Of Strelas and Second-Guessing
Yesterday's helicopter downing in Iraq graphically demonstrates the degree to which the lack of pre-war planning for the aftermath has begun to cost the United States military, its soldiers, and the Bush administration. In a week which has seen the number, sophistication and variety of attacks on Coalition forces rise dramatically, the world is left to watch Bush and company spin stories about how the attacks are the results of 'desperate partisans' while their most solid alliance (that with Britain) struggles to contain the rising disagreement between the two nations over intelligence inside Iraq.
The weapon used to down the CH-47 Chinook just south of Fallujah was a SA-7 Strela, a MANPADS weapon from the Iraqi army arsenal. 'Hundreds' of those weapons are missing from Iraqi army stockpiles, according to the Washington Post. This brings back the specter of Vietnam most graphically; helicopters, originally the symbol of American military might, turned at the war's end into the symbol of American retreat from South Vietnam with the famous shot of a Huey atop the Embassy compound evacuating personnel.
Here's a big piece of the problem, as I see it. Leaving aside (for now) the rationale for the war in the first place, one fact which is clear now (and was clear then) is that Saddam Hussein and his disciples had ten years to prepare for the guerrilla resistance which is springing up. The U.S. had made it quite clear what their intentions where, and had made it even clearer what would happen when Iraqi military forces met U.S. forces in set-piece battles. The effectiveness of Saddam's 'vanishing act' alone should indicate the degree of difficulty the U.S. has had and will continue to have in gathering intelligence inside Iraq. The Administration and the U.S. DoD's public statements, at the opening act of this fracas, were full of confident evaluations of the results of combat against the Iraqi military. With a few points of contention, I have no problem with that; they were essentially correct, and even the serious miscalculations during 'major combat' (my favorite example: sending Apache attack helicopters unsupported against an entrenched and dispersed armor unit south of Baghdad) do not bely the fact that the U.S. forces had Iraq's military completely outclassed.
The problem then, as it remains now, was what happened afterwards - and on that note, the Administration was resolutely blindered. Much reference was made to 'liberated Iraqi peoples' and the like, implying parades and confetti. No serious analysis, it seems, was done of what the challenges would be in maintaining an occupation and reconstruction effort with a ten-year-in-the-making preplanned resistance infrastructure. Nor, for that matter, what appears to be a constant influx of suicidal and/or trained and experienced fighters from around the world who have been itching (it seems) to have a go at the U.S. on 'home turf.'
Okay, enough. As the title says, second guessing. Here's the real meat: What do we do now? There is little coming out of Washington except 'We're winning! This proves it!' and little coming out of the field commands except casualty statistics and parries of reporters' questions.
This is the problem that no-one seems to be willing to touch. The Democratic candidates, for all their rhetoric about the miscalculations of the Bush administration, have been almost completely silent as to what a better plan might be. Republicans have been caught up in defending or critiquing their leader, and have been no more help. That seems to leave it up to us, the citizens of this country, to figure out what the heck we need to do.
Those are our forces, not Washington's; our soldiers, and our allies. They are stuck in a rapidly degrading situation while we sit here at home and debate how to de-elect or re-elect our president in a year's time. We need to spark debate not so much on what Bush and company did wrong (leave that to the election spindoctors) but on how we fix it. Despite a feeling that national security and military operations are best left 'to the experts' we have to be involved in this. The reason is simple - those operations and forces are intended to provide for our security. In order to do that job, we need to be clear on what 'our security' means: what should the goals in Iraq have been, and what are they now?
The Administration seems to be floundering from one position to another. The original public justification of WMD, after taking a beating and sparking a scandal within the administration with the Valerie Plame exposure (seen anything about that in the news recently? Me either) seems to have fallen beneath the rug of the Oval Office. We're now told that the War on Terror seems to have demanded it, despite the fact that at the outset, the one thing that did seem to be pretty clear was that Saddam did not have operational links to al-Qaeda. How, then, is this our objective now? Simple: the debacle in Iraq has been labeled a 'terror' operation, which means it fits. Convenient.
I beg to differ here: whatever the motives, means and methods used against our forces there, no matter how hideous, all of it can and must be looked at as a resistance against occupation. We are a foreign power, and we are occupying Iraq - regardless of how you look at the reasons for doing so. Thus, trying to lump the ongoing combat over there into the War on Terror is not only semantically incorrect, but (in my opinion) weaselly expediency of the worst kind. I in no way support the attacks on our forces, but to try to justify the problem (as the Administration is doing) by applying circular labeling is just this side of treasonous, in my opinion.
There is, possibly, a broad path which will take us out of this semantic and strategic trap that the Bush administration seems to have gotten us into. That is as follows: The United States must remove itself from the position of dominant occupier and target inside Iraq as soon as possible.
This is not going to be easy. Bush and company managed to alienate nearly the entire international community in undertaking this mess, meaning it will be nearly impossible to simply transfer the mantle of authority to a well-meaning international coalition. Furthermore, our continuing fumbling around in Iraq is costing us any goodwill we might have had from the Iraqi population, as the anecdotal 'bystander' quotes from the helicopter downing yesterday indicate (see the Washington Post for examples). However, it is likely that Iraq is suffering from the influx of foreign jihadi and suicide fighters, and (as Britain insists) the resistance is an organic net of groups with various agendas who have been conveniently provided with a common target (us) rather than a hierarchical organized group reporting to the remnants of the Ba'athists and Saddam. At the very least, there are enough weapons floating around Iraq and its neighbors, and the borders are porous enough, that it seems unlikely that the only fighters involved are prewar Saddamists.
Furthermore, Saddam has demonstrated before that he is perfectly willing to support groups with whom he has no common positive goal so long as it discommodes his enemies. Given the history of internal strife in Iraq, there would be no shortage of groups with disparate motives who would happily accept resources to attack the Coalition if they were offered. As Saddam has shown, he can be ruthless in quelling internal dissent, so there is no reason to think that he and/or his team would not prefer domestic chaos if it hurt the U.S., banking on their ability to crush internal opponents if the Coalition occupation is forced to withdraw.
In any case, Bush and co. are right about one thing: these attacks and their architects are showing no concern or regard for Iraqi civilians. At the moment, however, the populace appears willing to overlook this or attribute their losses to the Coalition's presence. I would propose that in order to demonstrate the danger of allowing the types of people coming in to carry out these attacks free reign, the U.S. should accelerate all efforts to turn over internal authority to native Iraqi institutions, and avoid statements like 'the long hard slog' and 'In it for the long haul.' This is not because we intend to abandon Iraq, but because we intend to restrict our exercise of power to military operations designed to destroy personnel, materiel and institutions we object to.
The U.S. attacked Iraq because the misbehavior of its government placed the conflict between Saddam and the U.S. in the international arena, where the U.S. excels at the use of force. The current occupation is demonstrating yet another time the different requirements between classic combat operations and governance by force. The U.S. is unwilling to engage in governance by force (a fact for which I remain profoundly grateful) and yet it is being forced towards this position by the attacks. The initiative has been ceded to our opponents inside Iraq, whoever they may be, because the U.S. military does well only when it has a defined, visible opponent against whom it can focus its combat power. The U.S. military, by design, is not a law enforcement organization. However, that's what Bush and Company seem to be trying to use it for. The British discovered the hard way the difference between a combat military and a civil governance military in Northern Ireland. The U.S. military is set up, designed and intended to protect the U.S. through the conduct of military combat operations with the goal of deterring or destroying a known and visible opponent. This is a good thing; it makes it harder to use the U.S. military to, say, crush internal dissent.
However, in Iraq, we're doing just the opposite. We are attempting to utilize the U.S. military to enforce civil order. It's not built for that. In Vietnam, the U.S. military was essentially successful at defeating the Viet Cong as long as they attempted to engage as a military opponent; the Tet Offensive was their last gasp at classic military operations before two critical changes. One, they began receiving massive Northern support, and two, they reverted to the more-effective and less-costly civilian infiltration, terror and guerrilla tactics that came to dominate that war.
In Iraq, we are witnessing that same shift. The military of Iraq has been essentially destroyed and disbanded by the U.S. and its allies; therefore, the fight has shifted from one aimed at defeating or denying access to the U.S. military to one that, by intention or unfortunate happenstance (although I believe intention) is aimed at forcing the U.S. military to attempt to maintain order. Maintaining order is a much, much harder job; in order for you to fail, your opponent must simply disturb things (the more noisily the better) rather than actually defeat you. Plus, the U.S. forces, sitting in a culture with which they are not familiar and subject to constant harrassment, will likely respond as they did in Vietnam (and as the Russians did in Afghanistan) by slowly losing their respect for the local population and infrastructure in favor of the use of (fire)power to preserve their own lives. This is not an indictment of the U.S. forces; merely a natural response of a military organization to hostile surroundings, and a necessary one. If the organization cannot convince its personnel that it cares enough about their safety to authorize the use of force, the negative consequences for discipline and effectiveness cannot be overstated.
A military is based on the notion of 'us' and 'them' - you can't have a military without that basic concept. In the U.S. case, the 'them' is defined in training and in peacetime experience as 'the people we're shooting at' which is how it's supposed to be. A military, properly used, is good for only two things (to re-use one of my favorite aphorisms, stolen shamelessly from a respected professor of mine): breaking things and killing people. It is the job of policymakers and strategists to determine how that capability can be applied to the task of achieving the goals they have had set before them (ideally) by their constituency.
So, in a roundabout fashion, back we come. It's our job, as Americans, to determine what we have a military for. Traditionally, it is to serve as a last option to preserve American territory, lives and sovereignty - and to do so by unleashing as much hell as possible at 'them.' Attempting to 'housebreak' it to do other tasks that don't involve that simple bit of clarity reduces its effectiveness, as the U.S. military admits when it requires units that have been 'trained up for peacekeeping' to undergo several months 'retraining' in order to take up their turn in rotation for 'ready' units.
What to do, then?
My answer, simplistic as it is, is this: return the conflict to an arena where the U.S. can maximally utilize its traditional advantage. Withdraw from the task of 'maintaining order' inside Iraq as quickly as possible. Continue to respond to any requests for material assistance from the Iraqi people and government, with as little delay as possible. This is how we should demonstrate commitment to the future of Iraq. BUT:
Make it clear that attacks on U.S. nationals and allied personnel, while carrying out any mission of assistance or delivery of aid, are therefore acts of sovereign nation war between Iraq and the nations whose assets have been targeted. As such, they run the risk of inviting the kind of full-bore response that the U.S. military is good at. Removing U.S./Allied forces from day-to-day duty inside Iraq would go a long way to demonstrating to the populace 'caught in the middle' that we aren't the ones trying to prolong this fight. However, any such withdrawal must be accompanied by the threat (and exercise, if it is required) of external military reprisal for guerrilla actions that occur.
After all, unlike the Israelis, we do not have a stake in the land, here. We're not there to preserve Iraq for our use (are you listening, George?). We may not have even had a decent reason for being there in the first place. But we can strive to normalize our relations with the Iraqi people, as opposed to attempting to maintain order ourselves through gross misapplication of U.S. power on the ground.
Whew. That wasn't as clear as I'd have liked. I'll have to revisit it. Comments welcomed.