Can the U.S. Win in Iraq?


We certainly don't claim to be clairvoyant, but sometimes we just can't resist the old "I told you so." Here's an article from the very first edition of What We Now Know, week of 11/17/2003.

Can the U.S. Win in Iraq?
By David Galland

Dissecting the U.S. deployment of 133,000 troops on the ground in Iraq, Edward Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently calculated that only 28,000 are actually in the field at any given time.

To put that number in perspective, Luttwak points out that the New York City Police force has 37,000 police officers - yet U.S. coalition forces are being asked to keep control over a nation of 28 million, including the urban hotspots of Baghdad with its 6 million inhabitants, Mosul with 1.7 million, Kirkuk with 800,000 and Fallujah, a Sunni stronghold with a population of 250,000.

That's just 28,000 soldiers to interdict insurgents and jihadists coming over the borders with Syria and Iran, to patrol all the cities, protect all the oil fields, pipelines, banks and utility infrastructure... and to provide cover for the U.S. military bases, airfields and convoys.

It gets worse: the latest plan proposed by the administration cuts U.S. forces to just 104,000 troops, with an increasing share being National Guard and Army Reservists who, rather than playing their usual supporting role, are this time headed for the front line - because when it comes to Iraq, it's pretty much all front line.

To give you some sense of the danger, small arms are so abundant that $10 will buy you, retail from a street vendor, an AK-47 machine gun and all the ammunition you can carry.

Which brings us to the question addressed in this special WWNK feature, can the U.S. win in Iraq?

We ask the question for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is that it is very likely that, as the war in Iraq goes, so will the 2004 presidential election. For another, it is our tens of billions of hard-earned tax dollars being appropriated in the attempt to recast Iraq in our own image. Any chance of success? This feature will be longer than usual for this publication, because the issue at hand warrants it.

First, A Historical Benchmark

Every day now the news from Iraq tells of another 1, 2 or 17 U.S. soldiers killed, increasingly leading the media to make comparisons to the U.S. war against Vietnam. We think a better comparison is the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: while the Vietnam War started as a fight against guerrillas, it ended with set piece battles against the North Vietnamese army. In the case of the Soviet involvement with Afghanistan, other than some very limited initial engagements, it was all guerrillas, all the time.

So, how did the Soviets make out? Over the ten-year conflict approximately 15,000 Soviet soldiers were killed - an average of about 4 soldiers KIA per day. Subtract casualties related to illness, a very high number due to poor sanitation, and you come up with about 39,000 wounded in combat and sundry injuries (equipment crashes, etc.) or about 10.75 per day.

How does the U.S. involvement in Iraq compare so far?

As we write, the U.S. troops KIA in Iraq is at 417, an average of about 2 per day since the start of the war. So, we compare favorably by about half to the Soviets. However, when you look at the largely underreported wounded in combat and other non-illness-related injuries, we are already at 4,451, or about 19 per day - a rate nearly twice that of the Soviets. Why is our KIA ratio so much better and our wounded ratio so much worse? Credit it to the high quality of personal protective gear (flak jackets and helmets) worn by the U.S. soldiers - otherwise our fatal and non-fatal casualties in Iraq would likely parallel those suffered by the Soviets. Not to put too fine a point on it, the war is not going well.

Is the sacrifice worth it? Put another way, is there a reasonable chance for a military or political success in Iraq - whatever that might mean?

Winning Against Insurgents

For help with the answer, we turn to a useful list of the conditions which must be present in order for an occupying army to succeed against an insurgency such as we are faced with in Iraq. The list was assembled for the Center for Aerospace Doctrine, Research and Education by General (Ret) Mohammad Yahya Nawroz, Army of Afghanistan and LTC (Ret) Lester W. Grau, U.S. Army. In the interest of space, we excerpt the list here, and include some commentary.

"A guerrilla war is not a war of technology versus peasantry. Rather, it is a contest of endurance and national will. The side with the greatest moral commitment (ideological, religious or patriotic) will hold the ground at the end of the conflict."

WWNK: In a recent survey of Iraq's population by Zogby International, some 50% of those surveyed thought the U.S. would hurt more than help their country over the next five years, and some 43% had either a favorable or very favorable opinion of Osama bin Laden. Embedded in this segment of the population is a sizable minority who think the U.S. should go and, as witnessed by the suicide bombings, believe in their point quite strongly.

Because of the gross underdeployment of coalition forces and the constant attacks against those forces - up to 35 a day - U.S. soldiers are understandably reluctant to mingle with the population, which is generally sullen and uncooperative anyway. So winning hearts and minds is out of the question.

On the question of morale, while the insurgents and their philosophical allies are visibly cheered by each successful attack, U.S. morale is beginning to flag badly. Ask yourself the question, "If I, or a member of my family, was a U.S. soldier, whose stay in Iraq has likely been extended far beyond what was originally promised, how willing would I be to trade an arm, leg or even a life for victory in a war the purpose of which is now unclear?"

How would you answer that question when members of the Administration are beginning to waffle on the evening news about the duration of our commitment? Clearly, the morale, will power and commitment factors favor the insurgents.

"Secure logistics and secure lines of communication are essential for the guerrilla and non-guerrilla force. Security missions, however, can tie up most of a conventional force."

WWNK: With 28,000 soldiers in the field at any time, U.S. coalition forces are hard pressed to protect themselves, let alone protect anything else. Point to the insurgents.

"Weapons systems, field gear, communications equipment and transport which are designed for conventional war will often work less effectively or fail completely on rugged terrain."

WWNK: The U.S. force has the world's best military equipment, bar none. But all of the smart bombs in the world will not do you any good against a lone Iraqi sneaking through the night with a Rocket-Propelled Grenade (RPG). Put another way, unless you are pursuing total war, which is something we are simply not prepared to do, nor should we be, all that high-tech weaponry is pretty much useless against guerrillas, as opposed to a conventional army. And fighting against well-coordinated pockets of insurgents embedded in urban terrain is rugged terrain indeed. Again, point to the insurgents.

"Tactics for conventional war will not work against guerrillas. Forces need to be reequipped, restructured and retrained for fighting guerrillas or for fighting as guerrillas."

WWNK: In the opening stages of the Vietnam War, U.S. search and destroy squads were actually quite effective against the irregular Viet Cong, effectively defeating them as a fighting force before the entrance of the North Vietnamese regular army - coupled with political restrictions on the limits of our combat - ultimately lost the war there. In the case of Iraq, search-and-destroy missions by small and ruthless groups of anti-insurgents may be the only way to win this war militarily, but each incursion into the slums of Baghdad or other cities risks turning more of the population against us. That's not hard to do considering, according to the Zogby poll, 30% of Iraq's citizens said they had lost a family member, neighbor or friend in the U.S. attack. Of course, they lost a lot more to Saddam's thugs - the poll says 50% -- but the memories from the U.S. war are still fresh.

Because of the underdeployment and the nature of the terrain, the odds of the U.S. using small groups of soldiers fighting guerrilla-style to successfully track down a significant number of insurgents are long indeed. That leaves us in more or less fixed positions, vulnerable to continued attacks at the time and choosing of the insurgents.

"Tanks have a limited utility for the counter-guerrilla force, but can serve as an effective reserve on the right terrain. Infantry fighting vehicles and helicopters can play an important role in mobility and fire support."

WWNK: In the case of Iraq, because U.S. forces are so widely dispersed, the helicopter is especially important. Unfortunately, in the words of a professor of military history at Washington's National Defense University, "Choppers are very vulnerable. They fly low and slow and they're excellent targets. They can be brought down by Stingers, RPGs and small arms fire." The Iraqi resistance obviously knows how to take out helicopters - and their success on that front to date limits the usefulness of this critical battlefield support component.

"Journalists and television cameramen are key players in guerrilla warfare. The successful struggle can be effectively aided when championed by a significant portion of the world's press."

WWNK: The world's press and increasingly our own, is almost entirely unified against the Iraq operation.

"Domination of the air is irrelevant unless airpower can be precisely targeted. Seizure of terrain can be advantageous, but is usually only of temporary value. Control of the cities can be a plus, but can also prove a detriment. Support of the population is essential for the winning side."

WWNK: Historically, success by occupying forces against insurgents occurs only if the insurgents can be geographically and/or politically isolated, and then systematically eliminated. Because the Iraqi insurgents are embedded in the cities, geographic isolation is unlikely, leaving political isolation the only hope.

The only way that is going to occur is if we publicly ally with the Shiite majority against the more troublesome Sunni minority - the feeding stock for the insurgency. This strategy would, in effect, call for deliberately creating a vicious religious war, the end result of which will almost certainly be an Iranian-style theocracy that will not thank the U.S. for its help, should it succeed. We would rate the odds of such strange bedfellows as Bush and the Ayatollahs to be slim to none and Slim just left town.

The bottom line: On virtually every point, the battle goes to the insurgents. Consequently, the signals now coming out of Washington that we are preparing to cut and run, painful as it may be from the perspective of national pride, makes sense. This is a war we cannot win.

As for the Iraqis and their smoldering cities - their future will be up to them. If the U.S. invasion has provided them with nothing else, it has provided the country with a break from its totalitarian past and in so doing, an opportunity to take a new path. They can collectively choose to reconstruct a polite society from the ruins, or squander their future by rolling over for the next hard man that comes along, maybe even welcome back Saddam. They might also opt for a good old-fashioned religious civil war. The reality is that Iraq was a human rights mess before the war, and its citizens can use the U.S. intervention to do better. Or, they can revert to oppression and hopelessness. That would be a damn shame, but not our damn shame.

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Posted 09-04-2007 4:57 PM by David Galland


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