Here's how the president described the enemy in
Iraq at his
press conference last week. "The violence is being caused by a combination
of terrorists, elements of former regime criminals, and sectarian militias."
"Elements of former regime criminals," AKA "bitter-enders," AKA "Saddamists."
The "sectarian militias" may have been a relatively recent add-on, but this
is essentially the same list, the same sort of terminology the president has
been using for years.
In the last two weeks, however, rumblings of discontent, the urge for a change
of course (or at least a mid-course correction) in Iraq have been persistently
bubbling to the surface of already roiling Washington. Senate Armed Services
Committee Chairman John Warner recently returned from Iraq to rattle
the Bush administration by saying that policy there was "drifting sideways"
and if it didn't improve, "all options" should be on the table not long after
the midterm elections.
Suggestions are rife for dumping the president's goal
of "democracy" in Iraq and swallowing a little of the hard stuff. Washington
Post columnist David Ignatius, for instance, reported last week (as
did Middle Eastern expert Robert
Dreyfuss at TomPaine.com a week earlier) that in two desperate capitals,
Washington and Baghdad, rumors about possible future Iraqi coups are spinning
wildly. People of import are evidently talking about the possibility of a new
five-man "ruling commission," a "government of national salvation" there that
would "suspend parliament, declare martial law, and call back some officers
of the old Iraqi army." Even the name of that CIA war-horse (and anti-neocon
candidate) Iyad Allawi, who couldn't get his party elected dogcatcher in the
new Iraq, is coming up again in the context of the need for a "strongman."
This was, of course, the desire of the elder George Bush and his advisers
back at the end of Gulf War I, when they hoped just such a Sunni strongman –
one who could work with them – would topple a weakened Saddam Hussein. Dreams,
it seems, die hard. And, as if on cue, who should appear but former secretary
of state and Bush family handler James A. Baker III, a Bush Elder kind of guy.
While on the talk-show circuit for his new book, he also spent last week plugging
(but not revealing) the future findings of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan
commission he co-heads whose aim is to suggest to a reluctant president new
policy possibilities in Iraq. They too are putting "all" options on the table
(as long as those options involve "continuing
the mission in Iraq"). The group, according to a leak to the
New York Sun, has, however, ruled out the president's favorite option,
"victory." One option it is considering, according the Sun, involves
skipping "democracy," minimizing American casualties, and focusing "on stabilizing
Baghdad, while the American embassy should work toward political accommodation
A political accommodation with the insurgents? Curious how word gets around.
Sometimes a small change in terminology speaks volumes for future mid-course
corrections. The other day, Gen. George Casey, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq,
gave a press
briefing with Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. As part of his prepared introductory
remarks (not in answer to some random question), he offered this list of "groups
that are working to affect [the situation in Iraq] negatively":
"The first, the Sunni extremists, al-Qaeda, and the Iraqis that are supporting
them. Second, the Shi'a extremists, the death squads, and the more militant
militias. In my view, those represent the greatest current threats in Iraq.
The third group is the resistance, the Sunni insurgency that sees themselves
as an honorable resistance against foreign occupation in Iraq."
"The resistance"? "An honorable resistance against foreign occupation in Iraq"?
Where did those bitter-enders, those Anti-Iraq Forces go? Take it as a small
signal – noticed, as far as I could tell, by not a single reporter or pundit
– of things to come.
Of course, all of this has brought to the surface a lot of hopeful "withdrawal"
talk in the media (and the online world), in part because the Baker group seems
to have been floating "phased withdrawal" rumors. Before you think about genuine
withdrawal possibilities though, note the announcement by Army Chief of Staff
Gen. Peter Schoomaker last week that he was now planning
for the possibility of maintaining present force levels in Iraq (140,000+ troops)
through 2010; that Casey at that press briefing left the door wide open to ask
the president for even more troops after the election; and that the buildup
on the ground of permanent bases (not called that) and our vast, nearly billion-dollar
embassy in the heart of Baghdad is ongoing.
Below, Michael Schwartz considers the latest in military mid-course corrections
and explains why such corrections can no longer hope to plug the gaping holes
in Iraq's political dikes. Similarly, Warner, Baker, Casey, Sen. Joe Biden (with
his "three-state solution"), and so many others can all promote their own mid-course
corrections, suggest them to the president, bring them to the new Congress,
promote them among military figures, but as long as that embassy goes up and
those bases keep getting hardened and improved, as long as the "mission continues"
(in Baker's phrase), changing troop levels, tactics, even governments in Baghdad's
Green Zone, not to speak of "policy options" in Washington, will solve nothing.
Wherever that "table" is sooner or later all options will really have
to be displayed on it. Tom
The More Force You Use, the Less Effective You Are
by Michael Schwartz
Recently, the New
York Times broke a story suggesting that the U.S. Army and the Marines
were about to turn the conceptual tide of war in Iraq. The two services, reported
correspondent Michael R. Gordon, "were finishing work on a new counterinsurgency
doctrine" that would, according to retired Lt. Gen. Jack Keane, "change [the
military's] entire culture as it transitions to irregular warfare."
Such strategic eureka moments have been fairly common since the Bush administration
invaded Iraq in March 2003, and this one – news coverage of it died away in
less than a week – will probably drop into the dustbin of history along with
other times when the tactical or strategic tide of war was supposed to change.
These would include the November 2004 assault on the city of Fallujah, various
elections, the "standing up" of the Iraqi army, and the trench that, it was
briefly reported, the Iraqis were planning to dig around their vast capital,
But this plan had one ingenious section, derived from an article by four military
experts published in the quasi-official Military
Review and entitled "The Paradoxes of Counterinsurgency." The nine paradoxes
the experts lay out are eye-catching, to say the least, and so make vivid reading;
but they are more than so many titillating puzzles of counterinsurgency warfare.
Each of them contains an implied criticism of American strategy in Iraq. Seen
in this light, they become an instructive lesson from insiders in why the American
presence in that country has been such a disaster, and why this (or any other)
new counterinsurgency strategy has little chance of ameliorating it.
Paradox 1: The More You Protect Your Force, the Less Secure You Are
The military experts offer this explanation: "[The] counterinsurgent gains
ultimate success by protecting the populace, not himself." It may seem like
a bland comment, but don't be fooled. It conceals a devastating criticism
of the cardinal principle of the American military in Iraq: that above all
else they must minimize the risk to American troops by setting rules of engagement
that essentially boil down to "shoot first, make excuses later." Applications
of this principle are found in the by-now familiar policies of annihilating
any car that passes the restraint line at checkpoints (because it might be
a car bomber); shooting at pedestrians who get in the path of any American
convoy (because they might be trying to stop the vehicles to activate an ambush);
and calling in artillery or air power against any house that might be an insurgent
hiding place (because the insurgents might otherwise escape and/or snipe at
an American patrol).
This "shoot first" policy has guaranteed that large numbers of civilians
(including a remarkable number of children) have been killed, maimed, or left
homeless. For most of us, killing this many innocent people would be reason
enough to abandon a policy, but from a military point of view it is not in
itself sufficient. These tactics only become anathema when you can no longer
ignore the way they have made it ever more difficult for the occupying army
to "maintain contact" with the local population in order "to obtain the intelligence
to drive operations and to reinforce the connections with the people who establish
Paradox 2: The More Force You Use, the Less Effective You Are
Times reporter Gordon summarizes the logic here nicely: "Substantial
force increases the risk of collateral damage and mistakes, and increases the
opportunity for insurgent propaganda." Considering the levels of devastation
achieved in the Sunni city of Fallujah
(where 70 percent of structures were estimated to be damaged and close to 50
percent destroyed in the U.S. assault of November 2004) and in other Sunni cities
(where whole neighborhoods have been devastated), or even in Shi'ite Najaf (where
entire neighborhoods and major parts of its old city were destroyed in 2004),
the word "substantial" has to be considered a euphemism. And the use of the
word "propaganda" betrays the bias of the military authors, since many people
would consider such levels of devastation a legitimate reason for joining groups
that aim to expel the occupiers.
Here again, the striking logic of the American military is at work. These
levels of destruction are not, in themselves, considered a problem – at least
not until someone realizes that they are facilitating recruitment by the opposition.
Paradox 3: The More Successful Counterinsurgency Is, the Less Force That
Can Be Used and the More Risk That Must Be Accepted
Though not presented this way, this paradox is actually a direct criticism
of the American military strategy in the months after the fall of the Saddam
Hussein's regime in 2003. In those early days, active resistance to the occupation
was modest indeed, an average of only six violent engagements each day (compared
to 90 three years later.) But American military policy in the country was still
based on overwhelming force. American commanders sought to deter a larger insurgency
by ferociously repressing any signs of resistance. This strategy included house-to-house
searches witnessed by embedded reporter Nir Rosen and described in his vivid
the Belly of the Green Bird. These missions, repeated hundreds of times
each day across Iraq, included home invasions of suspected insurgents, brutal
treatment of their families and often their property, and the indefinite detention
of men found in just about any house searched, even when U.S. troops knew that
their intelligence was unreliable. Relatively peaceful demonstrations were forcibly
suppressed, most agonizingly when, in late April 2003, American troops killed
13 demonstrators in Fallujah
who were demanding that the U.S. military vacate a school commandeered as a
local headquarters. This incident became a cause célèbre
around which Fallujans organized themselves into a central role in the insurgency
that soon was born.
The new counterinsurgency strategy acknowledges that the very idea of overwhelming
demonstrations of force producing respectful obedience has backfired, producing
instead an explosion of rebellion. And now that a significant majority of
Iraqis are determined to expel the Americans, promises of more humane treatment
next time will not get the genie of the insurgency back in the bottle.
Paradox 4: Sometimes Doing Nothing Is the Best Reaction
This paradox is, in fact, a criticism of another cardinal principle of the
occupation: the application of overwhelming force in order to teach insurgents
(and prospective insurgents) that opposition of any sort will not be tolerated
and, in any case, is hopeless. A typical illustration of this principle in
practice was a January
2006 U.S. military report that went in part: "An unmanned U.S. drone detected
three men digging a hole in a road in the area. Insurgents regularly bury
bombs along roads in the area to target U.S. or Iraqi convoys. The three men
were tracked to a building, which U.S. forces then hit with precision-guided
munitions." As it turned out, the attack killed 12 members of a family living
in that house, severely damaged six neighboring houses, and consolidated local
opposition to the American presence.
This example (multiplied many times over) makes it clear why, in so many
instances over these last years, doing nothing might have been better: fewer
enemies in the "hood." But the developers of the new military strategy have
a more cold-blooded view of the issue, preferring to characterize the principle
in this way: "If a careful analysis of the effects of a response reveals that
more negatives than positives might result, soldiers should consider an alternative."
That is, while this incident might well be an example of a time when "doing
nothing is the best reaction," the multiple civilian deaths that resulted
could, under at least some circumstances, be outweighed by the "positives."
Take, for a counter example, the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head
of al-Qaeda-in-Mesopotamia, in an air strike that also caused multiple civilian
Paradox 5: The Best Weapons for Counterinsurgency Do Not Shoot
The Times' Gordon offers the following translation of this paradox:
"Often dollars and ballots have more impact than bombs and bullets." Given
the $18 billion U.S. reconstruction budget for Iraq and the three well-attended
elections since January 2005, it might seem that, in this one area, Bush administration
efforts actually anticipated the new counterinsurgency doctrine.
But in their original article the military strategists were actually far more
precise in describing what they meant by this – and that precision makes it
clear how far from effective American "reconstruction" was. Money and elections,
they claim, are not enough: "Lasting victory will come from a vibrant economy,
political participation, and restored hope." As it happened, the American officials
responsible for Iraq policy were only willing to deliver that vibrant economy,
along with political participation and restored hope, under quite precise and
narrow conditions that suited the larger fantasies of the Bush administration.
Iraq's new government was to be an American ally, hostile to that axis-of-evil
regional power Iran, and it was to embrace the "opening"
of the Iraqi economy to American multinationals. Given Iraqi realities and this
hopeless list of priorities (or inside-the-Beltway daydreams), it is not surprising
that the country's economy has sunk ever
deeper into depression, that elected officials have neither
the power nor the inclination to deliver on their campaign promises, and
that the principle hopes of the majority of Iraqis are focused on the departure
of American troops because of, as one pollster concluded, "the American failure
to do basically anything for Iraqis."
Paradox 6: The Host Nation Doing Something Tolerably Is Sometimes Better
Than Our Doing It Well
Here is a paradoxical principle that the occupation has sought to apply fully.
The presidential slogan, "as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," has
been an expression of Bush administration determination to transfer the front-line
struggle against the insurgents – the patrols, the convoys, the home invasions,
any house-to-house fighting – to Iraqi units, even if their job performance
proved even less than "tolerable" compared to the rigorous execution of American
It is this effort that has also proved the administration's most consistent
and glaring failure. In a country where 80 percent of the people want the Americans
to leave, it is very difficult to find soldiers willing to fight against the
insurgents who are seeking to expel them. This was evident when the first group
of American-trained soldiers and police deserted the field of battle during
the fights for Fallujah, Najaf, Mosul, and Tal Afar back in 2004. This led eventually
to the current American strategy of using Shia soldiers against Sunni insurgents,
and utilizing Kurds against both Shia and Sunni rebels. (Sunnis, by and large,
have refused to fight with the Americans.) This policy, in turn, has contributed
substantially to the still-escalating sectarian violence within Iraq.
Even today, after the infusion of enormous amounts of money and years of effort,
a substantial proportion of newly recruited soldiers desert or mutiny when faced
with the prospect of fighting against anti-American insurgents. According to
Solomon Moore and Louise Roug of the Los
Angeles Times, in Anbar province, the scene of the heaviest fighting,
"half the Iraqi soldiers are on leave at any given time, and many don't return
to duty. In May, desertion rates in some Iraqi units reached 40 percent." In
September, fully three-quarters of the 4,000 Iraqi troops ordered to Baghdad
to help in the American operation to reclaim the capital and suppress internecine
violence there, refused deployment. American officials told
the L.A. Times that such refusals were based on an unwillingness
to fight outside their home regions and a reluctance to "be thrust into uncomfortable
As the failed attempts to "stand up" Iraqi forces suggest, the goal of getting
Iraqis to fight "tolerably" well depends upon giving them a reason to fight
that they actually support. As long as Iraqis are asked to fight on the side
of occupation troops whose presence they despise, we cannot expect the quality
of their performance to be "tolerable" from the Bush administration point of
Paradox 7: If a Tactic Works This Week, It Will Not Work Next Week; If
It Works in This Province, It Will Not Work in the Next
The clearest expression of this principle lies in the history of improvised
explosive devices (IEDs), the anti-occupation weapon of choice among Iraqi
resistance fighters. Throughout the war, the occupation military has conducted
hundreds of armed patrols each week designed to capture suspected insurgents
through house-to-house searches. The insurgency, in turn, has focused on deterring
and derailing these patrols, using sniper attacks, rocket propelled grenades,
and IEDs. At first, sniper attacks were the favored weapon of the insurgents,
but the typical American response – artillery and air attacks – proved effective
enough to set them looking for other ways to respond. IEDs then gained in
popularity, since they could be detonated from a relatively safe distance.
When the Americans developed devices to detect the electronic detonators,
the insurgents developed a variety of non-electronic trigger devices. When
the Americans upgraded their armor to resist the typical IED, the insurgents
developed "shaped" charges that could
pierce American armor.
And so it goes in all aspects of the war. Each move by one side triggers
a response by the other. The military experts developing the new strategy
can point to this dilemma, but they cannot solve it. The underlying problem
for the American military is that the resistance has already reached the sort
of critical mass that ensures an endless back-and-forth tactical battle.
One solution not under consideration might work very well: abandoning the
military patrols themselves. But such a tactic would also require abandoning
counterinsurgency and ultimately leaving Iraq.
Paradox 8: Tactical Success Guarantees Nothing
This point is summarized by Gordon of the Times this way: "[M]ilitary
actions by themselves cannot achieve success." But this is the smallest part
of the paradox. It is true enough that the insurgency in Iraq hopes to win
"politically," by waiting for the American people to force our government
to withdraw, or for the cost of the war to outweigh its potential benefits,
or for world pressure to make the war diplomatically unviable.
But there is a much more encompassing element to this dictum: that guerrilla
fighters do not expect to win any military battles with the occupation.
In the military strategists' article, they quote an interchange between American
Col. Harry Summers and his North Vietnamese counterpart after the U.S. had withdrawn
from Vietnam. When Summers said, "You know you never defeated us on the battlefield,"
his adversary replied, "That may be so, but it is also irrelevant."
A tactical victory occurs when the enemy is killed or retreats, leaving the
battlefield to the victor. In guerrilla war, therefore, the guerrillas never
win since they always melt away and leave their adversary in charge.
But in Iraq, as in other successful guerrilla wars, the occupation army cannot
remain indefinitely at the scene of its tactical victories – in each community,
town, or city that it conquers. It must move on to quell the rebellion elsewhere.
And when it does, if the guerrillas have successfully melted away, they will
reoccupy the community, town, or city, thus winning a strategic victory and
ruling the local area until their next tactical defeat.
If they keep this up long enough and do it in enough places, they will eventually
make the war too costly to pursue – and thus conceivably win the war without
winning a battle.
Paradox 9: Most of the Important Decisions Are Not Made by Generals
Because guerrilla war is decentralized, with local bands deciding where to
place IEDs, when to use snipers, and which patrols or bases to attack, the
struggle in different communities, provinces, or regions takes very different
forms. Many insurgents in Fallujah chose to stand and fight, while those in
Tal Afar, near the Syrian border, decided to evacuate the city with its civilian
population when the American military approached in strength. In Shia areas,
members of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army chose to join the local police and
turn it to their purposes; but Sunni insurgents have tried, instead, to disarm
the local police and then disband the force. In every city and town, the strategy
of the resistance has been different.
The latest American military strategists are arguing that what they call the
"mosaic nature of an insurgency" implies the necessity of giving autonomy to
local American commanders to "adapt as quickly as the insurgents." But such
decentralization cannot work if the local population supports the insurgent
goal of expelling the occupiers. Given autonomy under such circumstances, lower-level
U.S. military officers may decide that annihilating a home suspected of sheltering
an insurgent is indeed counterproductive; such decisions, however humane, would
now come far too late to convince a local population that it should abandon
its support of a campaign seen as essential to national independence.
There may have been a time, back when the invasion began, that the U.S. could
have adopted a strategy that would have made it welcome – for a time, anyway
– in Iraq. Such a strategy, as the military theorists flatly state, would
have had to deliver a "vibrant economy, political participation, and restored
hope." Instead, the occupation delivered economic stagnation or degradation,
a powerless government, and the promise of endless violence. Given this reality,
no new military strategy – however humane, canny, or well designed – could
reverse the occupation's terminal unpopularity. Only a U.S. departure might
Paradoxically, the policies these military strategists are now trying to
reform have ensured that, however much most Iraqis may want such a departure,
it would be, at best, bittersweet. The legacy of sectarian violence and the
near-irreversible destruction wrought by the American presence make it unlikely
that they would have the time or inclination to take much satisfaction in
the end of the American occupation.
Michael Schwartz, professor of sociology and faculty director of the Undergraduate
College of Global Studies at Stony Brook University, has written extensively
on popular protest and insurgency, as well as on American business and government
dynamics. His work on Iraq has appeared on numerous Internet sites including
TomDispatch.com, Asia Times, MotherJones.com, and ZNet; and in print
in Contexts, Against the Current, and Z magazine. His books
include Radical Protest and Social Structure, and Social Policy and
the Conservative Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo). His e-mail address is
Copyright 2006 Michael Schwartz