The Impregnable Force: A Case for Stalemate in Iraq

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The following post was contributed by IRG member Jeff Michaels, and offers a radical and controversial take on the current counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq.

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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.

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2 Responses to “The Impregnable Force: A Case for Stalemate in Iraq”

  1. staillat Says:

    A refreshing view in the sense that it contradicts the whole of current literature and dominant discourse about counterinsurgency. Only one question: if momentum and initiative have to be achieved in order to “win”, would it be better gained by engaging the populace at the lowest levels, or through a defensive posture in FOB?
    This raises also the question of the legitimacy of “opérations extérieures” (OPEX): they can be perceived as constabulary operations in “outer ring” of Western countries (so, they blur the distinction between internal security and external security). Consequently, they have to gain legitimacy from the local and homeland public opinions. The use of massive firepower, whether it is to protect the force in current urban assaults (as it was the case during Vigilant Resolve or today in Sadr City where AC-130, helicopters are used), or as an overwhelming mean to deter any third party to seize power, is, in my view, an obstacle to this goal.
    ‘Stalemate’ can appear as a desirable goal, both politically and ethically, because it preserves us from the hybris of “victory”. That would mean a 180°-shift from the current position, that considers “ontological asymmetry” to be the crucial point in “postmodern” conflicts. In such a view, Iraq would shift from a “total war” that must be won at all costs to a “contingency” that is marginal to Western Security (or maybe “secondary” rather than marginal). In this case, Counterinsurgency would become a mean to manage crisis and confrontations between Iraqi factions rather than a political issue in US and in US Services upon organizational issues.
    Those are questions that must be raised in order not to entangle ourselves and our military in such dead ends as the “transformation” and the excessive reliance in technological tools to “win decisively”.

    Cordialement
    Stéphane TAILLAT
    PS: comments above are not necessarily peremptory opinion… So, feel free to disagree…. :)

  2. David Ucko Says:

    Jeff, you are a good friend and I often agree with you. This time however, I think you are – well – almost entirely mistaken. In the spirit of fostering debate, let me quickly go over a few problem I had with your argument.

    First, I do not think that the approach you suggest in this piece is either feasible or advisable. Your suggested strategy would perhaps be OK if the goal of the exercise was to secure the Green Zone. If we are OK with that plan, of course we would need to change strategy. But I don’t think that protecting the Green Zone would constitute any sort of victory (or absence of defeat), nor would it be sustainable in a country falling back into civil war.

    You also seem to suggest that your approach would protect the Iraqi ‘state’, or government, and therefore constitute some sort of victory (by not letting it be overthrown). There are many problems with that assumption. The current government in Iraq is itself far from sacrosanct and I do not think that the US military should or would like to lean on it indefinitely as the answer and manifestation of all things ‘good’ about Iraq. In fact, the ‘government’ – fragmented and intensely identity-driven – has itself been responsible for some of instability, denial of services, deep mistrust that we see in Iraq today. Simply protecting it in the name of ‘having a government’ won’t do, unless you favour endless ethnic violence and cleansing, the type of instability that could just as well be achieved by a complete withdrawal.

    This leads to the nature of the current strategy, which I think you mischaracterise, leading to a poor diagnosis. There is much more to the current strategy than gaining hearts and minds on the local level, though this – in a way – is an important part of it (though I wouldn’t characterise it like that). Another major component would be achieving greater buy-in in the political system or central regime, by encouraging peaceful political participation, by integrating tribal fighters into and also reforming the Iraqi security forces. Put differently, as I understand it, the US military is pursuing a top-down process of reform by deterring obstructionist elements, promoting legislation to be passed, professionalising and expanding the membership of the Iraqi security forces, etc., while also achieving local ceasefires from the bottom-up, providing – in aggregate – the security situation and, ideally, buy-in necessary for the top-down reform to take place. The real turning-point for this process will be the provincial elections in October 2008 and the national elections the year after.

    Now, I do agree with you that the characterisation of the enemy has at times been confused. Having said that, many of the groups you list, seemingly as interchangeable, can and should in fact be isolated for the purposes of analysis and policy. They have their own motives, origins, etc. Furthermore, the terms you list span the duration of the campaign, from 2003 to now. Better to focus on the particular groups active in one area. In correspondence with a brigade commander who was active in Iraq in 2006, he provided a precise break-down of the groups he needed to address. It was informed by local intelligence and close familiarity and recognised the multitude of distinct but sometimes overlapping motivations for resistance.

    Taking this one step forward, you seem to assume that the ‘enemy’ – which for your criticism of the US characterisation, you yourself have not defined – that the enemy’s conception of victory is overthrowing the state. That may not be the case: resource exploitation, local territorial control, or just fostering instability are as, if not more, likely motives. A narrow protection of the Green Zone would therefore bring about a situation similar to 2004-06, when the US military leadership in Iraq by and large favoured FOBs and Iraq experienced rising periodic attacks, ethnic violence, leading to civil war. As I have said before, that outcome can be achieved simply by withdrawing.

    And even if the Iraqi state’s survival could be guaranteed through your approach, without any capacity, which the Iraqi state would struggle to maintain without active US support, isn’t the Iraqi ‘state’ just a hollow shell anyway? Then what’s the point of defending it against those who threaten to ‘overthrow’ it…? And how would it be defended? The US can go in heavy but where has this ever truly worked. And why would any ‘enemy’ worth his salt mass for the sake of our JDAMs. The effective use of force in Iraq will always require intelligence and precision and if you think about how intelligence is gained and precision is achieved, you realise that you must return to the ‘dispersal of troops in urban centres’ that you deride in your piece…. Call it counterinsurgency, call it whatever you want, but launching heavy operations from a fortified base simply won’t substitute – in effectiveness – for the understanding, access and relations built up through the on-the-ground, population-centred approach now put in effect.

    A final problem with your approach is elections. I assume that you would still want elections to take place. Yet if the Green Zone is an island of tranquillity in a country undergoing civil war, how would those elections be organised and, as important, who would they bring to power, assuming they could be held in the first place?

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