In an earlier post on this blog, entitled The Impregnable Force: A Case for Stalemate in Iraq, Jeff Michaels proposed a ‘stalemate strategy’ as an alternative to current counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. Following comments from David Ucko and Stéphane Taillat, Jeff has composed the following response.
I hope you don’t mind, but for brevity sake I’d like to respond to both David’s and Stephane’s comments in a single response of my own. I must warn you that I will take a somewhat long-winded way of explaining the logic behind the stalemate strategy, but in the process, hopefully respond to all of their points.
1. One of the problems of offering a ‘radical’ take on any given subject is its shock value. In this particular case, to suggest that an approach other than the counter-insurgency type currently being employed in Iraq under Petraeus might be better for US national security in the long-term, definitely seems to go against the ‘dominant discourse’ of the day.
However, please consider this. Iraq does not constitute the only mission for the US armed forces. Nor does Afghanistan. That being said, too many counterinsurgency advocates look at a conflict such as Iraq and immediately see COIN as the ‘only’ strategy, without recognizing the broader context of these conflicts.
2. By contrast, an alternative grand strategy-based outlook must examine the long-term gains versus losses of maintaining the current approach, and compare these with other options.
This outlook mimics in a somewhat analogous way the view of a certain group of Vietnam dissenters (mostly military officers) who objected to US military involvement there, not for any moral reasons, but rather because they challenged the assumption that Vietnam was a critical battleground in the broader Cold War. Instead, they saw Europe as the central battleground, and viewed Vietnam as a sideshow that was consuming a disproportionate amount of national resources.
Obviously, the Vietnam/Cold War and Iraq/Global War on Terror are not entirely analogous. On the other hand, in both cases, the conflicts have been linked to broader struggles, at least within US political discourse. Iraq is purported to be the ‘central front in the GWOT’ and this mantra is used to justify the disproportionately large US military presence there versus Afghanistan, the Philippines, Horn of Africa, etc., which are presumably viewed as ‘lesser fronts’.
3. It is worthwhile considering for a moment the resources devoted to Iraq in relation to the broader GWOT. Why is it that Iraq requires 140,000+ troops, Afghanistan 30,000, Horn of Africa 1,500, and so forth? Is the US choosing its approach to the conflict because it is the ‘ideal’ approach, or because the approach is defined by the amount of resources available?
To put it bluntly, I would argue the fact that following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the US actually had hundreds of thousands of troops in the area, that this was the most important factor determining America’s subsequent approach to the conflict. In other words, had the US only had 30,000 troops in theater at the time, the US would have had to decide whether to massively increase the force level in order to wage a counterinsurgency campaign, or to keep its military presence at that level and choose an alternative strategy to deal with the problem.
The real issue here is that there are always different ways of doing things. The basis for the stalemate strategy rests on the assumption that US military resources are limited, and therefore present force levels in Iraq cannot be sustained indefinitely. In this case, keeping in mind that US forces in Iraq are bound to decline in number over time, what options are available?
The option many COIN advocates seem to push for, is to keep force levels at their maximum for as long as possible, until conditions have improved to the point where withdrawals can be justified. There are several faults in this logic.
Firstly, there is the assumption that once Iraqi forces are deemed capable of taking over security, thereby allowing US forces to leave, that this will increase the likelihood of stability. Secondly, is the belief that there actually can be ‘stability’. Thirdly, it presumes Washington would be able to recognize ‘stability’, or define it in terms that would allow for troops to be withdrawn? Fourthly, and perhaps most important, is that it ignores the fact there are many groups interested in, and capable of, maintaining a low-level of violence indefinitely.
Indeed, many COIN experts are well aware that it is usually, if not always, the insurgents that control the rate of attrition. As such, looking at the cost-benefit calculus of groups that wish to keep Iraq unstable and to ensure the US overstretches itself (I would include Tehran amongst these), how much effort on their part is required to ensure the US keeps itself committed at its current level until it exhausts itself. I would say this would not require very much effort at all. Even if violence was reduced by 90% but sustained indefinitely, would the US declare ‘victory’? Or would the prospect of the violence increasing again force the US to wage counterinsurgency indefinitely as well?
4. The stalemate strategy has been developed precisely to counter the notion that violence in Iraq will ever be eradicated or reduced to a ‘manageable level’. Instead, it assumes that low-level violence has the prospect of continuing indefinitely, that this violence in all likelihood has the prospect of escalating again, and that US military intervention can at best play only a limited role in containing the multitude of crises involving a multitude of actors.
The question for US policymakers is not whether a stable Iraq is possible. Even in the best case scenario in which stability emerges, will it be a stability that is beneficial for US interests? For instance, would the US gain anything from a stable Iraq that is run predominantly by pro-Iranian Shiites? Is such a rosy scenario worth the ‘three trillion dollars’ in expense and ‘breaking’ the army? Best-case scenarios are not the most likely ones, and without suggesting that worst-case scenarios of civil war are the likeliest either, the reality will probably be somewhere in between.
5. In the meantime, there seems to be no consensus amongst US policymakers about what they believe can actually be achieved in Iraq, nor about what the long-term US interest is. Instead of knowing what they want, most policymakers can at least agree about what they don’t want. Quite simply put, they don’t want to lose, they don’t want to be seen to lose, they don’t want to overextend the military, they don’t want to risk heavy casualties, they don’t want to break the bank, they don’t want Iraq to be the next Afghanistan, and they don’t want Iran to emerge as a winner.
As such, rather than develop strategies to achieve best case, yet highly unrealistic outcomes, it seems much wiser to develop a strategy that achieves the minimum requirements of policymakers. The stalemate strategy is intended to achieve precisely this.
6. Rather than overextend US forces indefinitely, hoping that elections will bring to power virtuous Iraqi leaders who are capable of reversing Iraq’s sinking fortune, a prospect that not only does not exist, but even if it did, it would take many years to accomplish, it would be at risk from any number of potential catastrophes, it would be opposed by all those groups that stand to lose out, and incidentally it would require a heavy US military presence during this entire process.
As much as I would like to have faith in the Iraqi electorate, Iraq’s politicians, and Iraq’s civil service, I’m not entirely sure history provides any grounds for optimism. It is certainly not the sort of optimism that I would base a strategy on. This is not to denigrate the Iraqis per se; I’d assume it would take US and British civil servants faced with the same circumstances many years to begin making real progress as well. To suggest that elections may provide a ‘real turning point’ seems to be the same sort of false expectation that existed prior to the last elections. As to whether or not elections would be held, or could be held effectively, without a massive troop presence on the ground providing security on election day, one would hope that the Iraqi security forces can turn out in full force and provide an adequate level of protection.
7. Waiting for the Iraqi political and administrative system to reform itself runs completely counter to reaching the set of minimum requirements mentioned earlier. In the meantime, US forces are focusing on managing low-levels of violence that seem to remain low-levels of violence year in and year out. As the years go by with few results to show for all the effort, the army becomes frustrated and the US public becomes restless. At some stage, something will have to give.
It is my contention that the longer US forces remain in Iraq at the present levels, the more likely there will be calls for ‘total’ withdrawal. However, if the forces can be reduced significantly, with a corresponding drop in financial cost, the minimum requirements can still be met, and the American public will more likely support an indefinite military commitment. In other words, the more steep the drawdown, the longer it can be sustained.
8. As mentioned in the article, the US drawdown should be based around the concept of an impregnable force that is based around a division headquarters as its main operational component, rather than the present day corps headquarters. The purpose of the force would not be to take part in countering low-level violence; instead it would act to ensure the long-term survival of the Iraqi state, to include protecting the center of administration.
Maintaining the Green Zone maintains the Iraqi state, or at least the illusion of the Iraqi state. Even under the best of circumstances, the Iraqi government based in the Green Zone has only a marginal impact on the day-to-day running of the country. However, despite the limitations of their actual power, they still constitute a legitimate government, and one that still has far greater capabilities than any other group that could threaten to overthrow it.
With a secure base, the Iraqi government can gradually assert control, or at least grant limited sovereignty to parts of the country until such time as the power of the federal government has strengthened to the point where the balance of power is in their favor.
9. In the event of civil war, or heightened levels of sectarian violence, it is unclear what role either the Americans or the Iraqi government would play, except perhaps to stand aside, or support various factions. Under the present counterinsurgency strategy, there is no way to guarantee that civil war won’t occur, particularly once US troop numbers drop below pre-surge levels.
Likewise, there is no guarantee that a civil war will occur if the US opts for the stalemate strategy. The risk of civil war hangs over Iraq no matter which strategy is chosen. That being said, the US military is not supposed to be in the business of stopping an Iraqi civil war. Again, this is why it is important for the US to remain on the sidelines. No matter which group emerges they will ultimately have to deal with the US. Meantime, maintaining the impregnable force in Iraq would serve to dissuade any Iranian attempt to overtly intervene in the conflict.
10. There is no question the current Iraqi government is ‘far from sacrosanct’. Indeed, this makes any defense of COIN all the harder to justify. How can COIN possibly work if the Iraqi government is such a shambles? How on earth can we tell Iraqis to support a government that we have no faith in ourselves?
The stalemate strategy has no great expectations as far as the Iraqi government is concerned, and is not reliant on this government to improve life for ordinary Iraqis. The US interest in the Iraqi government would be limited to ensuring the Iraqi government continues its support of the US presence.
To clarify this Catch-22 situation, it is necessary to refer back to the minimum requirements. For the US, not being defeated, or seen to have been defeated, is a paramount concern for numerous reasons to include its positive impact on Al Qaeda propaganda, lowering of US public and military morale (the Vietnam syndrome), etc. The best way to avoid defeat is to remain in Iraq, and the only way to remain legitimately in Iraq is to have the support of the Iraqi government.
As such, the impregnable force becomes the guarantor of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi government becomes the guarantor of the US presence. The main purpose of the US presence will have little to do with domestic Iraqi politics except as it relates to the presence itself. As mentioned in the article, because the Iraqis cannot force the US out of Iraq by military means, they can only do so by legislative means. Thus, the US can work to ensure the various factions that constitute the Iraqi legislature do not develop a consensus aimed at removing the US presence.
11. Maintaining the US military presence will not be an end purely in itself, but will give added teeth to enhanced diplomatic and covert efforts, and also provide a reliable staging post should US forces be required for any other regional contingencies. The US should not employ its military forces on direct action missions against low-level adversaries.
Defining the enemy is no easy task as has already been alluded to. The names have changed over time, and different groups have different motivations. The key point that needs to be emphasized is that the only enemy that will potentially be a target for US forces is whatever adversary emerges that challenges to overthrow the state. In other words, the various insurgent groups, to include Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), will not feature on an enemies list for the US military. These groups are too small to merit a massive military campaign aimed at eradicating them.
Instead, the Iraqis (both government and non-government) can take the lead, but supported with US funding, training, and arms; in other words, all means short of direct military intervention. An important goal of US efforts will be to ensure no group gains too much power at the expense of the central government or develops capabilities that could threaten the overthrow of the central government.
12. Should any group emerge as a potential challenger to the state, it is inevitable they will have to mass in which case they will be vulnerable to superior US firepower. Likewise, groups that intend to control territory must have armed forces to defend it. In the recent case of Basra, Mahdi Army militiamen were out in force. Had the Iraqi government forces been better armed and led, they would most likely have inflicted very severe blows on the Mahdi Army, certainly to the extent that it would have severely degraded their capabilities.
The notion behind using heavy firepower is not one that is limited to the stalemate strategy. Indeed, it should be remembered that under Petraeus’s command, the US Air Force has employed B-1B bombers dropping heavy ordnance against reported Al Qaeda sanctuaries. The key difference between the two approaches is that whereas Petraeus has been content to employ heavy ordnance to counter low-level violence, a stalemate strategy would limit use of heavy ordnance only to those cases where the enemy had massed in significant strength and could not be dealt with by other means.
13. The acquisition of intelligence will not be significantly hindered by adopting a stalemate strategy for the fundamental reason that the nature of the intelligence required to aid commanders will undergo a significant shift. The requirements of intelligence in a counterinsurgency are considerably different from those in a stalemate strategy.
For instance, due to the fact they would no longer be carrying out raids, US forces would no longer need to acquire such detailed intelligence on the whereabouts of insurgents living in a unit’s area of responsibility. Intelligence collection would be directed away from providing tactical intelligence and concerned more with strategic warning. Needless to say, HUMINT is just one means of collecting intelligence, and after 5 years of occupation, I am pretty certain the US intelligence system will not come crashing down over night.
14. When conceptualizing what a stalemate strategy would look like in practice, it is necessary to dispense with many of the preconceptions of counterinsurgency. As was mentioned in the article, the goal of stalemate isn’t to win; merely not to lose. This distinction is more than mere semantics. It reflects on an entirely different mindset and strategic approach, and this has operational consequences.
As such, there is no need to achieve ‘momentum and initiative’ for the purpose of ‘winning’, since ‘winning’ is not the objective. Nor is there a need to engage with the populace at the lowest levels. Indeed, apart from the Green Zone, the further away American forces are from the Iraqi populace the better. Engaging with Iraq’s political elites should suffice, and this will be more a function of the State Department and CIA than it will be for the US military.
15. Iraq is not a ‘total war’ for the US. It may be a ‘total war’ for the Iraqis, but US interest in Iraq must be viewed in a broader superpower framework of national security priorities. The counterinsurgency approach in Iraq compromises US security elsewhere.
This is a crucial point. With the bulk of the army committed to Iraq, it is not available for contingencies elsewhere. As a result, all other ‘crises’ become lesser crises, simply due to the fact there are less resources to deal with them. Thus, the ‘war’ in Afghanistan gets less attention from policymakers, and fewer resources devoted to it.
The current counterinsurgency approach in Iraq is unsustainable, and some sort of strategic shift in policy is probably inevitable. This is not to say that COIN is necessarily bad, or that it couldn’t work given time. However, at this particular moment in time, and projecting forward, it is more harmful than helpful. By contrast, the stalemate strategy offers a better chance to bring the US military commitment in Iraq more in line with national priorities, while ensuring that its minimum requirements are met.