An Impregnable Force? A Response by David Ucko

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The following post, by IRG member David Ucko, offers a response to Jeff Michaels’ earlier post ‘The Impregnable Force: A Case For Stalemate in Iraq’, and has been promoted from the Comments section of that post.

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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 problems 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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Read Jeff Michaels’ original post here.

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