Thursday, December 01, 2005

Victories from history

Terrorism and insurgencies historically take many years to defeat, through a combination of political, economic, and military tools. Iraq’s violence is different from other such conflicts, where insurgents often had unified command and control or mounted a successful campaign to win the hearts and minds of the population. Nonetheless, Iraq is likely to struggle with some level of violence for many years to come.
- National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, 30th November 2005 (page 13 of PDF, marked page 10)
National Strategy for Victory in Iraq [is] an unclassified version of the plan that we've been pursuing in Iraq...
- Scott McClellan, 29th November 2005
I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency.
- Dick Cheney, June 20th 2005
How can we reconcile these statements? Perhaps this plan was not being pursued in June. Perhaps it's a new plan. Another possibility is that Cheney doesn't actually know what's going on in Iraq or what the plan says. A third is that he's a neferious bastard with a complete disregard for the truth; a man who'll say anything to further his political agenda. Who knows?

I've now read the "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" all the way through. It's too long to go into in detail but I did have a few general thoughts.

The title itself is interesting. The use of the word "national" suggests that the US administration has abandoned the pretence that the Iraq project is a collective endeavour of the "coalition of the willing". Judging by these search results, at the time of writing Blair hasn't commented on the strategy at all. On the offchance that any journalists might read this, could someone please ask him how much input he had in the creation of this document. Not much, I suspect.

On the plan
I don't often draw comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam. Over 58,000 US military personel were killed in that war. Estimates for civilian casualties vary but it's widely agreed that the number runs into millions. The US military carpet bombed extensively in the region and did not limit these attacks to Vietnam alone. The millions of south east Asians who were indiscriminately killed in these bombing raids are conspicuously absent in all of the many Vietnam films produced by the notoriously "liberal" Hollywood establishment. Some truths, as I said the other day, are just too difficult to face.

Today, world public opinion has created a climate in which the US military would find it very difficult to kill indescriminately on such an enormous scale. In these dark days, this is a ray of hope. Nevertheless, after reading the plan, parallels are increasingly apparent.

Initially, the US military pursued a search and destroy strategy in Vietnam under the direction of General Westmoreland. It was a strategy of attrition. The US military attempted to search for and destroy all insurgent forces in the mistaken belief that this would defeat the insurgency. Overwhelming military force was the prefered method. They would attack an insurgent stronghold, kill lots of people, and then leave the area. A body count of insurgent casualties was used to measure progress. Unfortubnately, the insurgents were often able to avoid these attacks and it was the ordinary people who bore much of the brunt of these assaults. This fuelled the insurgency by generating hatred for the foreign invaders and sympathy for the insurgents among the Vietnamese population. Sound familiar?

There's no question that the US military has, until recently, been using similarly counter-producive tactics in Iraq (although again, probably not on the same scale). The rhetoric was of hunting down and killing the enemy, wherever he may be. It was totally self defeating as a counter-insurgenct technique, just as it was in Vietnam.

In Vietnam, US military commanders did eventually recognise that the search and destroy tactics were wholy unsuitable for defeating an insurgency. In the late Sixties, a new strategy was developed by General Abrams, General Westmoreland's replacement. Instead of pursuing a search and destroy strategy, the US military instead adopted a strategy they called "clear and hold".
Objective: To develop the Vietnamese capacity to secure their country while carrying out a campaign to defeat the terrorists and neutralize the insurgency.
To achieve this objective, we are helping the Vietnamese government:
  • Clear areas of enemy control by remaining on the offensive, killing and capturing enemy fighters and denying them safe-haven.
  • Hold areas freed from enemy control by ensuring that they remain under the control of the Vietnamese government with an adequate security force presence.
  • Build Vietnamese Security Forces and the capacity of local institutions to deliver services, advance the rule of law, and nurture civil society.
That text is actually from the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq (page 11 of PDF, marked page 8) of course. I just inserted Vietnam where it said Iraq. Having read through the new plan for Iraq, I suspect it was created to a large extend by applying this word swap process in the other direction. While looking up links for this post, I found that others have expressed similar views. The parallels are remarkable.

The good news is that the clear and hold strategy can be a successful counter-insurgency technique if carried out properly. There are some who believe that this strategy could have delivered victory in Vietnam if it had been given more time. The bad news is that this couldn't be put to the test. US public opinion for the war had declined to such an extent that the continuation of that strategy was simply not an option. This led to an increase in the US government's emphasis on Vietnamisation, ostensibly as a path to victory, but actually in an attempt to withdraw without losing face.

Further bad news is to be found in the fact that many others, including myself, believe that the heavy handed search and destroy strategy in the early years of the war created a situation in which "victory" was virtually impossible. We must desperately hope that the same conditions are not now prevalent on the ground in Iraq. The signs are not encouraging.

The question as to why the US government has pursued a search and destroy strategy for two and a half years is a troubling one. The lessons of Vietnam have been ignored and many of the same mistakes have been made. Given the significance of the Vietnam war to the United States, it's difficult to understand how that could have happened. All of the above is common knowledge to anyone who has studied the Vietnam war. Why did the US administration not seem to know? It, once again, causes me to question the intellectual capacity of the current encumbants of the Whitehouse. Whatever the reason, it is, in my opinion, inexcusable.

Where now?
If the US government is now determined to implement a genuine workable clear and hold counter-insurgency strategy, there may still be some hope for peace in Iraq. Unfortunately, just as in Vietnam, the strategy may have come too late to make any difference to the eventual outcome. Had the strategy been implemented in 2003, the chances of success would have been much greater.

US public opinion is turning against the war and it still seems likely that a significant number of troops will be withdrawn from Iraq in time for the mid-term elections next year. Political expediency will, I believe, demand it. This will reduce the ability of the new strategy to deliver on its potential.

At the same time, the consequences of failure would be enormous. The National Strategy for Iraq lists those consequences (page 8 of PDF, marked page 5). Reading them, I'm forced to agree with many of the points it raises. In fact, they remind me very much of the objections I and others raised before Bush and Blair launched this invasion in the first place.

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