I recently wrote about a contradiction in our strategy in Afghanistan, where we are simultaneously attempting to draw the rural population away from the Taliban and eradicating opium poppy crops, which drives farmers toward the Taliban. An article in the May 14 Cleveland Plain Dealer, “U.S. shift in fighting insurgency stirs debate,” points to a different kind of contradiction in Iraq, a contradiction between the requirements of the strategic and tactical levels of war.
The article, by reporters Solomon Moore and Peter Spiegel, notes that in Anbar Province, the Marines are adopting the “ink blot” approach to counter-insurgency, which is the only tactic that has a chance of working:
In the region surrounding Al Qaim, a northwestern Iraqi town near the Syrian border, Marines are fanning out from their main base and moving into villages
The deployment follows a strategy favored by a new generation of counterinsurgency experts: disperse, mingle with the population and stay put. The idea is to break out of an endless cycle that allows insurgents to move back into the key areas as soon as U.S. forces move on.
The ink blot approach is a tactic, not a strategy, and it has been recommended by anyone who has studied insurgency, not just a “new generation” of experts. But the U.S. military threw away every lesson from Vietnam as soon as that war ended, so the old has become new again.
However, the article goes on to note that at the strategic level, what we are doing in Iraq directly contradicts the requirements of the ink blot tactic.
But the shift comes as the Pentagon appears to be moving the overall U.S. military effort in the opposite direction across much of the country. Army units are being concentrated in “super bases” that line the spine of central Iraq, away from the urban centers where counterinsurgency operations take place.
The two approaches underscore an increasingly high-profile divergence some say contradiction in how best to use U.S. forces in Iraq.
U.S. forces are being pulled back into fortresses not because fortresses are effective against insurgents, but because at the strategic level, the Bush administration is desperate to reduce causalities and get the American people thinking about something other than the war in Iraq. A short piece in the May 16 Plain Dealer stated that
Presidential advisor Karl Rove said Monday that the Iraq war is responsible for the “sour” mood of American voters, but he predicted that the Republican Party would do “just fine” in the congressional elections in the fall.
Rove may be proven right, but at the moment Republicans in Congress are in a state of near-panic at the prospect of a political bloodbath in November, and Iraq lies at the heart of their fears.
If such a bloodbath occurs and Democrats take the House, much less the House and Senate, even the gutless Dems will get the message, and we will get out of Iraq in short order (which we should do anyway). Pulling our troops back into fortresses is a half-step along that road. Unfortunately, like most half-steps taken too late (and in this case in the wrong direction in terms of fighting an insurgency), it will fail. American casualties will not drop, because we still have to run lots of convoys, and public dismay over the Iraq debacle will continue to grow. Political processes by their nature attempt to bridge contradictions with half measures, but in war, half measures usually make things worse.
The history of war brims with contradictions between the tactical and strategic levels, with unhappy outcomes. Two classic examples are the French and German war plans in 1914, Plan XVII and the Schlieffen Plan. Both required fast-moving strategic offenses at a time when the defensive had become tactically dominant. Both failed, with enormous causalities.
Had U.S. forces in Iraq adopted the ink blot approach at the outset, we would still face insurgency today, and we would still find ourselves unable to attain our stated strategic objectives. Not even Merlin could turn Iraq into a secular, liberal parliamentary democracy. But the situation would probably not have been as bad as it is, we might have managed a half-graceful exit from Iraq and strategic requirements might not have demand we withdraw our troops into fortresses. As it is, what the Marines are doing is right, but too late. The strategic level trumps the tactical, and the pullback of U.S. troops into “super bases” is just a prelude to a super skedaddle.
WILLIAM S. LIND, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.