The following post was contributed by IRG member Jeff Michaels, and offers a radical and controversial take on the current counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq.
The US military’s ability to bring heavy firepower to bear in Iraq offers the best means to maintain a favorable balance of power in the long-term. A US policy that reflects this view provides the most effective way of reducing force levels while retaining leverage over the many competing interest groups who seek to challenge the integrity of the state. Rather than continue adhering to the goal of defeating or degrading US adversaries in Iraq, a new approach could aim to achieve a stalemate. In other words, the strategic emphasis would shift from offense to defense, and place the onus of victory on the enemy. The goal of a stalemate strategy would be to ensure the inability of a third party to take over the Iraqi state. As such, the definition of victory would be limited to avoidance of defeat. The definition of defeat would be the forced removal of the US from Iraq, or even a voluntary decision to withdraw, which would in any case be portrayed as being forced out.
This approach contrasts sharply with the current unsustainable counterinsurgency strategy; a strategy that aims to maximize security gains at the local level and win ‘hearts and minds’. For the last five years, the adversaries in the US-led occupation have been what can best be described as ‘flavor-of-the-month’ enemies. The labels US forces have applied to them have shifted regularly over time, and include: ‘dead-enders’, ‘former regime elements’, ‘Al-Qaeda’, ‘illegal armed groups’, ‘special groups’, and so forth. The primary problem with the constant change of terminology has been to entrench within American discourse the perception that the main adversaries that must be confronted are a combination of perpetrators of low-level violence, as well as groups that wish to maintain dominance of their turf rather than cede it to government control. This has had the effect of elevating the importance of these adversaries into a significant threat, instead of the nuisance they actually constitute. Consequently, the US military has been jumping from one hot spot to the next and from one adversary to the next, with little or no conception of what purpose they are serving, other than as local firemen putting out very small fires. It would seem a paradigm shift away from counterinsurgency is long overdue. Such a shift should inform, and be informed by, a revised set of political objectives.
An alternative concept would have the US avoid intervention in cases where it would be countering low-level violence. Unlike the current approach that relies on dispersing forces in cities throughout Iraq, a new strategy should emphasize concentrating US strength outside the main urban centers, thereby allowing a reduction of forces to the point where a division-plus base level commitment can be sustained indefinitely. One of the key benefits this ‘stalemate option’ provides is to give the US the advantage of time; an advantage the enemy currently holds.
Under this new strategy, the US military would remain committed to supporting Iraq’s government, but would limit future interventions only to those cases where the balance of power had shifted away from the government. In other words, any direct action would be limited to countering those groups having the capability to overthrow the state itself. As such, groups with limited capabilities, such as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), would no longer be a focus for the US forces. This approach would accept the strategic reality that the US has the heaviest firepower, and that groups such as AQI cannot dislodge US forces from Iraq by force. Within the Green Zone, and on their large bases throughout Iraq, the US military constitutes an impregnable force. No other armed force has the firepower of the Americans, and a new US strategy should stress this comparative advantage.
Since 2003, US adversaries have fought on the strategic defensive, even if they have occasionally engaged in tactical offensive operations. However, in every instance when confronted with US heavy firepower, the adversaries disengage from the fight. This firepower advantage guarantees that adversaries must limit their methods to ‘asymmetric’ means. Advocates of the counterinsurgency approach have traditionally argued this reflects a US weakness rather than an enemy one, and is the primary reason they use to justify restructuring US forces to fight this low-intensity type of war. However, if the US chooses to limit its political objective to denying victory to its adversaries, there is no reason to fight the war on enemy terms. Instead, the US can ensure any group attempting to seize power must ultimately fight on American terms.
There are only a limited number of ways US forces will be removed from Iraq. Whether it is political opposition to the war, fiscal strain, armed forces overstretch, or a combination of these that contributes to withdrawing US forces, this will be a decision made in Washington. The only power the Iraqis potentially have to evict US forces is to legislate them out. By contrast, as long as US forces maintain local firepower superiority, they remain a force to be reckoned with, no matter who takes power. It should be remembered that yesterday’s ‘insurgents’ are today’s ‘Sons of Iraq’. US strategy should reflect the reality that employing the US military to take direct action against adversaries is an option rather than a necessity. There are almost always indirect means available that can be employed to ensure a lack of unity amongst the various groups vying for power. At the end of the day, America’s most important long-term objective is to sustain a favorable balance of power, preferably at a far lesser cost in terms of blood and treasure. Such an approach ensures the US ability to deny perceived victory to both Al Qaeda and Iran, avoids the consequences of defeat, and significantly reduces the strain on the US armed forces. The term ‘stalemate’ may be considered a dirty one, but the time has come to dispense with any pretensions of ‘victory’, and not let false expectations serve as an alternative to sound strategy.