Monday, December 25, 2006

The "Seven Deadly Sins" That Led To Failure in Iraq

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Kenneth Pollack has a very interesting and important article up at the Brookings Institution website called "The Seven Deadly Sins of Failure in Iraq: A Retrospective Analysis of the Reconstruction."

The "seven deadly sins" of the title are ignorance, arrogance, neglect, stubbornness, panic, haste, and denial.

Much of what Pollack writes is not new at all; but he ties it all together in a way that really helped me understand the series of terrible assumptions, short-sighted policies, and disastrous mistakes that created the catastrophic conditions we have now in Iraq.

One of the points Pollack makes that I think is truly crucial is the American failure to understand what was required to fix the mistakes that were made early on. What it boils down to is that the U.S. does not understand counterinsurgency warfare -- and more to the point, does not see the need to or even wish to try. The key to successfully fighting a counterinsurgency is getting the support of the local populations before the bad guys do. The Bush administration's stubborn insistence on sticking to the "Chase the bad guys, find the bad guys, kill the bad guys" approach, instead of the "Help and support the good guys" approach has actually strengthened the insurgency enormously.

In 2004-05, the Bush Administration largely convinced itself that the problems besetting Iraq were not as great as their critics claimed. While recognizing that reconstruction had turned out to be more demanding than they had anticipated, they convinced themselves that the problems of the country were simple and straightforward, and so could be addressed by a limited number of simple steps. Of greatest importance, they convinced themselves that solving Iraq's problems did not require any difficult political, economic, or military decisions, and no matter how much the evidence diverged from their theories, they refused to accept reality and give up their theories. In particular, throughout 2004-05, Administration officials believed that the problems besetting Iraq were almost entirely the fault of the Iraqi insurgency, which they maintained was largely driven by al-Qa'ida and by a small number of former regime figures. They insisted that once Iraq held fair and free elections to constitute a new legislature, this would undermine the legitimacy of the insurgency, causing it to whither away, and thus alleviating--if not eliminating--all of the problems.

Unfortunately, none of this was true. Moreover, by insisting that all of the problems of the country were caused by the insurgency--rather than that all of the problems of the country were helping to fuel the insurgency--and that, especially in 2004 and early 2005, the insurgency was really about al-Qa'ida operatives and former regime "dead-enders," the United States concentrated its efforts in the wrong places and on the wrong problems. As a result, the United States not only failed to quash the insurgency, but allowed the rest of the country to fall effectively under the control of sectarian militias and organized crime.

A major manifestation of this fatally misguided approach lay in the realm of military operations. In both counterinsurgency and stability operations,[30] the best course of action is to blanket the entire country with a thick layer of security personnel to protect the population and make it difficult--if not impossible--for insurgents, militias, and criminals to harm the civilian population. That was the strategy that the U.S. military attempted to employ in Iraq immediately after the invasion. However, while numbers are always soft in warfare, historically it has required a rough ratio of twenty security personnel per thousand of the population to create such security in both counterinsurgency and stability operations.[31] Even if one allows that the 70,000 Peshmerga are more than adequate to secure Kurdistan, the rest of Iraq would still require roughly 450,000 troops to achieve such a ratio. It is clear that there were never going to be 450,000 troops available to adequately blanket the entire country,[32] at least not until many years into the future when much larger numbers of competent Iraqi troops would be available. The United States was never willing to commit more than about 150,000 troops, and the Coalition allies never produced more than 20,000. Even by 2006, the actual number of Iraqi troops capable of contributing meaningfully to this operation was probably around 60-80,000.

This gap, and the fact that the Administration had no intention of providing the numbers of troops they required to actually make such a strategy work, became apparent to American military commanders in late 2003. At that point, they faced a choice: They could either concentrate the troops they had available on the areas of insurgent activity to try snuff them out, or they could concentrate those forces in and around Iraqi population centers to try to protect them against insurgents and criminals. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the American military commanders made the wrong decision: They chose the former, rather than the latter.

In conventional warfare, the goal is to go on the offensive, take the fight to the enemy, focus on killing "bad guys," and put the enemy on the defensive. In unconventional warfare--including counterinsurgency and stability operations--the only way to win is to do the exact opposite: remain mostly on the defensive, focus on protecting "good guys," and create safe spaces in which political and economic reform/reconstruction can take place--thereby undermining popular support for the "bad guys." The U.S. military, and particularly the U.S. Army, has never liked unconventional warfare. The small number of officers who understood it were typically relegated to the special forces and rarely ever rose to prominent command positions. Those who did rise to the top were those steeped in the principles of conventional warfare, which Army ideology insisted was universally applicable, including in unconventional operations, even when centuries of history made it abundantly clear that this was not the case.

Thus for nearly all of 2004 and 2005, Coalition forces were inordinately concentrated in western Iraq, romping around the Sunni triangle trying to catch and kill insurgents. The results were disastrous. First, because the insurgents were always willing to flee to fight again another day, these operations had virtually no impact on the insurgency overall, which actually grew stronger as ham-fisted American raids antagonized ever more Sunni tribesmen, convincing them to join the insurgency.[33] Second, because the insurgency grew stronger and stronger over time despite the massive exertions of the U.S. military, Iraqis increasingly began to see the United States as a paper tiger, with a variety of detrimental consequences. Last, because too many Coalition forces were off playing "whack-a-mole" with insurgents in the sparsely populated areas of western Iraq, the rest of the country was relatively denuded of troops--indeed, there were vast swathes of southern Iraq where one might not see Coalition or Iraqi Army forces for hours if not days--which allowed the militias and organized crime rings to gradually take control over neighborhoods and villages all across the rest of Iraq. Many of the current problems with the virtually unchecked insurgent attacks on the Shi'a, the explosive growth of vicious Shi'a--and Sunni, and Kurd, and other--militias, and the spiraling sectarian violence among them, can all be traced to this mistaken approach.

To make matters worse, not until 2006 did the U.S. military even acknowledge that their strategic concept--and tactics--in Iraq were not working. Despite numerous criticisms from both inside and outside the armed forces arguing that a conventional approach to the unconventional mission of securing Iraq was bound to fail--and was manifestly failing--the military refused to give up its strategy. Only at the start of 2006, when Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli arrived in Baghdad to take over the corps command there, did the U.S. military command in Baghdad devise a true counterinsurgency/stability operations approach to dealing with the security problems of the country. This effort began with what became known as "the Baghdad Security Plan," which was designed to concentrate large numbers of Iraqi and Coalition troops in Baghdad and employed the proper tactics to secure the capital and allow political and economic reconstruction efforts to begin to take hold there.

It was a brilliant plan, the first that could have actually accomplished what it set out to, but when it was finally approved in the summer of 2006, Chiarelli was given only about 70,000 mostly Iraqi troops--and then mostly Iraqi police, the worst of their security services--not the roughly 125,000 that he would have needed (and reportedly requested). Moreover, Chiarelli's plan called for a fully integrated military and civilian chain of command with adequate numbers of civilian personnel to match their American military and Iraqi civilian counterparts--two more things sorely lacking in Iraq from the very beginning--but none of this was forthcoming. As of this writing, the Baghdad security plan appeared to be enjoying some real success in those pockets of Baghdad where mixed formations of Iraqi and American units were present, but accomplishing little everywhere else. It too seems likely to fail as a result of the too little, too late approach Washington has taken toward the reconstruction of Iraq from start to finish.


dave in boca said...

Shinseki was right about the 350,000 US personnel needed for the quick and successful conclusion of our Iraq expedition. Rumsfeld and Cheney have been steadfastly and consistently wrong and wrong-headed. They jettisoned the Garner specialists, then put Bremer in charge while rejecting Khalilzad.

The best man at my wedding was subsequently Rumsfeld's chief aide when he was Special Ambassador to the Middle East under Reagan in the early '80s.

He told me that Rumsfeld had not a scintilla of interest or curiosity about the Middle East and its intricate mix of politics and religion. Rumsfeld was chiefly interested in inside-the-Beltway manoeuverings to get closer to Reagan.

Rumsfeld is a consummate courtier, and his organizational skills are completely overrated.

Ditto Cheney's and GWB appears to be completely under the influence these two courtiers.

Kathy said...

Interesting comment, Dave. Thank you.

I just finished reading Bob Woodward's "State of Denial," and I got a very similar impression of Rumsfeld from what he wrote, as you say in your comment. Rumsfeld really comes off as the big villain of the piece, much more so than anyone else.

Chief said...

I think the neo-cons viewed the US excursion into Iraq as purely an "academic exercise." The fact that the Brits tried this in the 1920s and failed was lost on the people Bush listened to.

Anyway, an 'academic exercise' may be okay for the classroom but not at all acceptable when you have people's lives on the line.

I too have read "State of Denial" and feel Rumsfeld is truly arrogant and 'full of himself.' The concept of 'consensus' is completely lost on him.