exactly. As they said in WWII: “In the we do precision bombing of area targets, at night we do area bombing of precision targets.” What a farce, bombing dense urban areas with high explosive to kill insurgents.

  10. Here’s another link for everyone’s consideration. The basic fact is that the armed forces had no reason to foresee such a complete breakdown or fubar on the part of civilian bureaucrats, and have been slammed unfairly for not being able to quickly learn skills that they had been assured would be handled by others.

    “A State Department official this week issued a blistering critique of Foreign Service bureaucrats at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad for undermining civilian stability efforts in Iraq….”

    For what it’s worth, I and all my partners have undertaken this kind of projects in much more corrupt Countries than Iraq in order to establish audit metrics and were able to conclude projects that conformed to the guidelines set forth by the Administration and General Powell (whom I greatly admire). So the task is not impossible, nor is controlling nor managing the development zones impossible. Just not via the DoS.

    Without a dramatic and serious change, the seven (of nine) development zones that are failing will continue to foster local resentments and feuds. And in my opinion it’s just not fair to expect the military to learn how to deal with this scale of reconstruction while the civilian bureaucrats, wonks, and war profiteers suck up all the allocated funding whist leaving nothing to show for it except more insurgents and chaos. (I’ve already volunteered, but doubt they’ll unleash my team on those poor foreign service hacks.)

    A. Scott Crawford

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