Respond to this Article June 2003

Faux Pax Americana

The lesson from Iraq is that using fewer troops can win a war, but can't keep the peace.

By Phillip Carter

During the lead-up to the Iraq war, hawkish Pentagon appointees like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz predicted that the conflict could be won with as few as 50,000 troops. Meanwhile, senior generals like Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki and CENTCOM Commander Tommy Franks said that it would take at least 200,000 for the offensive and far more to police and rebuild the country after victory. For a brief week at the end of March, as U.S. troops met stiff resistance in Nasiriya and found their supply lines harassed in the south, it seemed the generals' doubts about fighting the war on the cheap might be confirmed in the worst way. Then, almost overnight, resistance collapsed. That rapid victory proved the contention that Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld had been pressing for more than two years: that America's new high-tech, highly mobile military could win wars with far fewer troops and armor than traditional war-fighting doctrines called for--and with far fewer casualties. (At the height of the war, the United States and the United Kingdom had just 90,000 combat troops in the country.) That was a crucial test of the broader Bush administration policy of using America's military might to crush determined foes rather than simply "managing" them, as previous administrations were wont to do. If America could "preempt" future threats without overextending its military, as Iraq seemed to show, then the argument for the Bush Doctrine would be vastly strengthened.

But the hawks' gloating proved premature. The generals' argument had never been just about what forces it would take to decapitate Saddam's regime. It was also about being ready for the long, grinding challenge after the shooting stopped. By that measure they have been proven dizzyingly correct. April and May brought daily news reports from Baghdad quoting U.S. military officers saying they lacked the manpower to do their jobs. As the doubters predicted, we may have had enough troops to win the war--but not nearly enough to win the peace.

When victory arrived, we lacked the troops on the ground to prevent Baghdad--and most of the rest of the country--from collapsing into anarchy. We had tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles galore in the capital, but not nearly enough soldiers to guard such facilities as the key ministries, hospitals, and the National Museum. Ministries torched and looted during the first days are now unavailable to house the planned interim government. The plunder of hospitals set the stage for a still very possible humanitarian crisis. Looters who ransacked the National Museum stole many of the priceless historic artifacts that connected contemporary Iraq with its ancient roots, inflicting a mammoth public relations disaster upon the United States.

Things have not gotten much better over the following weeks. Lawlessness and chaos continue to reign. Women are raped, law-abiding citizens have their property stolen, those who have anything left don't go to work so they can guard what they still have. The prize the United States sacrificed so much to gain--freeing Iraq from Saddam and clearing the way for its democratic rebirth--is being squandered on the ground as ordinary Iraqis come to equate the American presence with violent lawlessness and immorality, and grasping mullahs rush into the vacuum created by our lack of troops. Mass grave sites, with no troops to secure them, have been unearthed by Iraqis desperate to find remnants of relatives killed by Saddam Hussein's regime, but those same Iraqis, digging quickly and roughly, may have inadvertently destroyed valuable evidence of human rights violations and crippled the ability of prosecutors to bring war criminals to justice. Perhaps worst of all, the prime objective of the entire invasion--to secure and eliminate Saddam's weapons of mass destruction capacity--has been dealt a serious blow. Even Iraq's publicly known nuclear sites had been thoroughly looted before American inspectors arrived, because, once more, not enough troops had been available to secure them. Radioactive material, perhaps enough to make several "dirty bombs," has now disappeared into anonymous Iraqi homes, perhaps awaiting purchase by terrorists. Critical records detailing the history and scope of the WMD program have themselves been looted from suspected weapons sites because too few soldiers were available to guard those places. "There aren't enough troops in the whole Army," said Col. Tim Madere, the officer overseeing the WMD effort in Iraq, in a recent interview with Newsweek. Farce vied with disaster when the inspectors' own headquarters were looted for lack of adequate security. Triumph on the battlefield has yielded to tragedy in the streets.

Belatedly recognizing their horrendous miscalculation, the Bush administration last month replaced the retired general in charge of Iraq's reconstruction, Jay Garner, with former diplomat L. Paul Bremer, who immediately called for 15,000 more troops to keep order. Even if he gets that many, however, Bremer will still be woefully short of the manpower he'll need to turn Iraq from anarchy to stable democracy.

The architects of the war might be forgiven for misgauging the number of troops required had the war come a dozen years ago, when the United States had little experience in modern nation-building. But over the course of the 1990s America gained some hard understanding, at no small cost. From Port-au-Prince to Mogadishu, every recent engagement taught the lesson we're now learning again in Iraq: America's high-tech, highly mobile military can scatter enemies which many times outnumber them, in ways beyond the wildest dreams of commanders just a generation ago. But it's not so easy to win the peace.

A Muscular Peace

Consider the lessons of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. In Bosnia, America won its war with a combination of muscular diplomacy, air power, and covertly armed Bosnian-Muslim and Croat proxy armies on the ground. That mix of tools brought about the Dayton Accords in the fall of 1995. But when it came to making that treaty work, America had to send in its heaviest armor divisions, putting a Bradley fighting vehicle on nearly every street corner to enforce the peace. NATO initially sent 60,000 soldiers into Bosnia, and almost eight years after Dayton, America still has several thousand soldiers on the ground in Bosnia, as part of a 13,000-soldier NATO force. Winning hearts and minds took a backseat to overawing malcontent factions with an overwhelming and, for all intents and purposes, enduring show of force.

Like Bosnia, Kosovo was taken without any American ground commitment. There the United States won its war by unifying air power with what now-retired Gen. Wesley Clark calls "coercive diplomacy." But to win the peace America had to send in substantial ground forces. NATO quickly deployed a force of nearly 50,000 troops to the tiny province that is roughly 1/40 the size of Iraq. Truly pacifying Kosovo--a process that has really only just begun--means leeching it of its toxic ethnic hatreds and endemic violence. Most indicators hint that NATO will have to maintain its mission in Kosovo for at least a generation.

In Afghanistan, the pattern was much the same. It took only 300 U.S. special forces on foot and horseback--supported by 21st-century aircraft, GPS-guided bombs, and a force of Northern Alliance fighters--to bring down the Taliban. But once the government in Kabul had fallen, thousands of U.S. and allied troops had to come in to secure the country. Today, 15,000 American and allied soldiers remain there, 50 times more than it took to win the war.

Even the failures of these previous missions demonstrate that manpower is less important to the achievement of military victory than to coping with victory's aftermath. In Kosovo, according to retired Gen. Montgomery Meigs, then commander of the Balkan stabilization force, we were forced to "do less" because the Pentagon claimed it could not send more peacekeeping troops. As a result, says Meigs, "we were unable to run operations inside Kosovo to interdict the internal movement of arms and Albanian-Kosovar fighters to [neighboring] Macedonia." Those armed separatists set off a civil war in Macedonia--stopped only by the timely deployment of more Western troops, including Americans, into that country.

Something very similar happened in Afghanistan. Our biggest failure there occurred in the mop-up stage, following the flight of the Taliban government. Because we had so few troops on the ground, we failed to cut off and destroy the remnants of al Qaeda--including, most likely, Osama bin Laden himself--as they fled into the lawless mountain regions of the Afghan and Pakistani frontier. Our subsequent efforts at nation-building on the cheap have yielded similar results. Our unwillingness to put many troops on the ground has made a mockery of the president's promise for a "Marshall Plan" for Afghanistan. The Western-oriented, U.S.-installed president, Hamid Karzai, controls little more than Kabul, and the rest of the country has already drifted back into warlordism.

Shooting the Inspectors

Not only did Wolfowitz and Shinseki publicly disagree over how many troops would be needed to win the war in Iraq, they also disagreed on how many troops would be needed to win the peace. Shinseki testified to Congress that we would need "several hundred thousand" and Wolfowitz, very publicly, argued that the situation called for far fewer. What's become clear in the aftermath is that Wolfowitz simply didn't grasp, as Shinseki (who's commanded Army units in peacekeeping operations) clearly did, just what this kind of mammoth peacekeeping and nation-building operation would entail.

First, the simple question of keeping order: "It's frustrating; we do not have the personnel or the training to be policemen," Army civil affairs Maj. Jack Nales told The Washington Post in Baghdad. In one encounter, Nales had to explain the lack of order to civilians. "I'm sorry the police agencies and judicial system isn't [sic] here. I'm sorry we don't have enough soldiers to help you."

Second, only a few soldiers--civil affairs specialists, military police, and medical and engineering units, mostly--are specially equipped for the actual work of nation-building. The vast majority of the rest provide security for these lightly armed units. An engineering platoon of 40 soldiers might need an entire company of infantry (120 men) for security, depending on the terrain. A lack of security entails cutting the number of nation-building missions. If only three infantry companies are available, then only three missions can be undertaken at any one time--essentially the problem in Iraq today.

Third, without a secure environment, no one else can do their job. Weapons investigators are hamstrung if they are constantly getting shot at or inspecting sites whose security evaporates the moment they leave. Oil crews and aid workers don't want to be shot on the job any more than soldiers do, and security concerns have slowed progress on every project in Iraq--from opening the port at Umm Qasr to reopening the oil fields at Kirkuk.

Young Men in the Mud

In many ways, the contrast between warfighting and nation-building resembles the difference between productivity in the manufacturing and service industries. Businessmen have long known that you can rather easily substitute capital and technology for labor in manufacturing. Until very recently, however, it's been far more difficult to do so for the service industries. A similar principle applies to military affairs. In warfighting, everything ultimately comes down to sending a projectile downrange. How you send the bullet (or bomb) makes a difference--you can use an infantryman with a rifle, or a B-52 launching a cruise missile. But the effect at the far end is the same--the delivery of kinetic or explosive energy. Over the last 50 years, American strategy has made increasing use of effective technology, substituting machines for men, both to reduce casualties and to outrange our enemies.

But this trading of capital for increased efficiency breaks down in the intensely human missions of peace enforcement and nation-building. American wealth can underwrite certain aspects of those missions: schools, roads, water purification plants, electric power. But it can't substitute machines or money in the human dimension--the need to place American soldiers (or police officers) on patrol to make the peace a reality.

On the shelf of nearly every Army officer, you'll find a book by retired Col. T.R. Fehrenbach on the Korean conflict titled This Kind of War. At the end of World War II, confronted by the military revolution brought on by the atomic bomb, America cut its military from a wartime high of 16 million down to a few hundred thousand. Bombs and airplanes--not soldiers--would now protect America's shores and cities. After fighting as a grunt in Korea, Fehrenbach thought otherwise. Transformation was great for the Air Force and Navy, but for the Army and Marine Corps, the essential nature of warfare remained unchanged.

"You may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life," wrote Fehrenbach. "But if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud." It's time Don Rumsfeld brushed up on his Fehrenbach. The book is on Gen. Shinseki's official reading list for the Army, so it's a good bet that one of his generals has a copy he can borrow.

Phillip Carter, a former Army officer, attends UCLA Law School and writes on legal and military issues.


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