Friday, March 11, 2005

Present History: To Be Revised

History vs. The Historian

The official historian for the US Army, Maj. Isaiah Wilson, who also served as a war planner for the Army's 101st Airborne Division until March 2004, has just released
a report that contained some scathing criticism regarding the dearth of post-war planning in Iraq. The quality of Wilson's critique reminded me of a description contained in a Knight Ridder article that I linked to a couple of months back.

In March 2003, days before the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, American war planners and intelligence officials met at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina to review the Bush administration's plans to oust Saddam Hussein and implant democracy in Iraq.

Near the end of his presentation, an Army lieutenant colonel who was giving a briefing showed a slide describing the Pentagon's plans for rebuilding Iraq after the war, known in the planners' parlance as Phase 4-C. He was uncomfortable with his material - and for good reason.

The slide said: "To Be Provided." [emphasis added]
That recounting of events is remarkably similar to Wilson's conclusions.

"There was no Phase IV plan," the report said. "While there may have been plans at the national level, and even within various agencies within the war zone, none of these plans operationalized the problem beyond regime collapse. There was no adequate operational plan for stability operations and support operations."
The familiar response to these criticisms is to point out that of course there was a plan, but such a riposte misses the point. The central issue is not that there wasn't a plan, or that no planning was undertaken by the relevant agencies. The problem is that the planning that was done was deliberately ignored by the people in decision making roles for ideological reasons. The abandonment of this vast scholarship, known as the Future of Iraq Project, was chronicled by James Fallows in his article entitled Blind Into Baghdad. Instead, the Pentagon opted to plan on the fly, and in the process was caught flat footed by the speed of Saddam's take down, and by the subsequent occurrence of the exact events that were dismissed as gloom and doom pessimism when they were forecasted in the Future of Iraq work. The operational plans, as Wilson points out, did not account for the difficulties and obstacles that would be encountered in the post war phase.

In a sense, there is nothing really new in Wilson's report, but it is worth noting the findings because of his credentials as the Army's official historian, and his insider access to information gained as a result of his role as advisor to the 101st Airborne. It will be harder for some of the President's more knee-jerk defenders, and the forces of historical revisionism, to dismiss the historian's appraisal, though I await some startling revelations about his closet-liberalism or close ties to the Clinton administration. Come to think of it, what exactly was his wife's role in this (if he has one)?

In terms of the source of the break-down in the decision making process for post-war planning, Wilson echoes the sentiments in the Knight-Ridder and Fallows articles.

Over the last year, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his aides have been blamed for lack of post-war planning based on their assessment that the military campaign in Iraq would be brief and quickly lead to a democratic and stable post-Saddam Hussein government.

In contrast, Wilson said army planners failed to understand or accept the prospect that Iraqis would resist the U.S. forces after the fall of the Saddam regime. He deemed the military performance in Iraq mediocre and said the army could lose the war.

"U.S. war planners, practitioners and the civilian leadership conceived of the war far too narrowly," the report said. "This overly simplistic conception of the war led to a cascading undercutting of the war effort: too few troops, too little coordination with civilian and governmental/non-governmental agencies and too little allotted time to achieve success."
Deja Vu All Over Again

Aside from pre-emptively beating back the forces of right wing historical revisionism currently besieging the ever evolving narrative of the Iraq war, I wanted to raise these points because the final chapter in the story has yet to be written. That end phase can be managed more smoothly, with successful outcomes made more likely if the Bush administration learns from their mistakes and applies some of those lessons to the current scenario.

The continuing violence, as well as recent events like the checkpoint shooting of Italian intelligence officers and journalists (which I will discuss further below), are a testament to the fact that the occupation and its handling is still dysfunctional in many ways. James Fallows'
most recent article makes a compelling case for revisiting some of the flawed concepts, the remnants of which may still be lingering in certain operational procedures and directives.

With the Iraqi elections in January, the United States entered what will be the last stage of its engagement there: the transition to withdrawal...America's chance now is to "shape the exit," as some military planners put it - to determine how it will use its remaining influence in Iraq.

The people who have been most prescient in warning about mistakes over the past three years have suggestions about the final stage. The list of mistakes they tried to avert is familiar, but it bears repeating because of the fresh opportunity to learn from it. The two common themes are a lack of foresight and a lack of insight - that is, a failure to ask "What happens next?" and a failure to wonder "How will this look through Iraqi eyes?"
In general terms, the failure of certain US policies in Iraq represent a failure to learn from prior mistakes in the realm of counterinsurgency.

To a striking degree, the people who warned in real time about the consequences of these and similar decisions were not academics or antiwar bloggers (ed note: Fallows doesn't read TIA!) but military officers, both active and retired. What is the gist of their advice now? That America should act on an idea that was conventional wisdom after the Vietnam War and still receives pro forma nods of approval whenever it is raised. The idea is that counterinsurgency wars, such as the war to make Iraq stable enough to permit America's departure, are never determined by machines and materiel alone; they have very powerful symbolic and psychological components. Until the United States understands that the "battle for hearts and minds" is more than a slogan, it will lose. To win, it needs to deal with Iraq on far more intimate terms than are possible from fighter bombers dropping munitions or from within armored Humvees. It needs to learn the language, penetrate the culture, recruit spies and sympathizers - to do the slow and messy work of building support for its side. [emphasis added]
In the arenas of cultural awareness, sensitivity, and narrowly tailored country-specific procedures, the US military has shown itself to be lagging behind the pace of innovation and technical prowess in terms of munitions. Technological developments have allowed for better targeted strikes, smart weapons, overwhelming advantage on the battle field, and less collateral damage - a positive in its own right when conducting a counterinsurgency - but the guidance on soldier to civilian interaction seems rife with anachronistic thinking.

Most of the generals and politicians did not think through the consequences of compelling American soldiers with no knowledge of Arabic or Arab culture to implement intrusive measures inside an Islamic society. We arrested people in front of their families, dragging them away in handcuffs with bags over their heads, and then provided no information to the families of those we incarcerated. In the end, our soldiers killed, maimed and incarcerated thousands of Arabs, 90 percent of whom were not the enemy. But they are now.

Three retired officers - G. I. Wilson of the Marines, Chet Richards of the Air Force, and Greg Wilcox of the Army - have published
an analysis of how the United States could use a broad combination of "hard" and "soft" measures to weaken the insurgents, reduce their propaganda advantage, and turn the population against them....Chet Richards, himself a former attache in the Middle East, recently told the newsletter Inside the Pentagon, "You don't have to have a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern culture to know that kicking down doors at two a.m., screaming at and manhandling family members, and dragging off the men isn't going to win a lot of friends"....H. Thomas Hayden, a retired Marine officer who ran counterinsurgency teams in Vietnam and was a combat commander in the Gulf War, told me recently, "You should never put Americans inside a counterinsurgency effort without a basic understanding of the language. I wasn't fluent in Arabic, but a mere greeting in their language opened things up." [link and emphasis added]
In addition to the Wilson-Richards-Wilcox paper, Fallows points to some suggestions worth noting from Hayden appearing in a different forum.

In an article written for Marine Corps Gazette just before the Iraqi elections, Hayden laid out his combination of hard and soft tactics. For instance, the United States should take advantage of the "census grievance." In Arab societies the local tribal chief or governor traditionally allowed one day a month "for the people (anybody) to petition their leaders for a redress of grievances." This was a tremendous source of local intelligence, Hayden said, which Americans could use to reduce their blindness about local conditions.

Like virtually every other military authority now writing, Hayden has emphasized that in this transition phase the United States must remove the American face from the counterinsurgent effort, mainly through intense efforts to train and advise Iraqi forces. At the same time, it should do everything it can to create jobs for Iraqis - "If one cliche fits Iraq," he says, "it would be 'It's the economy, stupid'" - and ensure that its troops and advisers rapidly become fluent in the language and with the mores of the country where they are operating.

After the January 30 elections I asked Hayden if the United States still had a chance to reconfigure its operations along these lines. Training more Arabic linguists would take time, I pointed out. So would developing intelligence and propaganda networks within Iraq. Were those realistic ambitions for, say, the next year?

"Can these changes be made in a year?" he replied, incredulous. "They've got to be made tomorrow."
Time is not exactly on our side at this juncture, but that doesn't mean this advice should be disregarded. Some of these measures can be implemented in a realistic time frame, and others are worth pursuing because our involvement in Iraq could indeed last years if not decades. At the very least, an adjustment in the philosophical underpinnings can help inform several decisions from now until complete withdrawal.

U.S. Rule Of Engagement Designed By Joseph Heller

That is the aptly chosen title of
a post by praktike discussing the bizarre circular trap currently undermining our efforts in Iraq in the area of coalition administered checkpoints and roadblocks. From the New York Times article cited by praktike (via Swopa at Needlenose):

...The American soldiers know that circumstances erupt in which a second's hesitation can mean death, and say civilian deaths are a regrettable but inevitable consequence of a war in which suicide bombers have been the insurgents' most deadly weapon. But Iraqis say they have no clear idea of American engagement rules, and accuse the American command of failing to disseminate the rules to the public, in newspapers or on radio and television stations.

The military says it takes many precautions to ensure the safety of civilians. But a military spokesman in Baghdad declined in a telephone interview on Sunday to describe the engagement rules in detail, saying the military needed to maintain secrecy over how it responds to the threat of car bombs. [emphasis added]
Right out of the pages of Catch-22, we have the military acknowledging that they have precautions to protect civilians, they just can't communicate them to those same civilians because it might compromise the soldiers' safety. The LA Times backs up this appraisal of the state of confusion (also via Swopa), and the Christian Science Monitor chimes in with its reporter's own recollection of the confounding rules of engagement that mystify English speaking Americans - just imagine how perplexing such matters must be for Iraqis.

The Times article goes on to point out that such events are not isolated by any standard - even for Westerners.

Ms. Sgrena and her companions were not the only Western civilians to have come under American fire, according to a series of unclassified government reports that receive extremely restricted circulation, copies of which have been made available to The Times. The reports outline at least six incidents since December in which American troops have fired on vehicles carrying Westerners in the area around the airport.

The reports chronicled one incident in January at a checkpoint near the airport road when an American soldier fired at a car even though it was moving slowly and the driver was holding his identification card in plain sight out of the window. The soldier finally waved the car away and forced it to drive down the wrong side of a road.

In early February, a private security company carrying Western clients was fired upon by American troops on the airport road itself. "This is the second time in three days," the report on the incident noted.
And that's just a limited number of accounts for Westerners. The problem has been going on for some time for Iraqis, though their deaths are largely anonymous and unremarkable in the US press. To a certain extent, we all bear the blame for this, and it is regrettable that it would take a high profile case of a freed Italian journalist to draw the country's attention to a situation that has caused many Iraqi civilian deaths. This double standard of outrage was not lost on Iraqi blogger Riverbend (via Kevin Drum)

I don't understand why Americans are so shocked with this incident. Where is the shock? That Sgrena's car was under fire? That Americans killed an Italian security agent? After everything that occurred in Iraq - Abu Ghraib, beatings, torture, people detained for months and months, the stealing, the this latest so very shocking? Or is it shocking because the victims weren't Iraqi?

I'm really glad she's home safe but at the same time, the whole situation is somewhat painful. It hurts because thousands of Iraqis have died at American checkpoints or face to face with a tank or Apache and beyond the occasional subtitle on some obscure news channel, no one knows about it and no one cares. It just hurts a little bit.
Some two years into the Iraq campaign, I think it might be appropriate for the US military to consider widely disseminating a series of checkpoint precautions and preferred conduct for Iraqi domestic consumption. That would be a positive first step in terms of redifining the counterinsurgency efforts along the lines of the advice cited by Fallows - especially in terms of considering how events must look through Iraqi eyes. Furthermore, changes, modifications, and adjustments should be made in the future without a prominent Westerner being at the center of the story. Iraqi civilian deaths should be a sufficient catalyst for change and reassessment. As Timothy Burke pointed out, this shift in outlook (or effort to bring procedures in line with the already existing outlook) should be of equal importance to both sides of the war debate - if not more so for the war's supporters.

If there is anyone who ought to be deeply, gravely concerned about unwarranted shootings at checkpoints, accidental deaths of civilians, torture in US prisons, killings of surrendered prisoners, it's the advocates of the war, at least the ones who believe in the Wolfowitz vision as it is represented by Brooks, Hitchens and others. They ought to be concerned for very functional reasons, because failures of these kinds are effectively losses on the battlefield as grave and serious as Bull Run or Gazala. They ought to be concerned also for philosophical reasons, the same way I would be concerned if the police started busting down the doors in my own neighborhood for what seemed flimsy reasons and then hauling away some of my neighbors without any real due process.

Wolfowitz and his defenders want to convince us that humanity is united by its universal thirst for liberal democratic freedoms, well then, how can they possibly fail to react to injustice or error in Iraq with anything less than the grave and persistent concern they might exhibit in a domestic US context? Where's the genuine regret, the mourning, the persistent and authentic sympathy? I don't mean some bullshit one-liner you toss off before moving on to slam Michael Moore again for three or four paragraphs, I mean the kind of consistent attention and depth of compassion that signals that you take the humanity and more signally the rights of Iraqis as seriously as you take the humanity of your neighbors. Only when you've got that concern credibly in place, as a fundamental part of your political and moral vision, do you get to mournfully accept that some innocents must die in the struggle to achieve freedom.
Whether waging a counterinsurgency, or attempting to influence political changes across an entire region, our cause will be aided if we are compassionate and empathetic with the populations we are working with. This must be more than token concern, as Burke points out. As Fareed Zakaria might put it, it helps to like the people you are trying to spread democracy to.

[Update: Jason Vest has an interesting look at the checkpoint phenomenon (via the travelling Laura Rozen). Vest points out that the Sgrena case was far from unique, and that there were many "similar incidents involving Iraqi noncombatants -- incidents whose numbers run to the thousands, and have cost the U.S. government nearly $10 million in compensation claims." So there are costs beyond hearts and minds to be paid for the killing of innocent civilians. Vest goes on to quote an article in the Dayton Daily News which highlights many of the concerns raised by the Fallows article in terms of cultural sensitivity:

If there is a place that most exemplifies the problems plaguing the American-led occupation, it is the traffic-control checkpoints. Often little more than a group of Humvees in the middle of a road, checkpoints are used to secure an area or conduct spot searches of cars....[Ivan] Medina, [a] former assistant Army chaplain in Iraq, said many checkpoints were poorly marked and manned by soldiers who didn't understand the culture or have translators who could help them communicate with Iraqi citizens.

"'Our soldiers would put their hands up as a sign to stop at the [checkpoints], but we didn’t do our homework on how to deal with the Iraqi people,' he said. 'To them, putting your hand up was a gesture or greeting, so they would just keep approaching the soldiers in their cars. And a lot of soldiers would just open fire, and they killed a lot of innocent people. We just didn't do enough to study the culture of Iraqis.'

Medina, whose twin brother was killed in Iraq last November, said soldiers sometimes were ordered to open fire on any vehicle that didn’t stop. "In one case there was a father, mother and three children," said Medina, whose unit arrived shortly after the shooting. "They were shot many times. The car was full of blood. There was one kid alive. He was alive for a few hours before being pronounced dead."
Unfortunately, the price tag hasn't gotten the attention of enough decision makers to give impetus to problem solving measures.

While Sgrena and others have been floating the theory that she might have been the victim of an ambush, as thousands of claims and $8.2 million paid out in compensation as of last fall makes clear, instances of "shoot or destroy first, ask questions later" that end with civilian casualties are hardly uncommon in Iraq. And while the Italians may or may not file claims of their own, the U.S. goverment certainly expects to keep paying compensation for incidents like the one on the airport road: $10 million dollars has been budgeted for paying out future claims in 2005 alone.

"I understand how everyone wants to focus on what exactly happened to the Italians," the CIA officer I spoke with said. "But I hope that people don't forget the bigger picture here. The question here shouldn't just be, what happened to the Italians? It should also be, why, coming up on two years after liberating Iraq, isn't the road to the capital's airport secure? And is accidentally shooting people and other stuff to the tune of millions of dollars helping or hurting security there?"
Right. Good questions.]

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