Thursday, September 01, 2005

Pondering Infallibility, Part II

We Hate It When Our Friends We Are Successful

There is no doubt that from the beginning, at least in its public proclamations, the Bush Administration downplayed and misunderestimated the prospects for a protracted insurgency in Iraq. Take, for example,
this exchange between Vice President Cheney and Tim Russert on Meet the Press days before the invasion began:

MR. RUSSERT: If your analysis is not correct, and we're not treated as liberators, but as conquerors, and the Iraqis begin to resist, particularly in Baghdad, do you think the American people are prepared for a long, costly, and bloody battle with significant American casualties?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, I don't think it's likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators. I've talked with a lot of Iraqis in the last several months myself, had them to the White House. The president and I have met with them, various groups and individuals, people who have devoted their lives from the outside to trying to change things inside Iraq....The read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but that they want to the get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that.
Vice President Cheney was, of course, famously wrong and large segments of the Iraqi population greeted us violently with suspicion, animosity and distrust. Even certain groups that were ecstatic over the toppling of Saddam wanted us to leave as soon as that job was completed. When confronted with the reality of the situation, the White House chose to pin the blame for this unexpected and unfortunate realization on their own good planning. You see, they were too successful for their own good. From Hendrickson and Tucker:

Reflecting on the emergence of a protracted insurgency, some American military officials and outside observers have concluded that the United States was 'too gracious' in its victory. President Bush himself has spoken of a 'catastrophic success', by which he meant to say that the Ba'athist regime had not really been defeated during the phase of 'major combat operations'. Sometimes this is attributed to the inability to secure Turkish approval for launching part of the US attack from the north, from which it might have swept through the 'Sunni Triangle' region northwest of Baghdad and dealt summarily with Ba'athist resisters. Whatever the case, there is little question that the phase of major combat operations did not really defeat the regime. Before the war, the US military had expected a formal surrender from units that would remain intact; instead, Iraqi military units simply dissolved. Many soldiers simply went home, relieved that their service was at an end. Many others, it is apparent, faded underground with the intention of continuing resistance. [emphasis added]
But the "catastrophic success" meme assumes too much. It is posited on the belief that if we had been perhaps slower and more deliberate in our advance on Baghdad we could have taken out the Iraqi military apparatus in a more systematic and holistic manner. But the problem was not the speed of our conquest, but the intentions and strategy of our opponent - which would not likely have been impacted by any alteration in our own plans. There was never a scenario in which we could have eliminated the insurgency during the initial military phase - no matter the prescience (or lack thereof) shown by the Bush team.

Because those Iraqi forces willing to continue the fight against the United States were not defeated, it is often assumed that US forces might have followed a strategy that could have defeated them. Like a strategy for dealing with anarchy, however, this is implausible. The Iraqi insurgents were not somehow obliged to present themselves in such a fashion as to be destroyed by precision-guided US firepower....[Saddam's] logical strategy from the beginning was to avoid confronting US forces with massed forces, for in such a fight his troops were certain to be annihilated, but to save them for the coming resistance. This too casts an interesting light on 'one of the most brilliant invasion successes in modern military history,' for what the attackers aimed at - the dissolution of formal resistance by Iraqi mainforce units - was the very thing it was in the interest of the defender to accept. What the attackers did not think of - the scorched-earth tactics of a guerrilla insurgency that would make reconstruction impossible - was, by contrast, the very thing that it was most likely the defender would adopt. [emphasis added]
In this sense, it mattered little whether or not our initial war plans predicted and planned for a protracted and determined insurgency. Of course, it might have been better had the Bush Administration prepared the American public for just such an eventuality rather than creating great expectations that would eventually recede into cynicism - a pendulum swing that can prove fatal to the underlying military campaign.

When reality began intruding on the post-invasion euphoria of "Mission Accomplished," the Administration was caught flat footed - again - at least in terms of its public declarations on the subject. But - again - the question remains: Was this misinterpretation a fatal error in terms of defeating the insurgency or just an unseemly delay in realizing the scope of the problem that would have existed either way?

American officials repeatedly characterise the insurgents as die-hard Ba'athists or foreign terrorists; it is now understood that there are multiple groups with varying agendas. US officials also downplayed the overall number of insurgents throughout the first year after the fall of Baghdad...Whatever the true number of insurgents, there seems little doubt that US forces fell into the trap of believing their own propaganda, failing in particular to understand that most insurgents were probably motivated by a nationalistic revulsion against the invader or feelings of revenge for a wrong done a kinsman rather than by attachment to Saddam or al-Qaeda. It was clearly a mistake to misperceive the size and motives of the insurgency, but it is not so clear that there was a solution to the problem once its scale had been fully appreciated. [emphasis added]
I don't mean to suggest that the Bush Administration was powerless to adopt a strategy capable of mitigating the size, strength and breadth of the various strains of the insurgency, but it is unlikely that there ever existed a magic bullet that could have eliminated the many problems we encounter today. Large swathes of the Iraqi population, as well as the populations of neighboring states, were never going to accept our presence no matter how we conducted ourselves.

Although I have
been advocating a shift to a counterinsurgency footing in relation to Iraq (and the broader War on Terror), the point remains that foreign powers have had an atrocious track record in terms of prevailing over domestic counterinsurgency even when adopting best practices (a rare strategic alignment even then). The reasons vis a vis the Iraq campaign are laid out by Hendrickson and Tucker, and they tie in to why I often proclaim that wars inevitably lead to the alienation of the target population - if not as an absolute rule, at least as a heavy presumption.

The insurgency also enjoyed a number of advantages stemming from its superior knowledge of the terrain - a 'home-field advantage' far more significant in guerrilla war than in competitive sports. In the first place, the insurgency enjoyed widespread access to arms and explosives. Given the ubiquity of such materials in Iraq, it was probably impossible to reduce seriously the insurgents' access to them, even if a determined effort had been made to guard the arms depots. Secondly, the capacity of the insurgents to strike from unexpected directions inevitably made US forces suspicious of any approaching Iraqi. It has sometimes been argued that the isolation of the occupying forces, whether in the US-controlled Green Zone in Baghdad or in armed patrols throughout the country, worked strongly against gaining the trust of the population, but this was forced on the occupiers by the insurgency. It is not clear that anything could have been done about it, save at the risk of much greater casualties for US forces or administrators. Perhaps the key advantage enjoyed by the insurgents was the capability to put US forces in situations where the military response would further antagonise the population and make any contact with them a source of profound danger. [emphasis added]
Like a game of chess, the best moves are the ones that put your opponent in a position that will result in the loss of a piece no matter how they move to counteract your advance. The Catch-22 approach to warfare.

Guerrillas are classically able to place occupying forces in situations where they are damned if they do and damned if they don't. US forces made determined efforts to root out the insurgency, but these measures had the effect of increasing hostility toward them in the broader population. Insurgents setting off roadside bombs sometimes attacked US forces responding to the disaster, so US forces frequently adopted the tactic of spraying fire rather indiscriminately once they were attacked - an expedient that did not endear them to the local population. One of the most alarming and depressing features of even the most egregious terrorist attacks against civilian targets has been locals on the scene screaming their hatred at the United States and holding US forces responsible.[...]

But the record does underline the critical point: US forces frequently found themselves in situations where they, not unreasonably, felt compelled to respond to provocation but where the response imposed extreme political costs. The Falluja operation after the November 2004 US presidential elections had the signal advantage of destroying many car-bomb factories, but it also drove 300,000 Sunnis from their homes and completely devastated the city.
The point is that there are rarely "good," clean options in these scenarios. If the alternative is between a soldier losing his or her life, and perhaps killing Iraqi civilians by the defensive measure, the decision will fall in favor of the soldier each time. Not to mention the fact that when placed under the stress of combat, soldiers, no matter their nationality, can be so desensitized to the value of human life that they play fast and loose with the fate of civilians. And I don't fault them for it. It is the nature of war, and why it must always be the last option.

The most critical weakness of the US forces was the absence of good intelligence. One army officer on patrol in the Sunni Triangle noted that 90% of the information fed to his unit by Iraqi informers turned out to be bogus. It was the imperative of gaining better intelligence with respect to the sources and composition of the resistance that led directly to the Abu Ghraib scandal, perhaps the most dramatic instance of how a response to an insurgency may itself compound an occupying force's alienation from the population. But this alienation also followed from the incessant raids that US forces conducted against suspected insurgents. The humiliation of seeing one's door broken down, the male inhabitants tied up, houses and apartments ransacked for weapons, female undergarments scattered about, followed in the largest number of cases by a lame apology - 'gee, we're really sorry' - was such that these tactics could only increase the numbers of those willing to join the insurgency. The same is true of the vast number of persons who passed into the US prison system in Iraq. At the same time, it is not clear that a far less aggressive approach would have worked. It may well be true that various US practices have made the insurgency larger and more determined than it would otherwise have been, but it is also highly probable that for a substantial core of fighters the willingness to resist the occupation through force arose in the first instance from an alien invasion and could not have been avoided through milder tactics.

The problems flowing from bad intelligence seem virtually endemic to the situation American forces confronted in Iraq. They were strangers in a strange land. They lacked the linguistic and cultural skills that might have defused misunderstandings, and even had these been possessed in greater numbers they would, as foreigners, have inevitably excited the suspicion and fear of the population they were garrisoning. These difficulties, moreover, would have existed even if American forces had been much larger in size. The assumption that the United States would have won the hearts and minds of the population had it maintained occupying forces of 300,000 as opposed to 140,000 must seem dubious in the extreme. Certain things it could have done better, like protecting critical infrastructure, securing arms depots, guarding borders, or processing prisoners, but the larger force would also have enabled the US to do more things that would have inflamed rather than quelled the insurgency. [emphasis added]
Keep Your Friends Close And Your Enemies...Well Armed?

I myself have often chimed in regarding the folly of disbanding the Iraqi army post-invasion, as well as the widespread and far reaching purges of any and all Baath Party members. But Hendrickson and Tucker raise several provocative points that highlight the fact that while perhaps politically daft, such moves were not as catastrophic to our efforts as has been reported. F
or one, although these moves clearly impacted the Sunni population disproportionately, and didn't endear the CPA to this suddenly disempowered minority, it is likely that our invasion alone, coupled with the wresting of control of the state and its resources from Sunni hands would have been provocation enough. The insult was added to the injury, but the injury was enough to elicit the reaction in the form of the insurgency and its various forms of support.

Critics, such as myself, have also pointed to the security void that existed in Iraq immediately following the invasion - noting that the Iraqi military could have filled this void, at least partially. Not necessarily so, according to the authors:
One of the first acts of the CPA was to disband the Iraqi Army, a measure complemented by a far-reaching proscription of the Ba'athists. Both measures elicited a great deal of criticism. However much the reconstitution of the Iraqi army might appear as a kind of deus ex machina to stem the immense disorder of occupied Iraq, it is doubtful whether it could have done so. At best we have a series of unanswered questions regarding who might have officered the force, the functions it would have performed and its political reliability. Because it simply dissolved in the course of major combat operations, it would have been useless to stem the first tide of anarchy and looting. Though often described as 'highly trained', it was not trained for the policing and peacekeeping tasks most urgently needed in the new Iraq.
Not to mention the obvious fact that the army's loyalties and willingness to work with their American occupiers was highly dubious. Judging by the level of infiltration in the newly minted police forces and army, there is every indication that such infiltration would have existed in higher numbers had we simply maintained the army post invasion.

It is now regularly said that the programme to train Iraqi police, national guard and army forces has been beset by incompetence and mismanagement, and undoubtedly the United States did not give this task the high-level attention it deserved, farming it out in the first instance to private contractors. These limited results, however, may simply reflect the profound difficulties in seeking to train Iraqis to serve a foreign master....Until autumn 2004, when a handful of Iraqi units - largely Kurdish and Shia in composition - began participating in American operations, the uniform record was the unreliability of all classes of Iraqi forces - police, national guard, army. There is no reason for thinking that the same difficulty would not have arisen with respect to a reconstituted Iraqi Army, and the inauspicious results from the creation of the 'Falluja brigade' after the retreat of American forces from the city in April 2004 provides telling evidence on this score. It is, in any case, difficult to think of a preceding case in which an invader sought to rely upon the army it defeated for the maintenance of order, and one should not exclude the possibility that US forces would have been providing arms and equipment to forces thoroughly infiltrated by the insurgency.
Even within the current framework, because of the emergence of the various sectarian militias and their relationship with the ruling Shiite/Kurdish factions, we are faced with the possibility that we are helping to arm extra-governmental forces that might soon prove an impediment to the formation of a unitary Iraq. Justin Delabar recently noted that the close ties to Iran for some of these armed groups could bring about a most disturbing scenario:

US intelligence is already claiming that the most powerful militia, the Badr Brigades, is targeting coalition forces at the behest of Iran's IRGC and Quds Force....The US may very well be helping Shi'ite militias attack US forces. Stop a second and let that sink in and then tell me if that's not a catastrophic failure (the red headed stepchild of catastrophic success?) of Bush administration policy.
If we're having these types of problems with Shiite militias and government forces that are supposedly more amenable to our presence, imagine the potential for mischief if an Iraqi army riddled with disgruntled Sunnis were still in operation. This is not to say that disbanding the Iraqi army was without costs in terms of alienation - especially the initial decision to disband the army without pay. But the alternative to disbanding the Iraqi army wasn't all that attractive either.

A House Divided

By far the most intractable obstacle confronting US interests in Iraq is the ethnic/sectarian cleavages that are threatening the existence of a unified, peaceful Iraq. While some have pointed to actions by the CPA and the Bush administration that have, in effect, heightened tensions between the parties, the truth is that the hostilities, grievances, aspirations and needs of the various competing parties predate the Bush administration's involvement in Iraq, and will likely persist for many decades after our connection with that region is reduced or severed. The more shocking fact is that such bitter differences were papered over before the invasion by Administration officials like Paul Wolfowitz who claimed that the proposed troop levels were sufficient because Iraq did not have a history of ethnic tension like the Balkans. Pure genius. Nevertheless, no amount of troops would have erased centuries of bad blood.

In detail, these criticisms of the US course - that it needlessly persecuted the Ba'athists, that it sowed suspicion among the Shia and that it flaunted rather than sought to minimise its leading role in the occupation, even as against its own appointed Governing Council - all have merit. At the same time, the more fundamental truth is that the United States was inevitably thrust into the middle of a bitterly divided society. To find a successful political strategy in these circumstances required the skill of an equilibrist and a substantial amount of sheer good luck; even then, it may simply have been impossible. The proscription of Ba'athists undoubtedly appeared as unnecessarily punitive to the Sunni, but to the Shia and the Kurds it was justice delayed but not denied. That is why Ahmed Chalabi, angling for a leading position among the Shia, was in favour of that step. Nor should we exaggerate the significance of the Ba'athist proscription in fostering ill-will among the Sunni toward the US occupation. There was plenty of that created by the invasion itself, by the dislodgement of Sunni elites that it implied, and by the measures pursued to bale the insurgency. It was a perfectly defensible piece of constitutional engineering that the Kurds were in effect allotted a veto over any new constitution, but the Shia did not accept the justice of this provision of the Transnational Administrative Law and pointed out, in almost Lincolnesque terms, that no majority could consent to being ruled indefinitely by a minority. Ultimately, the problem was that there was no apparent way to split the difference between groups whose aims were, in the final analysis, irreconcilable.
I did not mean this two-part series to serve as an exoneration of the Bush Administration's planning and execution of the Iraq campaign. There is certainly plenty to criticize and there are myriad lessons to be learned and to some extent I was playing devil's advocate in arguing the position of Hendrickson and Tucker rather uncritically. But I do want to make clear that the choices made and the mistakes committed, while unfortunate, were not what has created the dire situation in Iraq today. There is nothing to insert in this blank: "If only we had done [insert here], Iraq would be on a safe and stable course toward liberal democracy." Because the clearest failure, the most obvious error and the one decision that, if altered, could have avoided the potential catastrophe that looms on the horizon was the decision to invade in the first place. Once that fateful choice was made, the rest has been about picking between Option "A" and Option "B" from an exorbitantly expensive menu of tragic Catch-22's.

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