Thursday, December 30, 2004

The War We Have

When I presented a Land Warfare Paper at the 1997 annual meeting of the Association of the United States Army on the Iran-Iraq War I was asked if the invasion that went from an assumed cake walk to an 8-year war of attrition should teach us anything. Wouldn't we just clobber anybody with overwhelming force (like 1991) and wouldn't we just pack up and leave if it got too rough as we did in Vietnam?

I replied that the Army would go to war with what it was told it could take and not with what it wanted. In the afterglow of the Persian Gulf War, I worried that we assumed cheap victory was our birthright.

On the second point, I noted that exiting is not always an option.

I had noted in my paper:

We must not underestimate our potential foes as the Iraqis did in 1980. They will be clever just as we are. they will believe in the cause for which they are fighting. And they, too, will fight to win. We cannot assume that the sight of an American soldier will panic our enemy and induce retreat and surrender in the same manner that Iraq thought the Iranians would collapse when confronted with Iraq's overwhelming invasion force. That Iran fought even when the experts said they should give up is a lesson that must not be overlooked. We will need to fight, bleed and struggle for victory. To assume that any lesser effort will suffcie is courting disaster in our hubris. Not far in the background, coexisting with our confidence in the quality of our military machine, is a contradictory fear of failure. Not wanting to repeat our experience in Vietnam, many speak of needing an "exit strategy" before committing troops. Such an approach seeks to minimize our losses under the assumption that we will at some point lose, so we had better know when to cut our losses and get out. It also assumes that the situation allows for an exit and that our enemy will allow it. The Iraqis desperately wante out of the war they initiated in 1980 but were locked in by Iran in a death grip that allowed for no easy exit. While planning for a tough, resilient enemy is prudent, we must never become paralyzed by concentrating on how that enemy can hurt us. We need to keep our focus on achieving victory.

On the surface, you might say that I could assert asounding predictive powers and claim I predicted an Iraq insurgency that we cannot escape without adding lots of troops to overwhelm the enemy and win.

That would be both conceited and wrong and I'd hate to go two for two.

First of all, I was talking about conventional warfare. So talk of difficulties that would arise from insufficient numbers was not looking ahead to 2004 and a still-fighting insurgency. We did smash the Iraqi military in short order in 2003 so we clearly had the numbers necessary to overwhelm our enemy. The Army (and Marines) may have gone to war with what what the government said could be taken but what we took worked quite well. An insurgency--even a narrowly based Baathist one--is defeated by persistence and not with overwhelming force.

What I did get right that applies to the current insurgency is the idea that victory is optional and that we can go home if it gets too tough. If the jihadis think that we ran from them, they will follow us home. And this is not to say that we created our Islamist enemies--they happily trianed in Afghanistan, followed us home to kill us here, and otherwise were happy to go on jihad in those happy pre-Bush days before we "provoked" our enemies by fighting back.

So we have to win in Iraq. But can the Iran-Iraq War teach us something? Doesn't that experience tell us that we should dramatically increase our ground strength in Iraq?

No, it does not. I remain convinced that we have the numbers to fight this war. My original methodology still holds true (see here and here), I believe, even with more current numbers. Indeed, I think our real theater is more limited than I assumed. The Kurd and Shia areas don't need as many troops as I assumed so we can concentrate more troops in the Sunni areas. And with more emphasis on training Iraqis, we probably don't need to discount the value of Iraqi forces in counter-insurgency work nearly as much. The enemy has money and weapons to resist and these factors are the stumbling blocks to snuffing the insurgency out.

But doesn't the fact that Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 with five divisions and nearly eight years later needed an army of a million men to win teach us to expand the Army now and pump troops into the Sunni Triangle?

Again, no. Whether Iraq had 250,000 troops or 1 million, the Iraqis held the line against the Iranian offensives. But those troops for the most part just sat there and took it in the face of repeated human wave assaults. When the Iraqis went on the offensive in 1988, it was not with the expanded army--which was suitable for static defensive warfare only--but the expanded Republican Guard force that went from a brigade in 1980 to a half dozen divisions and which was trained for mobile warfare. It was a change of attitude that was key.

To those who want to fortify and armor everything and everybody, Cordesman put it well:

These instincts, however, are wrong. The United States can win in Iraq only through offensive action. It cannot afford to make every American base a fortress, or to disperse scarce manpower and other military resources in force-protection missions. United States forces have to be mobile and able to redeploy where the threat is - even though such redeployments often mean moving forces to vulnerable areas. If the Pentagon concentrates on protecting troops in the short run, the war will last longer and total casualties will be greater. Worse, the United States will simply never win.

We could quadruple our army in Iraq and build mess bunkers and armor all our vehicles and buildings and still face steady casualties. Just adding troops to the theater will not help us go after the enemy.

Using what we have effectively is more important in the short run and we seem to be buying the time our military effort can purchase to build a new Iraq. This latter part is most important in the long run. When even the French could get tired of us after we freed them in 1944, expelling NATO and US forces from France 2 decades later, we can't expect the Iraqis to remain purely grateful for long. Iraqis must take over the fight and the siren song of adding troops to our force in Iraq will just let the Iraqis sit on the fence and watch us fight the Baathists and jihadis. In time, they will be angry that we fight at all. While the Shias seem content enough to support the war--including our blitz on Fallujah in November--back in April they were mad that we attacked Fallujah. That anger could return.

We don't need more US troops in the coalition force. The troops we have need to be better trained (in the case of the Iraqi forces) and used aggressively. While more troops are needed, they must be free Iraqi forces to replace our troops who can pull back into remote bases to deter foreign enemies while the free Iraqi military fights the insurgents.

We have to win the war we are in--not the war we wish to be in. While the Army can certainly use more combat units to aid rotations, we don't need more U.S. troops in Iraq to win. We need to resoutely press forward with our strategy of turning over the fight to the free Iraqis.

Have patience.