Thursday, September 15, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (9/15/05)


An amateur military historian reflects on the recent past. The fourth anniversary of the events of September 11th has come and gone, marked by solemn ceremonies of remembrance across the nation. Half a world away, the blood of too many American service men and women is oozing out on Iraq's dreary sands and in Afghanistan's bleak mountain fastnesses. Yet here at home we seem only dimly aware there's a war going on. Therefore, this may be an appropriate moment to review some of the crucial miscalculations of the intervening years.

1. Misreading Osama bin Laden's aims and al-Quaida's structure. Nine days after 9/11 President George W. Bush appeared before Congress and described al-Quaida's motives: "They hate our freedoms," he said, and proceeded to recite a litany of the freedoms we enjoy. Unfortunately, bin Laden had already proclaimed what he doesn't like about the United States.

He doesn't give a flying fig about our society, which he considers decadent and beyond salvation. In a 1998 bin Laden fatwah calling for a jihad against Americans, he clearly spelled out his aims: Expulsion of American and British forces from the Middle East; destruction of Israel, a nation we support; removal of elitist regimes in Arab countries; the restoration of the caliphate that once ruled from Baghdad.

Instead of treating the incidents of 9/11 as what they were, criminal acts of mass murder--no different from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing committed by Timothy McVeigh--and enlisting the police agencies of every country in the hunt for the criminal network responsible for these crimes and similar crimes against humanity, we fell into the trap of treating the acts of 9/11 as part of an ambiguously named "war on terror."

In 2004, referring to al-Quaida, the President announced. "We've captured or killed two-thirds of their known leaders," demonstrating that he still thinks of al-Quaida as a hierarchical organization. It has never had a narrow, inflexible "corporate" structure, and its survival has never depended on those at the top. Instead, it is made up of loosely organized small groups or cells.

2. The forgotten war--Afghanistan. Punishing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan for giving sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and also capturing him there seemed like a great idea--but it was poorly executed. The original operation, was called "Infinite Justice," one of those awkward word-marriages beloved by the military. Wiser heads pointed out that this label might offend Muslims; Islam teaches that only Allah can dispense "infinite justice." The name of the operation was quickly changed to "Enduring Freedom."

After prolonged high-level bombing, American military leaders seemed strangely reluctant to incur casualties. In fact, the first American killed in combat was CIA officer Mike Spann, who was interrogating a captured Taliban fighter at Mazar-e Sharif. As a result, only the comparatively small number of 234 American troops have died in Afghanistan. Contrast this with the nearly two thousand American military deaths in Iraq.

Curiously, the liberation of Kabul and other cities was not the outcome of a long siege or by traditional violent clash of massed forces. Instead, as each encounter loomed the Taliban quietly melted away with their weapons and supplies and merged with the populations of Afghan and Pakistani villages.

Operation Anaconda (named for the giant South American reptile, a constrictor) followed, but resulted in no encirclement and capture of Osama bin Laden, secure in his cave redoubt in the Tora Bora Mountains. Because it relied largely on troops of the corrupt warlords making up the Northern Alliance. the quarry was allowed to slip away. Osama bin Laden, the criminal mastermind of 9/11 is now believed to be safe in the tribal area of northwest Pakistan.

In Afghanistan, we have done little about postwar reconstruction or creating a truly democratic state there. The warlords are back in power, and opium poppies are again the largest cash crop of the country. President Hamid Kharzai is a virtual prisoner in his own capital, Kabul.

3. Failure to form a meaningful coalition before attacking Iraq. France, Germany and other countries with large Muslim minorities declined to participate in the coalition. (In southern France mosques outnumber churches, the legacy of their 19th-century colonization of Muslim countries.) Defense secretary Rumsfeld disparaged them as "Old Europe."

The Turkish parliament, responding to popular sentiment, refused to grant coalition troops permission to strike Iraq from Turkish bases. Not well publicized, but a big blow to Administration plans nevertheless, was India's refusal in July 2003 to send troops to Iraq--a full division totaling 17,000. The country had not forgotten the huge losses suffered by Indian troops in Britain's initial disastrous World War I invasion of Iraq. With a population one-eighth Muslim, 70 percent of Indians opposed to the plan and state elections upcoming, the Delhi government of prime minister Vajpayee politely declined, leaving the Bush Administration in the lurch.

4. Preemptive invasion and regime termination in Iraq. Just as Osama bin Laden had delivered massive blows to symbolic American icons at comparatively small cost, our invasion of Iraq must have made his heart sing. His 9/11 actions had caused Christian armies to pour into Iraq and occupy an ancient Arab state, former seat of the Abbassids, the Arab dynasty that ruled from 750 to 1258 and expanded the Muslim empire.

We succeeded in giving al-Quaida a training camp in which to instruct about 20,000 Baathists of Iraq's former ruling party and about a thousand foreign jihadists in the tools and techniques of guerrilla warfare. As a bonus, we gave them 140,000 human targets.

5. Jumping the gun with "Mission Accomplished." No single event so emphasizes that the road to success in Iraq is not an easy one than the attempt to declare victory aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln 43 days after the first bombs fell in Iraq. It took many more months for the American-led coalition to acknowledge the scale of the growing insurgency and more than a year for the Coalition Provisional Authority to stop describing the insurgents as "remnants." It is no exaggeration to say that the insurgents are today stronger than they were immediately after the fall of Baghdad.

6. Inexplicable lack of postwar planning to control an insurgency. No heads have rolled for initial equipment deficiencies, such as inadequate body armor and the failure of even armored Humvees--an all-purpose vehicle first introduced in 1984--to protect troops. South Africa makes an armored troop carrier that can withstand exploding bombs euphemistically called in military parlance IEDs (for "improvised explosive devices"), but the "not-invented-here" syndrome keeps the Pentagon from purchasing these in large quantities.

In conventional warfare, victory is achieved by defeating the massed forces of the enemy in battlefield set pieces. But in fourth-generation guerrilla warfare, traditional tactics cannot defeat an elusive and widely dispersed enemy. In the Vietnam War, the American strategy was to employ "search-and-destroy" tactics--with a heavy accent on often-inflated body counts--instead of trying to win "hearts and minds." This strategy didn't work in Vietnam, and it isn't working in Iraq.

Iraq has 18 provinces, 14 of which are reasonably peaceable and only four of which--Anbar, Baghdad, Nineveh and Sala ad-Din--are not secure. We should be concentrating our efforts to improve conditions in the 14 provinces, sealing off the recalcitrant four as much as possible. The latter may be difficult to do at present troop strengths; American forces cannot even assure the security of the road from the Baghdad airport to the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad.

We must increase our awareness of the history and cultural complexity of this most ancient of countries and use this knowledge to our advantage. For example, there are about 150 tribes of varying size and influence in Iraq, and at least three-quarters of Iraqis are members of a tribe. We have yet to find our Gertrude Bell, the indefatigable woman who systematically dissected and mapped tribal compositions, loyalties and blood feuds for British Intelligence at the start of the First World War, enabling them to obtain a semblance of tribal cooperation.

Lieutenant General Sir Gerald Templer, British high commissioner and director of operations during the insurgency in Malaya in the 1950s, noted that the political and military sides of counterinsurgency must be "completely and utterly interrelated" by winning the hearts and minds of the local population and increasing the flow of intelligence from the populace. This we have not done in Iraq.

7. Destruction of Fallujah. Called by Iraqis the "city of mosques," this city of several hundred thousand was severely damaged in an all-out attack in November of 2004. More than a thousand were killed and some 200,000 were forced to flee and now live in tent camps on the outskirts of the city. Images of the destruction of the city were widely circulated on Arab TV, inciting strong feelings throughout the Muslim world. Today, U.S. Marines patrol the ruined city, but the highly touted operation has had a negligible effect on overall security in Iraq. If we wreak the same destruction on every insurgent center in Iraq, the reconstruction costs will be beyond our ability to pay.

8. Slow progress toward an Iraq constitution. Insurgency is not unusual in Iraq. From the day it was created, the country has been an improbable melding of disparate ethnic and religious groups into a rancorous state that could almost only be ruled by a ruthless despot.

As of this writing, the draft constitution does not bode well for democracy. One clause reads, "Islam is the official religion of the state"--nothing wrong with that, but it adds, "and is the basic source of all legislation." Another clause reads, " No law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam."

Will the parents of those killed in Iraq think their deaths were in a noble cause if it turns out the only role we have played there is as midwife to the birth of a repressive and unstable pro-Iranian theocracy that becomes embroiled in a protracted civil war?

9. Specious reasoning for remaining in Iraq. The President's recent speeches have all argued that we must "stay the course" and suffer additional deaths so as to honor the nearly 2,000 Americans who have already given their lives there. As General George S. Patton, Jr., could have told him, the only reason for engaging in warfare is to win.

The reasoning advanced by the President mirrors a costly mistake made by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Although LBJ was convinced that Vietnam was a lost cause, following the same reasoning he continued to pour troops into the conflict because those already dead should not be allowed to die in vain. Staying a doomed course in Vietnam yielded 58,000 military deaths.

Economists, psychologists and decision scientists call this the "sunk-cost fallacy." A good example of this fallacy can be found in casino gambling, where the odds are always in favor of the house. Picture the desperate public scold Bill Bennett sitting in his Las Vegas hotel suite futilely trying to recoup $8 million lost in slot machines. Another example is the F-22 fighter. It began development in 1986; nearly two decades later the plane is still not in service and its unit cost stands at $300 million. So far, U.S. taxpayers have invested $41 billion with little to show for it. Yet the Congress keeps appropriating funds for this Cold War artifact.

The best way to honor those who have already died in Iraq is to recognize their sacrifice and make sure that others are never needlessly put in harm's way again on the basis of faulty intelligence. Increasing the force in Iraq to achieve greater saturation of the country and changing our strategy may be the only way to put down the insurgency.

10. Overly optimistic and even contradictory projections. One casualty of the war in Iraq has been the truth. In May of 2004, General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "I think we're on the brink of success here." Six months later, on the eve of the November offensive against Fallujah, General John Abizaid, American commander in the Persian Gulf, predicted that with the fall of the city "there will be nowhere left for the insurgents to hide." Following the attack, Lieutenant General John Sattler, Marine commander in Iraq, declared, "the back of the insurgency has been broken"--yet the violence continued unabated. More recently, Vice President Dick Cheney declared that the insurgency was in "its last throes," even as top military commanders were admitting that we would have to maintain current troop levels of 138,000, or close to them, for years to come in Iraq.

11. Lack of an exit strategy. Critics of the war see Iraq as another Vietnam and have called for immediate withdrawal of coalition troops--and the Devil take the hindmost. The far-reaching consequences of a precipitous, premature pullback would be disastrous. One result would be an expanded insurgency, possibly taking on the proportions of a full-blown civil war. Neighboring Sunni Syria and Shiite Iran could easily be drawn into the conflict. The ensuing chaos in the Middle East would drive up oil prices to unimaginable levels, making gasoline prohibitive and precipitating economic collapse of Western nations.

Critics of these critics claim that revealing even a staggered timetable of departures will only embolden the insurgents. But it is not a withdrawal timetable that is needed, it is a genuine strategy of counterinsurgency warfare. Unless such a strategy is adopted, departing troops may literally have to fight their way out of Iraq.

12. Lessons for the future. To improve life here at home and to lessen tensions in the Middle East, we should do the following:

+ Reduce our dependency on fossil fuels.

+ Explore alternate sources of energy.

+ Eventually withdraw our forces from Iraq when it has become a viable country. For now, we have no choice but to follow the so-called Pottery Barn rule: "You broke it? You bought it." Having made a mess of Iraq, we cannot just skedaddle and still hold our heads high in the company of nations.

+ Encourage Israel to cooperate in the creation of a Palestinian state.

+ Support replacement of autocratic regimes in Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

If we fail to take these steps, the deaths of nearly 2,000 Americans and a dozen times that many Iraqis, plus the expenditure of more than $200 billion will indeed have been for naught.


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