Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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August 28, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

"HOW TO WIN IN IRAQ"....As you know, I've been arguing for the past couple of months that we need a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq. Details aside, this is fundamentally based on my belief that unless you have well understood goals and objectives that you can hold people to, you'll never get anything done. We need firm targets and timelines in Iraq to have any chance of success there.

But timeline or not, we're still left with a tough question: our current strategy in Iraq isn't working, so what strategy should we adopt in its place? And here's where I run into a considerable amount of frustration. It's clear that we should be focused like a laser on fighting a classical counterinsurgency, and whenever I read or talk to people about this, I'm given the distinct impression that counterinsurgency is practically a science among military strategists. There is, I'm told, a large and well understood corpus of literature on the subject, and its basic tenets are widely agreed on.

Fine. So why is it that large foreign occupiers practically never win counterinsurgencies? The British in Malaysia are the only large-scale example of success since WWII, and while they may provide lessons for success, it's also the case that some of the tactics they used are simply not available to us. So what should we do?

Andrew Krepinevich, author of The Army and Vietnam, outlines an answer in Foreign Affairs this month, and the folks at FA have been kind enough to put the full text of his essay, "How to Win in Iraq," online. In it, Krepinevich outlines an approach with a media friendly moniker that he calls the "oil spot strategy." The basic idea is to stop focusing all our resources on killing insurgents, and instead pick particular areas, clean them up and provide security for the local population, and then slowly expand outward:

Each offensive...sweeping through the target area and clearing it of any major insurgent forces.....smaller formations...providing local security. National police would then arrive....Iraqi army units would switch to intensive patrolling along the oil spot's periphery....Iraqi and U.S. intelligence operatives...infiltrating local insurgent cells.

....Sustained security....facilitate social reform....help to convince the local population that the government is serious about protecting them. The overall objective, of course, would be winning their active support, whereupon they would presumably begin providing the government with intelligence on those insurgents who have "gone to ground" in the secured area.

Krepinevich also has some more conventional suggestions: we should improve our current efforts to train Iraqi forces; we should embed U.S. troops in Iraqi battalions; and we should stop the "pernicious practice" of rotating successful officers out of Iraq on a yearly basis. Those are all sound ideas.

Still, I found his essay deeply depressing for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the fact that Krepinevich had to write it at all. He acknowledges that even now, more than two years after the occupation began, the Army is still not committed to a counterinsurgency strategy. Whether or not his oil spot approach is correct, this can only leave you shaking your head. If we're still not committed to counterinsurgency as our overwhelmingly primary mission in Iraq, it seems unlikely that anything is going to change that.

Second, there's a lot of wishful thinking in Krepinevich's essay. It depends heavily on figuring out how to navigate the internal politics of Iraq's 150 tribes; gaining the trust of local leaders; mounting successful, large scale reconstruction projects; and improving our intelligence operations by an order of magnitude. Any strategy that depends on doing all these things successfully is walking on a very thin tightrope.

Third, Krepinevich suggests that our first target for oil spot operations should be Baghdad and Mosul. I almost choked when I read that. Baghdad? There's certainly no question that securing Baghdad would be good news indeed, but that's not a "spot," it's a city of 5 million people. I'd sure like to see his approach proven on a more modest scale before tackling Baghdad.

Finally, there's some serious waffling in his essay: he's anti-withdrawal but he's also pro-withdrawal. That is, he thinks we can execute both the Baghdad and Mosul offensives with fewer troops than we have now (!), and that after these offensives are concluded we can reduce our troop strength in Iraq to 60,000 (compared to about 140,000 today). Since he says earlier that these offensives would take "half a year or longer," this suggests that he thinks his strategy would lead to a substantial drawdown of U.S. forces by the end of 2006. A further drawdown to 20,000 would happen "over time."

If he truly believes that, though, why is he so flatly opposed to providing timelines for success? As it is, the reader can only surmise that one even exists. What's more, his fleeting references to a "decade of commitment" suggests that he's actually thinking in much longer timeframes but doesn't have the courage to make this clear up front. That doesn't speak well for his confidence in his own plan especially considering his enthusiasm for the use of metrics in so many other areas.

That said, the article is well worth reading. It's a good critique of current military practices in Iraq and it lays out in considerable detail an alternative that's based on a realistic assessment of what we're up against. Unfortunately, Krepinevich does too good a job: his honest acknowledgment of the Army's lack of commitment to counterinsurgency, as well as the obstacles that would stand in our way even if they were, leaves little hope that oil spots will be adopted or would be implemented successfully even if they were.

Kevin Drum 3:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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