The Iraq War
My recent post excerpting a part of John McCain’s Senate speech on the consequences of withdrawing precipitously from Iraq elicited a number of thoughtful comments (in addition to a couple questioning the quality of my education. But as Tony Soprano would say, “whaddaya gonna do?”). The following comment to my earlier post raises what I believe to be the central questions in the debate about Iraq and the greater war against radical Islam:
I accept much of Mac’s assessment, specifically that Iraq’s neighbors will
become more involved if the US left, that a bloodbath might occur and that
al-Qaeda’s aim is to create a caliphate, starting in Iraq.
But I question the civil war versus Jihadi “strategy of chaos” point. In a
Shiite majority country like Iraq, a US pullout will almost certainly mean
civil war and I don’t know if a Sunni al-Qaeda type movement could succeed
in implementing its vision in Iraq given that there is a Shiite majority.
Also, there is an existing reluctance of many tribal Sunnis to support
So my question to Mac is: is it possible that a US withdrawal might lead
to the decimation of al-Qaeda in Iraq by the Shiite majority or at least a
civil war that occupies al-Qaeda fighters?
Withdrawing from Iraq will not “solve” any problems. The US is going to
have to deal with Islamofascism for decades to come.
But perhaps it would allow the US to focus its resources on defeating
al-Qaeda in environments more suitable to the American way of war
(symmetrical conflicts with overwhelming force) without allowing the enemy
to define the battlefield?
The assumption here is that the alleged civil war between Sunni and Shia is independent of al Qaeda’s “strategy of chaos” and that insurgencies can be handled “at a distance.”
Before his death, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), made clear his intention to spawn a civil war by attacking the Shia “apostates,’ who to a Sunni Salafist like Zarqawi are as deserving of death as Crusaders and Jews. But beginning in late 2004, the US effort against AQI in al Anbar Province kept Zarqawi off balance.
In late 2004 and continuing well into 2005, the Coalition conducted a campaign—a series of coordinated movements, battles and supporting operations designed to achieve strategic or operational objectives within a military theater—intended to deprive the insurgency of its base in the Sunni Triangle and its “ratlines”—the infiltration routes that run from the Syrian border into the heart of Iraq. The operational concept was “clear and hold.”
There were two parts to the operational strategy. On the one hand, no force, conventional or guerrilla, can continue to fight if it is deprived of sanctuary and logistics support. Accordingly, the central goal of the U.S. strategy during this period was to destroy the ratlines following the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. On the other hand, the key to defeating an insurgency is to provide security to the population. The first element of the strategy met with success. But because of insufficient forces, the second part failed.
This campaign began in November 2004 with the takedown of Fallujah. Wresting Fallujah from the jihadis was critically important: Control of the town had given them the infrastructure—human and physical—necessary to maintain a high tempo of attacks against the Iraqi government and coalition forces, especially in Baghdad.
In and of itself, the loss of Fallujah didn’t cause the insurgency to collapse, but it did deprive the rebels of an indispensable sanctuary. Absent such a sanctuary, large terrorist networks cannot easily survive, being reduced to small, hunted bands.
With Fallujah captured, the Coalition continued a high tempo of offensive operations designed to destroy the insurgent infrastructure west and northwest of Fallujah, and so shut down those ratlines. Although successful in many respects, these operations seemed like the “whack-a-mole” arcade game: towns were cleared of insurgents but because of limited manpower, the towns were not held. Insurgents returned as soon as Coalition forces moved on.
But then the offensive stopped as training the Iraqis took center stage in the Coalition’s Iraq strategy. Of course, a well-trained Iraqi force is critical to ultimate success in Iraq. Indeed, as more Iraqi troops became available in 2005, they were able to hold some of the insurgent strongholds in Anbar Province. But this shift was accompanied by the consolidation of American forces in large “megabases” in an attempt to reduce the American “footprint” and move US troops to the “periphery” of the fight.
But the shift to a defensive posture enabled AQI to regain the initiative that had been wrested from them during the al Anbar offensive. One result of AQI’s regained initiative was the bombing of the Grand Mosque in Sammarah, which ignited the sectarian violence that swept Baghdad and environs until the surge began. Unfortunately, the disposition of American forces made it impossible for them to provide the necessary security to the Iraqi population as sectarian violence exploded in Baghdad and elsewhere. That has changed with the appointment of Gen. David Petraeus as “surge.” More US troops and improved Iraqi security forces have permitted the coalition to regain the initiative and “hold” areas that have been cleared.
One consequence of the new approach by Gen. Petraeus is that many of the Sunni insurgents, who used to target US troops, have become disgusted with AQI’s brutality and have allied with the Americans and the Iraqi government. The process began in al Anbar but has now spread to other areas. But this did not happen in a vacuum. The Sunni tribes in al Anbar didn’t band together and cooperate with the U.S. and Iraqi forces in the region to fight AQI because the sheiks were strong, but because AQI was strong. But now that the Americans are holding in addition to clearing, the Sunni sheiks in al Anbar and elsewhere have concluded that the Americans are the strongest “tribe.” The Sunni tribes have been and still are too weak to dislodge AQI on their own.
The key to stability in Iraq is security. This is why the current approach has the potential to work if Congress gives it time.
Which brings us to the second issue: trying to fight an insurgency at a distance. In his classic study of the Korean Conflict, “This Kind of War,” T.R. Fehrenbach expressed the conventional wisdom on land power’s importance:
You can fly over a land forever; you may bomb it and wipe it clean of life… but if you desire to defend it; protect it; and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did… by putting your young men into the mud.
Of course, this view was called into question in 1991, after the U.S.-led coalition crushed Saddam Hussein’s forces in Desert Storm with what seemed a combination of air power and information technology. Influential observers argued that this proved that a “revolution in military affairs” was underway, with information technology diminishing the importance of land power. Some went so far as to suggest that traditional ground combat had become a thing of the past, that future U.S. military power would be based on precision strikes delivered by air or space assets, perhaps coordinated and directed by a handful of special operations soldiers.
When Donald Rumsfeld became secretary of defense in 2001, the Pentagon embraced a radical understanding of “transformation,” aiming at an “information-age military force” that “will be less platform-centric and more network-centric.” Unfortunately, as military historian Fred Kagan has observed, Rumsfeld’s understanding of transformation is vague and confused. It is based on false premises and lies at the heart of our problems in Iraq. Rumsfeld’s attitude toward land power illustrates this. Early on, the Secretary actually sought to go far beyond the Army’s plan and reduce the Army’s force structure from a mix of 10 heavy and light active-duty divisions to eight or fewer light divisions. He wanted to move all the Army’s heavy forces—armored and mechanized infantry—to the National Guard. As thinly stretched as our forces are today in Iraq and Afghanistan, imagine how things would be if the Army were 20 percent smaller and lacking in regular heavy forces.
Iraq has revealed several important things:
• Land power remains as crucially important as it was in Fehrenbach’s time. Indeed, for the kinds of war we’re most likely to face in the future, we need a larger Army. A key assumption behind today’s Army force structure is that, when any conventional war ends, U.S. forces will execute an “exit strategy.” But Iraq and Afghanistan show otherwise: The United States requires a land force that can not only win conventional wars but also carry out stability operations afterward, engaging in complex, irregular warfare. Realistically, this requires the equivalent of at least two more combat divisions (plus support).
• The “revolution in military affairs” wasn’t as revolutionary as once believed. As Stephen Biddle of the Army War College has argued, today’s battlefield is not qualitatively different from those of the last century but merely far more lethal. To achieve objectives, a military force must reduce its exposure to long-range lethal fire via the use of coordinated fires and maneuver, cover and concealment. This system, which the U.S. military has mastered, damps the effect of technological change and insulates soldiers from the full lethality of their opponents’ weapons. It depends more on leadership, training, morale, and unit cohesion than on technology per se.
• The equation of “transformation” and “technology” in Rumsfeld’s Pentagon has harmed U.S. security. Military transformation has been shorn of its political and geostrategic context, reduced to nothing more than hitting the right military target independent of any political goal. This approach has some strengths; the U.S. military can identify crucial targets and destroy them with unprecedented accuracy and phenomenally low levels of collateral damage. But it has obscured the real challenge: to design military operations to achieve particular political objectives. After all, wars are not fought for their own purposes but to achieve a desired political outcomes. This blindness to the political objectives of war largely explains the amazing failure to take obvious postwar dangers and problems into account in the development of the Afghan and Iraq military campaigns.
Rumsfel’s astrategic understanding of transformation reflected a “business” approach to military affairs. It stressed an economic concept of efficiency at the expense of military and political effectiveness. But war is far more than a mere targeting drill. As Iraq has demonstrated, military success in destroying the “target set” does not translate automatically into achieving the political goals for which the war was fought in the first place.
Accordingly, our strategy requires ground forces oriented not only toward winning wars but also to carrying out “constabulary” missions. Yet the Pentagon’s emphasis on buying high-tech weapons often under-funds the ground forces needed for such missions. Of course, some elements of military transformation will permit ground forces to do more with less, but the kind of war we’re fighting in Iraq today requires larger rather than smaller ground forces. If we’re unwilling to fight these kinds of war, our strategy will fail. But if we fight them without the necessary forces—especially land forces—it will fail as well.