It’s a Long War

A ‘Surge’ To Far? In For the Long Haul

Michael Hirsch seems to think he’s on to something:

The Petraeus plan will have U.S. forces deployed in Iraq for years to come. Does anybody running for president realize that?

I’m not sure about the folks running for president. But I’m pretty sure just about everyone who’s serious about a meaningful victory in Iraq realizes it and has realized it for a long, long time. Mr. Hirsch just seems to have found out.

The British are leaving, the Iraqis are failing and the Americans are staying–and we’re going to be there a lot longer than anyone in Washington is acknowledging right now. As Democrats and Republicans back home try to outdo each other with quick-fix plans for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and funds, what few people seem to have noticed is that Gen. David Petraeus’s new “surge”? plan is committing U.S. troops, day by day, to a much deeper and longer-term role in policing Iraq than since the earliest days of the U.S. occupation. How long must we stay under the Petraeus plan? Perhaps 10 years. At least five. In any case, long after George W. Bush has returned to Crawford, Texas, for good.

First of all, this isn’t news. Long before the “Petraeus plan”, officials were acknowledging that we’d be in Iraq for “years to come”. In fact, the “Perhaps 10 years. At least five.” bit even makes headlines every once in a while.

Remember the “demon eyes Condoleezza Rice” photo in the USA Today? That was in October of 2005. Any idea what the title of the article was? Well, it was Rice won’t rule out U.S. troops in Iraq in 10 years. If this was discussed a year and a half ago (and it wasn’t the first or last time that it was) why does Hirsch think he’s scooping everyone all of a sudden? It couldn’t have anything to do with presenting things in a certain way so that the audience thinks a certain way, could it?

Petraeus is engaged in a giant “do-over.” It is a near-reversal of the approach taken by Petraeus’s predecessor as commander of multinational forces in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, until the latter was relieved in early February, and most other top U.S. commanders going back to Rick Sanchez and Tommy Franks. Casey sought to accelerate both the training of Iraqi forces and American withdrawal. By 2008, the remaining 60,000 or so U.S. troops were supposed to be hunkering down in four giant –superbases”, where they would be relatively safe. Under Petraeus’s plan, a U.S. military force of 160,000 or more is setting up hundreds of –mini-forts” all over Baghdad and the rest of the country, right in the middle of the action.

So let me get this straight. The position of war critics is that what we were doing wasn’t working and, to an extent, I can agree with some of the criticism. So now that we’re changing tactics it’s another mistake? Seems to me that the only option left is to give up.

Oh. That’s how it’s supposed to seem.

Actually, of course, the new plan isn’t so much a new plan but a return to the old plan. Recognizing that the security situation hadn’t progressed as far as it should have for us to be doing the things we were doing, we’re slowing down the pace of the transition.

The U.S. Army has also stopped pretending that Iraqis–who have failed to build a credible government, military or police force on their own–are in the lead when it comes to kicking down doors and keeping the peace. And that means the future of Iraq depends on the long-term presence of U.S. forces in a way it did not just a few months ago. “We’re putting down roots,” says Philip Carter, a former U.S. Army captain who returned last summer from a year of policing and training in the hot zone around Baquba. “The Americans are no longer willing to accept failure in order to put Iraqis in the lead. You can’t let the mission fail just for the sake of diplomacy.”

Hirsch seems to be presenting this as bad news. But it’s only bad news if the only acceptable outcome is a withdrawal of US troops regardless of the situation. It’s good news if we’ve stopped “letting the mission fail just for the sake of diplomacy”, no? Good news for anyone who wants the mission to succeed, anyway.

As a result of all the lost time, the anonymous irregular warfare expert worries about “whether we have the support of the American people for the multiyear commitment it will take,” adding: “This is how great powers lose small wars.”

Actually, I’d like to point out a paragraph a bit further down in the article:

Yet like two planets spinning away from each other in different orbits, the Petraeus plan developing on the ground and the Iraq debate generating headlines back home seem to be disconnected, increasingly so. On Wednesday, most of the Democratic candidates for president gathered in Carson City, Nev., and pitched their various schemes for capping funds for the war and thus forcing at least a partial U.S. withdrawal. Back on Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi threw her support behind a proposed bill by Rep. John Murtha that would reduce the U.S. presence in Iraq by requiring troops to spend one year at home between deployments, among other provisions for readiness. [emphasis Murdoc’s]

That, my friends, is “how great powers lose small wars.”

Well, that and pretending that you’ve suddenly discovered some nefarious secret plot which means that the troops won’t be home soon after all.

In November we could have easily, based upon all the evidence freely available at the time, had headlines about like this:

U.S. forces will be deployed in Iraq for years to come. Does anybody running for Congress realize that?

But then someone might have had to acknowledge that bringing the troops home immediately could only be accomplished by giving up.

It’s a lot easier to get elected by saying “I will work to get the troops home” than it is by saying “I will work to assure our defeat so that the troops have to come home“.


  1. Couple comments: 1) The major point that a guy like Hirsch misses is that the question of how much longer we are in Iraq is a red herring. No one (at least not in the US, not even Hirsch) will care if our troops are still there if the violence stops. Almost no one in the US cares that we have troops in Germany. You don’t hear people crying to bring our troops home from Okinawa. Why? Because they don’t get shot at every day. So if the surge works and violence is drastically reduced, it won’t matter if our troops are over there for another 5-10 years. 2) Your comment ‘this is how great powers lose small wars’ misses the lesson of Vietnam, falling into the trap of the Neoconservative view of that war. The wrong lesson to take from Vietnam was that we could have won if we had just stuck it out. History back to Alexander the Great teaches that there are only two ways to stop a large-scale insurgency: (i) mass killings or (ii) addressing the underlying polital issues. Genghis Khan dealt with the Assassins by massacring whole towns. Constantine dealt with the Visigoths by allowing them semi-autonomy (whereby they provided tribute in the form of money and soldiers, but ran their own internal affairs). (I don’t agree with the following, but) Democrats argue that we have already lost the war, and that Republicans are throwing good money (and lives) after bad. I happen to think the current strategy may actually have a chance at working. Not because of the 21,500 extra troops, but because the Iraqis finally seem serious about quelling the violence, including taking the necessary political steps. But I do think it is silly after three years of making absolutely no progress, to blame the people who say ‘enough is enough’ for the defeat. Blame for defeat in this war lies squarely at the feet of the Bush administration. I think there is a chance to snatch victory from the hands of defeat, but the fact that Democrats disagree does not make them the cause of defeat. What I ask any of my friends who take your position is ‘How many years, or even decades, would the situation have to stay like it is today before you would agree that Iraq is merely a waste of lives and money?’ And then I ask them ‘How many years would you have said if I asked you that question in the fall of 2003?’ I’ve had a couple people admit to me that in 2003 they would have said ‘give it two or three years’. Even people who say we should give it two or three more years from now, I point out that the only difference between them and the Democrats, then, is timing, not courage.

  2. The wrong lesson to take from Vietnam was that we could have won if we had just stuck it out.’ Why? If the VC were basically destroyed by the Tet Offensive (which most people agree is true), and if the Vietnamese Army could have held off the NVA if they had continued to receive money and munitions (which does not seem entirely unreasonable), then it seems defeat was purely determine by the withdrawal of support by the US Congress. If that’s the case, staying in Vietnam would have AT LEAST meant not losing – if not actually winning. As far as I can tell, had the US gov’t stopped micromanaging the Vietnam war and let the gloves come off, e.g. let all military targets in North Vietnam be legitimate targets for attack – the war could very well have been won in the mid-70s. With the VC out of the way, and the ability to properly interdict NVA resupply, they could have been defeated. Why not?

  3. See, the ridiculous revisionism. Tet offensive: January 1969 Withdrawl of funding by Congress: December 1974 If the US and ARVN forces were unable to take advantage of the Tet Offensive gains in those six years, how would any additional time have helped? Its unlikely that Congress cutting off funding had anything directly to do with South Vietnam losing. Funding was cut off starting January 1975. The war was over at the end of April 1975. What could US money have accomplished in those four months to change the tide of the war? Regarding supply… If we were unable to interdict arms coming from the North to the South, despite dropping millions of tons of bombs, what makes you think we could have interdicted arms coming from China to North Vietnam.

  4. Who says they weren’t able to take advantage of those gains? They made great strides. However, they were unable to completely crush the NVA due to political constraints. The main point of the Tet offensive, other than it marking the beginning of the end for the VC, was that it started the meme that the US could not win (that famous Walter Cronkite speech). Where is the ‘ridiculous revisionism’, pray tell? I don’t believe I said anything which is not straight out of the history books. What exactly am I ‘revising’? Well, again, the reason the arms could not be interdicted properly was political constraints. Many targets such as ports where goods were being offloaded in Hanoi were off limits. It was difficult ot interdict the supplies between the ports and the front lines, it would have been much easier simply to destroy the ports and prevent the offloading. But nooo.. you wouldn’t want to inflame the Chinese by attacking the country which invaded South Vietnam directly! Other targets which were off limits were SAM sites, factories.. the whole thing was ridiculous. It’s a prime example of why politicians should not be micromanaging a war.

  5. Clarification: the SAM sites were allowed to be attacked but only after they had already shot at aircraft. They couldn’t be attacked while they were being set up. Which is the easiest & best time to do so. Again, ridiculous ROE. As for whether the SVA could hold off the NVA with enough supply & funding.. that is what people more knowledgeable than myself have told me (including some vets who were there at the time).. one thing is for sure, the SVA and US forces certainly could have prevented the invasion, if not flat out destroyed the NVA’s ability to fight at some point, even with a reduced US force. A lot of vets tell me something like ‘when I left, we were winning…’ Just goes to show you how powerful perception is. Unfortunately people like Walter Cronkite who shape the perception of the community at large (even 30 years later) aren’t exactly subject matter experts.

  6. Congress may prevent us from ever addressing this particular problem, but what do we do to preserve institutional knowledge at the brigade level. All over the New Republic and NPR this week was about our success in Ramadi, as it is, recently. I lot of it seems to be the tactics chosen for the particular Colonel in charge of the area as opposed to his predecessors. Already in Iraq there have been areas that seemed to be successful and then after a rotation new tactics, personalities, or whatever completely changes things for the worse. How do we preserve what works in the face of a rotation every year. The Colonel who has done so well in Ramadi is due to leave soon. With appologies to his family, I wish he could stay.

  7. That’s an excellent point, Elam. The only real solution I can see is two-pronged. Firstly, there should be (and as I understand it, is) an overlap period where the new guys prepare to take over from the incumbents. The local commander needs to pass on as much of his wisdom and operational playbook to the new commander as possible, and this process needs to be supported up the chain of command. Secondly, the immediate superiors to these local commanders need to work out what it is about their tactics and strategy that works so well and make it part of official policy, so that it can be spread to other areas. Of course, what works in one area may not work so well in another, but that’s something that has to be discovered. Perhaps a process of getting local commanders to visit other successful areas to learn from their procedures would be a benefit too? It may well be that this kind of thing is one of the major military challenges of our era. Battlefield tactics are all pretty well sorted out by now and well disseminated. But counter-insurgency is much less well-defined and needs to be more heavily adapted to local conditions. The Small Wars Manual and other such books are useful, but it seems like they are going to need constant revision as we learn (or relearn) important lessons.