The March 14 Los Angeles Times contained
that rarissima avis, good news from Ramadi:
"The commander of U.S. troops in Iraq wanted some sweets, and nothing
was going to stop him. Not even the fact that he was tramping through a neighborhood
that only days ago had been teeming with snipers and al-Qaeda fighters who would
love nothing better that to say they had just shot Gen. David H. Petraeus.
"With soldiers casting anxious glances along the desolate dirt road,
the four-star Army general made a beeline for a tiny shop and helped himself
to a bite-sized, honey-coated pastry proferred by the owner.
"Tell him the next time I come back to Ramadi, we'll eat his chow," Petraeus
said as he headed into the blistering sun."
As someone who navigates by bakeries, I would like to see this episode as a
tale of a great man willing to venture all, even his life, in pursuit of the
perfect éclair. The reality is less noble, but perhaps more useful. General
Petraeus was showing by personal example that our forces in Iraq should put
integration with the people before force protection.
This flicker of light was not alone in the darkness that is Iraq. In Anbar
province, home base of the Sunni insurgency, the Marines report some progress.
Turning al-Qaeda in Iraq's excesses against it, they have formed working alliances
with some Sunni sheiks, who in turn are going after al-Qaeda. U.S. troops have
moved into Sadr City in Baghdad with some care instead of kicking down doors
and humiliating the locals.
The official reports undoubtedly overstate the good news, because that is what
the U.S. military always does (for an example of the opposite, see Williamson
Murray's superb article on the German response to victory in Poland). But the
reason these points of light will not overcome the Iraqi darkness is more profound.
All these improvements in American forces' performance are at the tactical level,
and that is not where most wars are decided.
Two points of military theory are important here. First, a higher level dominates
a lower. If you win on the tactical level but lose operationally, you lose.
If you win on the tactical and operational levels but lose strategically – Germany's
fate in both world wars – you still lose.
Second, in most wars, including Fourth Generation wars, success on higher levels
is not merely additive. That is not to say, you cannot win operationally or
strategically just by adding up tactical victories. We tried to do that in Vietnam,
and the Second Generation U.S. military still does not understand why it didn't
work. In Second Generation theory, it is supposed to work, which is why we are
trying it again in Iraq and Afghanistan, and again not understanding why we
If we consider the operational and strategic situations in Iraq, we can easily
see why no amount of tactical success can save us. Strategically, we are fighting
to support a Shi’ite regime closely aligned with Iran, our most potent local
opponent. Every tactical success merely moves us closer to giving Iran a new
ally in the form of a restored Iraqi state under Shi’ite domination. The more
tactical successes we win, the worse our strategic situation gets. This flows
not from any tactical failure (though there have been plenty of those), but
from botching the strategic level from the outset. Saddam's Iraq was the main
regional counterweight to Iran, which means we should not have attacked it.
Operationally, we have been maneuvered by Iraq's Shi’ites into fighting their
civil war for them, focusing our efforts against the Sunnis. As I have observed
before, we are in effect the Shi’ites’ unpaid Hessians. That is why Muqtada
al-Sadr has ordered his Mahdi Army not to fight us in Sadr City. It is not that
he is afraid of us; he is simply making a rational operational decision.
Our only other apparent option is to take a more even hand and fight the Shi’ite
militias as well as the Sunnis, which is what some in Washington want our forces
to do. But that would make our operational situation even worse, because the
Shi’ites lie across our lines of communication. If we get into a fight with
them, they can cut off our supplies, leaving us effectively encircled – the
essence of operational defeat.
It should be clear that no accumulation of tactical successes can retrieve
either our operational or our strategic situations. Again, most wars are not
That is not to say we could not repair our positions on the strategic or operational
levels. On the strategic level, we could reach a general settlement with Iran,
something the Iranians have proposed, and on very generous terms.
This would be the equivalent of Nixon's rapprochement with China, which rendered
our defeat in Vietnam irrelevant. Unfortunately, the Bush administration, with
its usual myopia, has refused even to consider the Iranian offer.
Operationally, we could open negotiations with all our Sunni opponents other
than al-Qaeda in Iraq, attempting to reach a settlement that would isolate the
latter. General Petraeus has dropped hints he would like to do this. We would
have to assure the nationalist opposition that we do plan to leave, and the
Ba'athists that they would be re-legalized and given some share of political
power. It would require a delicate balancing act, since any arrangement with
the Ba'athists would enrage the Shi’ites, who could threaten our supply lines.
It might nonetheless be possible, except that the Bush White House would again
almost certainly veto it. As General Petraeus has probably already discovered,
there is no position more difficult than that of minister to an idiot king.
In desperation, General Petraeus will probably be driven to seek operational
and strategic success by fighting smarter on the tactical level. He will comfort
himself that fighting smarter is at least better than fighting dumb, as we largely
have to date. But it won't work, because it can't. Operational and strategic
failures must be dealt with on their own levels and in their own terms. Anything
else is lighting candles in a hurricane.