While presidential candidates carefully nuance positions on how long and how many US troops should remain in Iraq, the facts on the ground indicate only one viable course. The situation has evolved beyond the capacity of the US to achieve any kind of acceptable outcome, and we should immediately begin a total withdrawal.
Iraq has morphed from a fourth generation war (4GW)–for which US forces began belatedly to prepare under the leadership of General David Petraeus–into a fifth generation conflict (5GW). The difference is profound, and it obviates our political strategy, our military strategy and our superior firepower.
4GW is a known entity. It’s been around at least since Mao (and many would argue before), and has been well documented in Malaysia, Algeria and Viet Nam. Its key characteristic is asymmetric force levels and capabilities, which dictates that the militarily weaker side must primarily wage guerilla warfare.
While 4GW is "messy" in that it primarily attacks soft targets, it is "neat" in terms of grand strategy. It entails two well-defined sides, each of whom wishes to emerge as, or maintain, the recognized government. The battle is for "hearts and minds" and winning is defined as controlling the levers of state power. Insurgents try to delegitimize the state by disrupting delivery of services and security, while counterinsurgents attempt to shore up the state through "armed social work".
5GW is a whole other kettle of fish. In 5GW, the goal is not to seize the levers of power so much as it is to weaken or "hollow out" state control, in order to fill the ensuing vacuum. The actors are not necessarily political movements, or even recognized groups. Their motivation is as likely to be micro-economic as ideological, and may be social or–most likely–some blend of the above. To conflate these under any label, be it "jihadists", "losers and dead-enders" or "militias" is to misunderstand them completely.
In fact, the most fundamental "organizing principles" of 5GW groups may well be protection, social identity and simple entertainment. In a disintegrating culture lacking social anchors and awash with weapons–much like some of America’s inner cities–joining a "gang" simply makes sense. It offers identity, belonging, livelihood and lifestyle. It is the ultimate social network, because the stakes–literally life and death–are so high. Fighting the American occupation, as well as competing groups, bestows honor and prestige as well as meaning and purpose in a society otherwise devoid of these.
5GW is sometimes called, "open source" warfare, or "war of super-empowered individuals", because modern weapons and technologies have conferred tremendous power on small actors. One person with a kilo of plastic explosive and a simple detonator can do millions of dollars in damage to key infrastructure, such as pipelines, electrical grids, water treatment plants or bridges.
What the US did by disbanding the civil and military infrastructure of Iraq was create the underlying conditions for 5GW. By failing to supply adequate troops to provide security, we allowed looters and entrepreneurs to dismantle the physical infrastructure of the country, and militias and death squads to dismantle the social infrastructure.
Shattering the authority of the state opened myriad opportunities for 5GW actors. Today, it’s nearly impossible to identify all the players in Iraq. They range from large, visible groups such as the Mahdi Army and Iraqi Security Volunteers, to shadowy groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq and the 1920 Revolution Brigades, to tribes, clans and neighborhood gangs. Their motives are as large as expelling all foreign forces, and as small as controlling rentals, electricity or fuel sales in a neighborhood for income.
America’s strategic leaders, unfortunately, have not recognized the implications of this shift. Our troops are operating under the guidelines of FM 3-24, the US Army Counterinsurgency Manual. (Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 3-33.5) FM 3-24 defines insurgency as, "an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict."
In fact, we are fighting a shadowy web of networks that sometimes collaborate and sometimes compete with the government and each other. The "enemy" is a "shape shifter"–sometimes police, sometimes militia, sometimes civilian, sometimes tribal and sometimes simply criminal.
But, supporters of the war argue, the "surge" is working. Violence and US casualties are down. We just have to stay the course. We’re winning.
Those trends are the result of complex interactions, almost none of which are within our control, or even within our capacity to significantly influence. (Further, many of the statistics that detail these trends are "cooked" to provide evidence of success, just like body counts in Viet Nam.)
The truce declared by Muqtada al-Sadr has largely stood down the Mahdi Army, perhaps the largest and most capable militia in the country. This single factor has reduced violence by an estimated 60 percent. But while the Mahdi Army is not overtly fighting our forces, it is continually upgrading its weapons, training and tactics, while al-Sadr gains greater political influence. They will be back when al-Sadr deems it appropriate–or when his influence over them wanes and they begin to self-organize and take independent actions. It is important to note that throughout the truce with US forces, Mahdi fighters have continued to battle in the south for control of oil and the lucrative pilgrimage trade.
Most of the decline in sectarian violence is attributable to the near completion of religious / ethnic cleansing of neighborhoods and provinces. As with the decline in the murder rates of American cities after drug gangs consolidated their territories, the displacement of Sunni and Shia from each other’s areas has largely stopped the killings that effected that emptying. It is an indicator of further splintering, not integration.
The Iraqi government remains a joke, incapable of controlling even the Green Zone, much less providing the jobs and development necessary to offer an alternative to militia or gang membership. Bear in mind we’re over four years into the process of the Iraqi government "standing up" so we can stand down. Progress in that time has essentially been non-existent, or even negative.
The decline in clashes with Sunni fighters is a result of US forces arming, funding and training the very elements we have fought against over the past four years. We have essentially given our primary opponents a pass, and in the process violated the cardinal rule of counterinsurgency, which is to enhance the legitimacy of the host government. These "Awakening" groups, which number in the dozens, will provide a focus of armed opposition to the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government far into the future.
If anything, the surge has provided both the Shiites and the Sunnis with more and better weapons, and greater legitimacy, while further undermining the central government and creating even more enemies to stand against it and us. Our military is severely overstretched, and civilian and military casualties are again rising.
Are there viable options other than immediate and total withdrawal? In a word, no.
Maintaining the surge is impossible. We simply do not have the troops. Moreover, the troops we do have are needed elsewhere, especially in Afghanistan, where we can still succeed.
Withdrawing to the "permanent" bases we are building around the country is not sustainable either. To secure and pacify the surrounding territory requires more resources than we can deploy long-term. The inability to do so makes out troops constant targets. In addition, that reality will worsen. Within a short time, insurgents will be able to use cheap GPS guidance systems and Google Earth coordinates to send their own precision guided munitions at those bases. Random rocket attacks and mortaring will evolve into effectively targeted attacks, with all that implies. (Israel would do well to understand this, too.)
As long as US forces are in Iraq, it will indeed be the "central front" in the war on terror–for the bad guys. Iraq is a first class training ground for al Qaeda and the Taliban. As long as we’re there, they gain sympathy, converts and, most important, experience. The Taliban is already employing advanced tactics learned in Iraq, including "martyr attacks" and more sophisticated IED’s.
The hard reality is, Iraq is no longer a counterinsurgency campaign. It is a hostile occupation in a 5GW environment. And while not all counterinsurgency campaigns fail, all hostile occupations ultimately do. The question is only over what time frame.
The United State has failed in Iraq, and there is no way to reverse that reality with our logistical and moral constraints. It is time to withdraw all of our troops, beginning immediately.
JOHN GOEKLER is a consultant and trainer in Complex Adaptive Systems from Santa Fe, New Mexico.