Friday, April 6, 2007

Learning from the Iraq War (classic Rummy quote included)

The Iraq War lesson-learning, and lesson-imagining, is already well under way. For instance, The Iraq War: Learning From the Past, Adapting to the Present, and Planning for the Future by Thomas R. Mockaitis (US Army Strategic Studies Institute) Feb 2007; the text was apparently completed before the November 2006 Congressional elections.

In his introduction, Mockaitis explains that the US military was let down by the gutless public and civilian officials. But they've done a great job anyway:

The Vietnam War and popular reaction against it severely damaged army morale for perhaps as much as a decade. The American public’s low tolerance for protracted, unconventional conflict and the long shadow of Vietnam clearly can be seen in the initial response to the insurgency in Iraq. Strong support for the war declined soon after a swift victory and assurances of a speedy withdrawal gave way to a desultory struggle promising to last years. ...

Faced with a conflict they did not expect to fight and denied the resources, training, and requisite troop strength to fight it, the U.S. military understandably has resented criticism of its efforts in Iraq. Since armed forces in a democratic society must fight the wars that they are given, not those that they would choose, American troops have made the best of a difficult situation. They have adapted their methods to an evolving war, learned from their own mistakes, and even benefited from study of historic conflicts.
I'm already getting so tired of this transparent alibi-making that I hardly feel like bothering with the obligatory "of course our troops have done a wonderful job". Here Mockaitis merges the officers and infallible generals who direct the soldiers into "the troops", who we of course must always honor and praise and never, ever criticize. At least that's what a lot of alibi-makers hope.

Mockraitis' paper has a lot of good information, including an historical narrative on the development of the Iraqi insurgency and civil war. But the alibi-making is already becoming a standard part of many such accounts, so it's necessary to keep that in mind with such papers and articles. Mockraitis uses an argument which has some weight because, in itself, it's hard to argue with the factual premise: "More than any other factor, the shortage of troops in Iraq has hampered the U.S. response."

That certainly was a critical problem. But what does that actually mean? And how many more troops are we talking about? Would more troops who were also not trained for counterinsurgency and could not speak Arabic really have made a decisive difference in the outcome?

But if our infallible generals are going into battle with fewer troops that they would have recommended, the question also becomes whether they made the best use of the troops and resources they did have. For instance, one of the key questions that needs to be examined in any serious attempt to learn the "lessons of the Iraq War" is whether the decapitation, "shock-and-awe" approach really made sense in that context. Because the goal of shock-and-awe is to take out the enemy's leadership and disrupt their command-and-control capabilities as quickly as possible. But in a war in which victory would require years of occupation, that also contributed to the rapid disintegration of the entire Iraqi state, from police to garbage collectors. On balance, did the advantages outweight the downside results? Those are serious questions that our glorious generals shouldn't be allowed to brush under the rug by just saying, "not enough troops".

The same is true with economic reconstruction, the tardiness of which has also become a favorite alibi for the military. Those arguments should be examined carefully in light of the chicken-and-egg dilemma involved: economic reconstruction is needed to remove underlying causes of dissatisfaction that help the insurgency, but reconstruction can't take place without a basic level of military security and civil order.

To his credit, Mockraitis does give some attention to the very real problems in discipline and retention that have accompanied the Iraq War:

On November 19, 2005, a Marine patrol on duty in Haditha lost one of its members to an IED. The troops were young, tired, and over extended, part of a company of 160 asked to keep order in a town of 90,000 with a strong insurgent presence. The death of a beloved corporal provided the proverbial last straw. The unit allegedly returned to the town that night, and in the morning delivered the bodies of 24 Iraqis, some of them women and children, to the local hospital. An investigation is currently underway, but there can be little doubtthat an atrocity of some kind occurred. Evidence that the Marines may have tried to cover up the incident has further undermined U.S. credibility. Another unit has been charged with summarily executing an Iraqi civilian, and a third group will stand trial for the rape of an Iraqi woman and the murder of her family for covering it up. These incidents probably are isolated, a handful of excesses that inevitably accompany counterinsurgency. Other evidence, however, suggests that they may be symptomatic of more serious problems. [He seems to be saying two things at once: the atrocity incidents are "isolated" but there are more systematic problems.] As units prepare for their third rotation to Iraq, other strains are beginning to show. In August 2006, the Army recalled 300 members of the 172nd Striker Brigade home to Alaska from a year’s tour of duty in Iraq and sent them back for another 4 months to deal with escalating violence in Baghdad. The soldiers had gotten to spend between 3 and 5 weeks with their families. In 2005, more than one-third of West Point Graduates from the class of 2000 left the army after fulfilling their mandatory 5-year term, the second year in a row to see such declining retention rates. And the divorce rate among army personnel doubled between 2001 and 2004. Even the Marines have had to resort to mandatory recalls of inactive reservists because of an anticipated shortfall of 2,500 volunteers for Afghanistan and Iraq. (my emphasis)
And he does recognize that the levels of stress on the soldiers and officers in the war under the existing conditions are an important factor, although he hides that behind the lack of Will of the public back home:

Predicting the outcome of an ongoing conflict is always tricky, but never more so than in a counterinsurgency campaign. The United States clearly has an effective strategy to defeat the insurgents [he means the 2005 strategy which has already been superceded] and probably can produce the resources to implement it if the political will to stay the course in Iraq can be maintained. Actual operations and the trajectory of the conflict offer much encouragement. Outside the Sunni triangle and Anbar Province, the security situation has been improving, and much rebuilding of critical infrastructure has taken place. The political situation also has gotten better with the country’s first democratically elected government in decades taking office. Growing sectarian violence that threatens to erupt into civil war combined with the increasing stress on U.S. forces could, however, undermine these accomplishments. (my emphasis)
Mockraitis hardly mentions the air war, which is surely having an effect on the conflict and the Iraqis' attitudes toward the US and their government allied to the US that goes far beyond the almost non-existent reporting we get on it from the press. He does mention a couple of time how precise and careful the targeting has supposedly been. As Rummy said back in the first few glory days of the invasion (PBS Newshour "Shock and Awe" 03/21/03):

The targeting capabilities and the care that goes into targeting to see that the precise targets are struck and that other targets are not struck, is as impressive as anything anyone could see. The care that goes into it, the humanity that goes into it, to see that military targets are destroyed, to be sure, but that it's done in a way, and in a manner, and in a direction and with a weapon that is appropriate to that very particularized target. (my emphasis)
Yeah, that Rummy was quite the humanitarian.

But Mockraitis wants us to remember that the real question is the one addressed in Dick Cheney's Stomach Theory of war, i.e., does the feckless American public have the "stomach" for an indefinite continuation of war in Iraq:

This long-term commitment may be the decisive issue in the conflict. The real struggle for control [of] Iraq in fact may occur not in Baghdad, but in American living rooms. As mid-term elections approach and American public grows less and less supportive of war, pressure to withdraw probably will increase. Iraq will be an important issue in the November 2006 midterm elections and may be the decisive factor in 2008 presidential race. If calls to bring the troops home continue to mount, the insurgents may have cause believe that they can win merely by persevering. (my emphasis)
As I noted in a recent post, it's hard to see how this way of conceiving of a foreign war is compatable in the long run with a democratic approach to governance. If the military's decisive barrier to Victory is criticism from the American public, it's hard to see how that's not defining the public and the voters as in some important sense the enemy.

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