Tuesday, March 27, 2007

"Like Eating Soup with a Knife": Why the U.S. Cannot Win in Iraq


When little-known U.S. Air Force Col. John Boyd died in 1997, he was regarded as one of this nation's most respected military strategists. Marine Corps Gen. Charles C. Krulak called him the "architect of victory" in the 1991 Gulf War. Explaining his interest in combat theory, Col. Boyd recalled, "When I was a young officer, I was taught that if you have air superiority, land superiority and sea superiority, you win. Well, in Vietnam we had all three but we lost. So I realized there was something more to it." What follows is an in-depth analysis of Colonel Boyd's "something more."

Four years after our invasion of Iraq, the United States finds itself trapped in an unwinnable war. The military of the most powerful nation on the face of the earth has been fought to a standstill by a shadowy army of irregular guerrilla fighters who strike suddenly and melt into the shadows of the night. We are fighting a new style of low-intensity conflict, also called fourth generation warfare, that our military wasn't designed to fight. Insurgents, terrorists and revolutionaries have been quicker at learning how to fight such conflicts than traditional militaries. Polls show this situation is the most pressing question facing the American people.

Cold War Antecedents
The roots of our problems in Iraq can be traced back to the Cold War. During the four decades of our tense standoff with the Soviet Union, U.S. war planners expected a global conflict largely centering on the clash of massive armies on the plains of Central Europe. To wage such a war, large numbers of ground forces, naval forces and airpower were required. The U.S. and its NATO allies planned for sustained ground combat against the massed divisions of the Soviet Union and its client states of the Warsaw Pact. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the need for huge combat forces suddenly evaporated.

Still wedded to the equipment and tactics of the Cold War, and with little interest in learning from Mao-Tse-Tung's communist revolution in China, Algeria, the Sandinista struggle in Nicaragua, our own bitter experience in Vietnam or the Russian disaster in Afghanistan, Pentagon thinkers envisioned a changed world in which we would control the time, place and extent of each U.S. intervention. Deployments would involve one country at a time. Combat was expected to be short. Any operations were always to be elective on our part. Emphasis was shifted from manpower to sophisticated technology. In Pentagonspeak, technology became a "force multiplier" that could make up for reduced numbers of troops.

Given the projected on-again, off-again nature of our responses around the globe, a smaller and more easily transportable ground force was preferable to the Cold War's ponderous divisions. Downsizing its large standing army, the Pentagon shifted to a smaller mobile force, with Reserve and National Guard components to be pressed into service for short tours of duty. In the Pentagon's force transformation, crucial military specialties now in high demand in Iraq and Afghanistan--career-slowing assignments in civil affairs, intelligence and military police, for example--were assigned almost entirely to units of the reserves. Stockpiles of supplies and equipment were positioned near potential flashpoints around the globe. As it turned out, the new force structure proved ideal for handling crises in Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s.

A Changed Picture
The 21st century brought new geopolitical realities, but Pentagon thinking and our military structure changed not at all. Instead of being narrowly engaged in one country at a time, U.S. forces found themselves fighting simultaneously in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of ending quickly, both wars evolved into open-ended, unconventional engagements with stubborn and elusive guerrilla forces. After the horror of September 11, U.S. intervention ceased to be an option. Faced with a challenge it could not ignore, the U.S. attacked the Taliban in Afghanistan for harboring Osama bin Laden and the perpetrators of 9/11. Preparations also were begun for a preemptive war on Iraq.

Traditional warfare between nations has three distinct phases: (1) deployment of a country's forces, (2) destruction of the enemy's forces and (3) occupation of the enemy's territory. Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld regarded the third phase as less important than the first two. The now-legendary clash between Rumsfeld and Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki was over this precise issue, encapsulated in the phrase, "boots on the ground." After a flower-tossing victory parade in Iraq, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz planned a quick pullout of troops. Unfortunately, the chicken hawk neocon encouragers of an attack on Iraq did not foresee the inevitable descent into low-intensity guerrilla conflict.

Prolonged counterinsurgency and sectarian civil war have negated pacification and reconstruction programs in Iraq, and threaten the American military's very control of the ground. By avoiding direct clashes with superior forces, guerrillas are less susceptible to defeat by heavier weapons or advanced technology. To combat guerrilla activity, the current U.S. battle plan calls for large numbers of widely dispersed ground forces exposed to hit-and-run attacks and improvised explosive devices hidden along major routes used by the occupiers. Victory, in the accepted sense of the term, is impossible to measure or even to achieve. Suddenly awakening to reality, the President has developed a belated interest in reading about another low-intensity war, the Algerian revolution that expelled the French 50 years ago.

The Four Generations of Warfare
Military thinkers identify four generations of warfare--three in the past and a frightening new generation bearing down on us today. Dating from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 to the time of the American Civil War, first generation warfare's tactics meant fighting in lines and columns to the ruffle of drums and with banners flying. In second generation warfare, exemplified by the First World War, firepower--specifically artillery--was king. Taught to the U.S. by the French General Staff, linear attrition warfare largely remains the American way of war to this day. The German Army's first use of nonlinear tactics in World War Two made it the first war of maneuver and a prime example of third generation warfare.

Large-scale conventional warfare as waged by today's major powers has been radically transformed. It may be in its death throes. The world has entered a period when nation-states are losing their monopoly on making war and must face belligerents who share neither their philosophies nor their values. Future wars will largely be fourth generation wars waged by groups of stateless terrorists, guerrillas and bandits motivated by fanatical, ideologically based loyalties, and using simple weapons like machetes and AK-47s. Our experience in Iraq already shows that skirmishes, suicide bombings and indiscriminate massacres will replace conventional set-piece battles. As small-scale wars proliferate, conventional armed forces will shrink. The burden of protecting societies will shift from the military to the police and the security industry. In 2005, Scotland Yard quickly identified the homegrown Islamist bombers who attacked London's transportation system, thanks to the highly sophisticated security cameras set up to blanket the city after repeated bombings by the Irish Republican Army.

The Fourth Generation Challenge
Fourth generation warfare--also called guerrilla warfare and asymmetrical warfare--presents a worldwide challenge. Aside from Iraq and Afghanistan, national military forces are fighting irregular opponents in Israel, Turkey, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Chechnya, Somalia, Peru and Colombia. Although national militaries have superiority over their opponents in weapons, equipment, techniques and training, more often than not the superior force has wound up losing. The Israelis experienced this last summer when they invaded southern Lebanon to keep rockets from falling on northern Israel. Despite armored vehicles and superior firepower, Israel's conventional force was severely mauled by Hizbollah irregulars and was forced to pull back. The same scenario has been playing out with coalition forces in Iraq since the premature announcement of "Mission Accomplished."

Irregular forces can be difficult to target with air power and artillery. They avoid confrontations with stronger and more heavily equipped opponents by using concealment and dispersal, often hiding within the civilian population. They can fight an almost endless war of attrition using simple weapons, explosive devices, sabotage, ambushes and assassinations. In his classic war memoir, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence summed up counterinsurgency this way: "To make war upon rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife."

Light Infantry the Answer
Light infantry--so-called "foot soldiers"--and what the Army calls "special forces" represent the best way to counter irregular opponents fighting unconventionally. Unless badly outnumbered, well-trained light infantry can usually defeat any force of irregulars it is likely to face. Light infantry must be able to live off the land commando-style for prolonged periods, using stalking tactics against the enemy. If light infantry does not load itself down too heavily with arms and equipment, it can attain the same mobility as the irregulars, enhanced when necessary by helicopters and Humvees. And when it uses force, light infantry can be far more selective in choosing targets than other branches, thus better at avoiding collateral damage to civilians.

Unfortunately, our infantry in Iraq is far from light, and totes more equipment than it needs. American infantry soldiers and Marines carry more than a hundred pounds of body armor, weapons, ammunition, radios and other field equipment, and depend heavily on motor vehicles. These, in turn, tie them to roads and open terrain, exposing them to explosive devices and ambushes, and diminishing their ability to operate in crowded urban areas, such as narrow streets and back alleys. Their crew-served large-caliber weapons are heavy, each requiring several times its own weight in ammunition. Although modest firepower levels are enough to defeat insurgents, we still arm our infantry in Iraq as though they were engaged in conventional combat against heavily armed opponents. Infantry weapons should be simple and ammunition must be light and portable. Excessive firepower not only reduces mobility, it is more likely to cause collateral damage and alienate the local population.

A Gross Imbalance
Late in 2003, it became clear that the U.S. force that had defeated Iraq's army was much too small to pacify the country in the face of resistance from insurgent tribal and religious groups. The mix of technology and manpower was also dangerously disproportionate. As the war dragged on, the Bush administration's solution was to dip more heavily into Reserve and National Guard components. Despite all efforts, the U.S. military remained ill adapted to the task it faced in Iraq--a long, drawn-out, inconclusive war. Moreover, the proportion of active duty versus Reserve forces was out of balance for the war being fought. Curiously, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld did nothing to correct the imbalance.

Made up of older, more-experienced troops, this country's Reserve and National Guard tend to have a larger proportion of higher ranks, more heads of families who have wives, children and responsibilities. Many are buying homes and have mortgages they cannot pay for on military pay. Some are proprietors of small businesses that will fail without their owners there to operate them. Ignoring these realities, the Pentagon has damaged lives and families by calling up Reserve and National Guard units repeatedly for service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although steps are under way to increase the size of both the regular Army and Marine Corps, the Army has already acknowledged that it can add only 7,000 recruits annually.

Too Little, Too Late
Military specialists agree that there are four stages to success in counterinsurgency warfare: (1) isolate the insurgents from external support; (2) isolate the insurgents from internal support; (3) immobilize them and separate them from the population and (4) neutralize their leadership. Because of our failure in 2003 to provide enough troops after the defeat of the Iraqi army, we still have yet to accomplish the first stage--sealing off the borders of Iraq. This should not come as a surprise; the borders of our own country are as porous as a sieve.

Like the rest of the country, the growing unrest among soldiers and their families over the conduct of the Iraq War stems from the failure of the Bush administration to accept the reality that the conflict is burgeoning. Despite rejection of his policy in the November election, the President recently announced a new version of his "stay the course" policy, this time masquerading as a "surge" of 21,500 troops. But "surge" is a misnomer; the surge is really a series of "squirts"--unit arrivals are to be spaced over several months. This new strategy calls for American troops to patrol, set up checkpoints and go door-to-door in Baghdad with Iraqi troops to root out troublemakers. The same tactic was tried last autumn and proved to be a dismal failure after four of six promised Iraqi battalions failed to show up. An American soldier could be stationed at every street corner in Baghdad, and it wouldn't make a dime's worth of difference in the outcome.

The President also named Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus as the new ground commander in Iraq and bumped him up to four-star rank. For the last 14 months, with Marine Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, Petraeus has been co-writing a revision of the Army's counterinsurgency field manual, the first in 20 years. The new manual recommends a minimum ratio of 20 troops per 1,000 population, the same formula set by a RAND Corporation study years ago. With six million people, Baghdad would need some 120,000 troops to control insurgency. The undermanned U.S. force has numbered about 70,000 combat troops in Iraq, with another 60,000 troops in support and headquarters units. An extra 20,000 troops or so will still leave the force patrolling Baghdad far short of the recommended minimum. Combine this shortfall with the plan's dependence on previously unreliable Iraqi troops, and you have a recipe for disaster. Recognizing the dangerous threat to the 2008 election of the President's headstrong refusal to accept that Iraq may be beyond salvation and has become another Vietnam, Republicans in Congress are becoming jittery. The recent addition of three more months to the Army's one-year tour of duty in Iraq has only inreased their level of uneasiness.

But the problem remains deeper than new ploys to artificially add more troops to an exclusively volunteer force. The U.S. can no longer sustain its dream of an armed force able to fight two major wars at the same time. Americans, too busy following President George W. Bush's advice to "go shopping," have shown that they do not share his imperial dreams. Reflecting the current negative attitudes of the population, the mood in Congress makes a return to the draft improbable.

Birth rates have been dropping in the U.S. since their peak of 16.7 per thousand in 1990. The increasing life span of Americans combined with continuing reductions in pregnancies among women in their teens, 20s and early 30s will yield a smaller and smaller cohort of 18-year-olds each year. Yet it is this age group that represents the likeliest candidates for recruitment. A possible solution would be increased recruiting efforts among the millions of illegal and largely Hispanic immigrants already within U.S. borders, with the promise of a reward after service in the form of automatic citizenship.

Another possibility would be for the U.S. to hire and equip mercenary armies from nations with a surplus of unemployed youths. The historical basis for such a force can be found in our own history. Some 30,000 Germans fought against Americans during the Revolution, taking part in every major campaign from Florida to New England. To fight its wars in India during the 19th century, the British formed the Indian Army, consisting of a volunteer force of Indian troops led by British officers. In fact, much of the fighting in Iraq during World War I and the postwar pacification of the 1920s was done by Britain's Indian Army.

One of Osama bin Laden's goals is to destroy autocratic regimes now ruling Muslim countries. Iraq, with its secular government and hated anticlerical dictator, was a prime target. Bin Laden's stated objective is to re-establish the Islamic caliphate that flourished 1400 years ago. Under its rule, Baghdad became the preeminent center of trade, learning and culture. By toppling Saddam, we facilitated this strategy and caused al-Quaida to grow. Secure in their mountain fastness somewhere inside Pakistan's Tribal Areas along the border with Afghanistan, bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the criminal perpetrators responsible for 9/11, are giving thanks to Allah for the Bush administration's unintended boost to their ambitions.

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