Friday, September 17, 2004


Are We Winning The War In Iraq?

See my previous post for the beginning of this essay.

So, continuing with the discussion: While I do not believe we are losing the war, I question whether we are winning.

This is not to say the war is unwinnable. *All wars* are winnable. Even the hard ones, like Vietnam. Human events are dynamic, and men and women are masters of their destiny.

My main concern, which has been rumbling in the back of my mind for several weeks, is only now coming to the fore: What, exactly, is our strategy for victory in Iraq?

And, how will we judge progress towards, or away, from that victory? And not only how will the Pentagon, or the President judge: how can we, the American people, be informed enough to judge our progress or lack there of?

Right now, I'm assuming we're fighting a strategy of attrition. Wear down the enemy, exhaust his resources, demoralize his supporters. Demonstrate that we are strong, that we will outlast them in this fight.

There's a lot to be said for this strategy. For one, it's simple. Everyone can understand "last man standing." Also, if executed with enthusiasm, it's effective. See the examples of Grant during the Civil War, or Giap during Vietnam.

However, the downsides are obvious. It denies us the satisfaction of a quick victory. It's also expensive-- rich combatants pay for bombs, poor combatants pay for lives. Even if we kill ten bad guys for every good guy killed, that still means we're going to lose that one good guy, and we're going to lose them daily, often for what seem to be no good reasons. Dying in a glorious tank battle to conquer Baghdad on the last day of the war is the stuff of glory; dying in a noontime roadside bomb explosion forces us to ask whether the death was worthy.

Attrition cheapens individual deaths at the same time it increases the chances of the victory that ultimately will exalt all those who sacrificed. But people may not be willing to tolerate those deaths without being unable to perceive progress. Gone are the days where we trusted our leaders when they said "We're winning." We demand proof.

Anyways, I'm not here to argue whether that's our strategy or not, or even necessarily to criticize it as a strategy. In fact, attrition has its proponents-- see Ralph Peters for his recent essay "In Praise of Attrition."

No, my problem is that I do not know if this is a conscious strategy or not, because the Bush Administration and the Pentagon have not informed the American people that this is indeed the case.

They've talked around it, of course-- every time Bush talks about "staying the course" in Iraq, he's speaking of outlasting our enemy. Of convincing our enemy that he has no chance of defeating America and the Free Iraq. That our victory, while painful today, is inevitable tomorrow.

However, Bush and others have declined to discuss the strategy in detail, because to do so would emphasize how grossly unattractive to the general population such a strategy is, especially when compared to the "glorious victory" won in Kuwait, 1991 (or, in the combat operations to overthrow Saddam's regime in Spring 2003).

No American wants to be told the following: "The war will be over when it is over. The war will claim an unknown number of American and Iraqi lives until it is over. We will conduct tactical strikes aimed at compelling the enemy to cease their resistance. None of these strikes will win the war, however. Taken in aggregate, these strikes and our demonstrated willingness to stay no matter what the cost-- this will allows us to prevail."

I can easily understand why the Bush Administration would like to avoid talking in those terms prior to November 2nd. I can also understand that if this story is true, Bush would rather it be kept under wraps until November 2nd.

Now, aside from its unpopularity, here's the greatest problem with this strategy: the last time we tried it, we failed. We tried attrition in Vietnam, and we failed.

Of course, the North Vietnamese followed an attrition strategy, and they succeeded. They waited out the Americans until they left.

That's one reason why it's so important to understand when and where we fight "foreign" fighters in Iraq, versus indigenous insurgent forces.

The foreign fighters can be defeated in a number of ways: they can be killed; they can be forced to flee the country; they can lose their base of support among the populace; or, they can be prevented from entering the country in the first place while the aforementioned steps occur.

Indigenous fighters pose other problems, however. They can also be killed, but depending on the nature of their base, they can be replaced by the "next generation" of fighters. This is where the appearance of strength comes into play-- convincing the population that it is pointless to continue the fight is critical in stopping the indigenous insurgent.

The problem for U.S. planners is in how to tailor operations to address both foreign and indigenous fighters, while ensuring that actions taken against one do not exacerbate problems with the others.

One positive aspect to the Iraq campaign that cannot be emphasized enough is that, unlike Vietnam, Iraq is fundamentally a closed system. There is no North Vietnam to resupply and repopulate the insurgency, no external threat capable of organized conventional invasion. The arguments of some who maintain that for every terrorist we kill we create a new one (or two, or ten), this is rubbish. If this were true, Israel would face an entire nation of Palestinians eager to strap explosives to their chests. Instead, they face a dwindling population of suicide attackers (who are, after all, fire-and-forget weapons)-- but still also a population supportive of others who take the suicide step.

This is an important distinction. Again, stopping suicide bombers, or armed insurgents, is a one-shot deal. Kill them, they're dead. They give up, they are not a threat. What must be done is secure the population. Convince them that they are safer on our side then on the terrorists (or, more likely, neutral in the fight). Convince them that our enemy is their enemy. Convince them that we will not abandon them to our enemy. Stay the course, "drain the swamp."

By any reasonable assessment, this is not an objective easily accomplished in months, years, or by anyone's convenient timetable. If anything, our committment to Iraq and the Middle East may take decades of involvement. Given how many decades we've spent there already, I don't think that expecting to spend a few more to ensure that we don't spend the 22nd Century talking about the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism is not necessarily a poor strategy-- after spending so many decades wishing the problem away, such a strategy solves our problems once and for all. Unfortunately, it's a strategy that requires bipartisan consensus over multiple presidential administrations-- a consensus that clearly does not exist today.

So, returning to my fears about winning the war: I do not know if attrition is the conscious strategy of the Bush Administration. I do not know if they are willing to execute that strategy with the ruthless determination and persistence it requires. I do not know how they measure the success of that strategy, or its failure. I believe I understand what "victory" and "defeat" look like in this situation. I do not, however, know what "winning" looks like, or what "losing" looks like.

Thus, at the end of the day, I cannot judge whether it makes sense to stay in the fight, or whether we should cut our losses. I do not believe I am being properly informed by the Bush Administration to make this analysis.

I say this as a supporter of the war, and as a voter for Bush, whom I believe to be the best of all possible alternatives come November 2nd. I say this as someone who thinks, for all Bush's "mistakes," Senator Kerry and his national security team would be even worse in fighting the Iraq war-- let alone similar threats on the horizon.

I know that neither George W. Bush nor John Kerry wants to lose this war. However, I am simply unable to be convinced that John Kerry wants to win this war. Kerry appears much more willing to pack it in, declare "victory" and go home, which I feel is the wrong strategy for our global war on terror and our struggle against radical Islam. Even if Kerry were elected, and tried to follow a different strategy, his anti-war base would have none of it, and either abandon him or "punish" him for going against their will.

Bush will stay the course-- my problem is, given the heightened bloodshed in recent days (bloodshed directed against innocent Iraqis-- that all-important populace we must convince in order to win), how do I know that Bush's course is the right one to stay? That this course offers us our best hope for victory?

I do not. No one does, except perhaps George W. Bush and his military advisers. But they are not telling us for some reason. I would expect the details to be classified, and I take no issue with that. However, the general outlines of our strategy should be made obvious.

If it's because the Bush Administration fears public knowledge of our strategy would be unpopular, that is no excuse for not permitting the American people to judge for themselves on November 2nd. If it is because the Bush Administration really is making all this up as they go along, that too is critical for voters to know on November 2nd.

What is inexcusable is denying the American public the tools necessary to judge our performance in this war, and our prospects for victory given our current course.

I've been assuming that the administration's reticence about discussing these issues springs from the fundamentally dishonest and (in practice, if not in principle) disloyal nature of most of the press and most of the Democratic party. Bush probably worries that no matter how wonderful a plan they have or how wonderfully they explain it, the media and the DNC will pillory them for it and lie about it so that Bush risks losing the election and not being able to put the plan into effect. Better to just run a great reelection campaign and quietly go about winning the war.

Maybe he'll level with us in his next SotU speech.

I'm sure that has something to do with it, but I'm a purist. I don't want any presidential administration lying to me about national security. Keep things secret-- fine, I'm all for that.

But the sorts of things the Bush Administration is *not* talking about-- i.e., the basic precepts of their strategy, and how it ties into operations and tactics-- scares me. I'd feel a whole lot more comfortable if we knew more about how we're trying to achieve our goals in Iraq.

The pullback in Fallujah, the rope-a-dope with Sadr-- these may all be tactically and operationally sound moves. Obviously, anything that minimizes American casualties will help Bush get reelected, and thus better able to prosecute the war in the future.

However, trading safe American soldiers for Iraqi civilian deaths may not be a good trade. No one wants our men and women to die needlessly, but if by delaying the "hard work" for later we end up making the situation worse, we may end up suffering more deaths later than today. And war is, in the end, always about death-- you "get what you pay for." When American soldiers die, and they will die in this war, I'd rather they die in service of a strategy aimed towards victory than in service of a strategy aimed towards making life easier for the reelection chances of the Bush Administration.

Thanks for writing in, and keep on visiting.
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