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« Continuing The Downhill Slide | Main | "The Real Enemy" »

"I Told You So"

That's what John McCain is saying about his stance on Iraq, and the consistency with which he's been calling for more troops from the beginning. And he's right, he has.

The problem is, I remain unconvinced that more troops were the answer, then, or now. I always thought that the surge was misnamed. I think that there are two other factors that are as important, and perhaps much more important, than troop levels per se.

First was the change of tactics, in which rather than hunkering down in bases and training Iraqis to go out and fight the insurgency, Petraeus put the troops out in the field and worked with the locals.

But I think that the most important factor was simply that the Iraqis tired of the insurgency and Al Qaeda. I think that Petraeus was the right man at the right time, but I don't think that it takes anything away from him to question how well the strategy would have worked two, or three years ago. It probably would have been better than what we were doing at the time, but I think that the time had to be ripe for the awakenings in Anbar and Diyala, and now in Baghdad. It may be that the Iraqis simply had to go through this brutal period to understand the barbarity and viciousness of the fundamentalists that were attempting to colonize them, as they had Afghanistan under the Taliban, and the benefits of working with Americans and each other, rather than trying to fight each other for the spoils of the war.

The Sunnis are probably finally coming to the realization that they are never going to rule over the majority as they had under the Ba'athists, and seem to now be ready to accommodate themselves to the new Iraq, and are trying to cut deals. Again, I don't think that's something that could have happened overnight.

I don't think that it was ever realistic to think that we were going to get a well-functioning democracy quickly in Iraq, even if we managed to get votes much more quickly than most predicted. Anyone who has studied military history knows that wars, and insurrections, are generally long protracted periods of one disaster after another, until one side finally throws in the towel. World War II was a series of bloody blunders, in both theaters, but we had the will and the resources to continue on regardless until the enemy was finally defeated. That's why I was never as critical of Bush and Rumsfeld as many were. Not to say I think the decisions flawless, but sometimes things have to happen at their own pace, regardless of tactics. The only wars that America has lost are those in which it got tired, and gave up.

One fears that the attention-deficit, teevee-remote, video-game generation won't have the patience to win the long war against our new ideological enemy, which is likely to continue for decades, as our war against totalitarian communism did. But give the president credit for standing firm in the face of the surrender demands of the Democrats after the election. I think that history, however else it judges him, will be kind to him in that regard, and less so to the Reids and Pelosis.

We'll never know, of course, if more troops or better tactics would have gotten us to this point sooner, though if we have to do something similar in the future, we may take some lessons from Iraq, and try it. But history doesn't really allow controlled experiments. In any event, while Senator McCain can be praised for consistency, it remains unobvious to me that his prescriptions would have been as effective at the time as he wants to claim now.

Posted by Rand Simberg at November 20, 2007 08:43 AM
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Wow you've been reading my mind.

Posted by Ryan at November 20, 2007 09:22 AM

Psst! The following statement:

"I think that the most important factor was simply that the Iraqis tired of the insurgency and Al Qaeda."

is the deep, dark secret of US COIN. You're letting the cat out of the bag...

Posted by buzz harsher at November 20, 2007 09:46 AM

Agreed, Rand. One other factor you don't mention: we've fielded a whole lot of new technology in the last 2 years which has changed the dynamic on the ground. Example: IED detection and detonation robots. As our forces get their hands on this equipment and figure out useful tactics, IED attacks have become less deadly and their payoff is less predictable. A similar point can be made re: tactical use of UAVs.

McCain's call was, from the beginning, that of an old school officer who wanted to do things the old way in a new place.

Posted by molon labe at November 20, 2007 09:52 AM

"That's why I was never as critical of Bush and Rumsfeld as many were."

My take as well.

Question/thought... What to do about those CongressQuislings who supported efforts to fight terrorism, then turned their backs on the military. Would they still want to be 'Commander in Chief'?

Posted by at November 20, 2007 10:07 AM

"That's why I was never as critical of Bush and Rumsfeld as many were."

My take as well.

Question/thought... What to do about those CongressQuislings who supported efforts to fight terrorism, then turned their backs on the military. Would they still want to be 'Commander in Chief'?

Posted by Tonk at November 20, 2007 10:07 AM

But give the president credit for standing firm in the face of the surrender demands of the Democrats after the election.

Oh Rand, c'mon. You could have said anything but this. The BDS sufferers will call you a Bush Lover again.

Good posting though.

Posted by Steve at November 20, 2007 10:10 AM

If as you Rand think, and I agree, the main cause for the improved state of Iraq is that the Iraqis have tired of the violence, the long war is best won by exposing Muslim societies to radical Islam. Clearly, it is Muslims who are rejecting this in Iraq and elsewhere. So perhaps it is time for some to stop demonizing Islam whose only effect is that it works against us.

Most people reject extreme ideologies. Muslims are no different. Petraeus isn't making war against Islam. He wouldn't have had any success if he did. It's time to see that the war is best won indirectly and not by Americans making war but average Muslims getting all fed up with AQ nonsense.

That said, there is still a very long way to go in Iraq. Bush kept telling us that peace was just around the corner for 4 years. Reid told us the war was lost. So much for American predictions about Iraq. What we have now is a tenuous truce, partly achieved by isolating the various sects and ethnic groups.

Where it goes from here, is likewise unknown. But it does seem that the troops are going to have to stay there for many years until some form of true national government and non-sectarian police and armed forces exist. That is, unless someone can show us that such an end result would actually happen faster in our absence.

Seems like an expensive proposition. But as someone who thinks we should spend far more on making peace around the world, I'm happy.

Posted by Offside at November 20, 2007 10:10 AM

I think you make a good case that a couple of years of the moderate, relatively educated and certainly more cosmopolitan Iraqi Sunnis getting to know AQ up close and personal showed them that they were better off throwing in with the government, and that the American shift in tactics, while critical, was not the entire difference- maker.

However, I also believe that the same results could have been achieved sooner were it not for the constant carping of the Democrat party in the US.

Iraqi's were very aware of the political situation here and it took longer than it should have to convince them we were serious and that we were in it for keeps. I firmly believe that a united USA, not a lockstep rah-rah, We Love the War movement but rather a "We may not be wild about this but we're there now and we're not backing down" would have saved a lot of lives and shortened the process.

Posted by Bill Archer at November 20, 2007 10:16 AM

I am reading the Timmerman book, Shadow Warriors, and wonder about his thesis that the installation of Bremer and the State Department and CIA team was the huge mistake. I have yet to read a good explanation of why Jay Garner was hustled out of Baghdad after he had done so well with the Kurds They were determined to get rid of Chalabi, but look where he is now. Maybe this could all have been avoided if the people who wanted to let the INC have a try at running things had been left in place in 2003. One of the INC members was Talabani, now Presdent of Iraq and the other was Chalabi. It looks to me like we may have wasted three years and 3,000 lives to prove that State and CIA were the ones who didn't know what they were doing.

Posted by Mike K at November 20, 2007 10:29 AM

First problem. We were NEVER hunkering down in bases and relying on Iraqis to go out and fight. HELLO!? Have you been reading all the military blogs for years? Our troops have been in the field and working with the locals since day one, there just wasn't enough of them.

As for the change in tactics, there are certainly some valid points you make. The Sunnis grew tired of Al Qaeda's extremism and targeting civilians. Also, in a delayed way the execution of Saddam made them realize things would never go back to the old days. But to discount the surge is ridiculous. The generals on the ground know better than the right wing bloggers trying cover Bush's ass.

Posted by Buck Galaxy at November 20, 2007 11:18 AM

"But I think that the most important factor was simply that the Iraqis tired of the insurgency and Al Qaeda."

This implies we need to be prepared to finish what we start which I certainly agree with.

However, I've got a nagging feeling that this asssumption is a dangerous misread that might be used to diminish the importance of the change in tactics.

"the Iraqis" is more than the violent. They actually represent a small part of the entire population. The majority had no voice and reasonably had to fear reprisals is they did oppose the violence. The change in tactics changed that dynamic. It's no surprise that the change in Iraqi hearts and minds coincided with the change in tactics.

I'm very encouraged that Petraus is now being used as part of the promotions process of new generals. I believe the new tactics made all the difference and it's dangerous to promote something else as, "the most important factor."

I'd agree that it was an important factor, not the most. Forgive me for nitpicking, because I know you are on the right side of history and we are really at war with ourselves. If we could win that war, these terrorist punks would soon be eliminated everywhere.

Posted by ken anthony at November 20, 2007 11:27 AM

I have to disagree. If you look at McCain's comments over time, he often mentions a specific purpose behind the additional troops - to give them the ability to hold an area once cleared. This was one of the biggest changes in strategy from pre-surge, and one that has apparently made a huge difference. Let's not forget that the additional troops were requested and provided in order to implement this strategy. It did not occur naturally as a result of having more troops on the ground.

Posted by RJ at November 20, 2007 12:10 PM

There is still plenty of fight left in the bad guys and they are still being recruited and coming in over the borders. It may be another 6-10 years before the insurgency goes completely away. If we have the stomach to stay as the British did in Northern Ireland, eventually there will be an economic miracle as there was in Japan and Germany after years of siting US troops in both countries. But it is clearly becoming more of a crime wave to manage and less of a war to fight.

Posted by Sam Dinkin at November 20, 2007 12:17 PM

Breath of fresh air! Of course one can learn lessons from what happened, but I'm thankful that, as Rummy once said, we have muddled through this far. I also credit Bush's persistence, and Iraqi exhaustion. John Burns of the NYT Baghdad bureau told Charlie Rose late last spring that he and his colleagues were beginning to pick up indicators that the Iraqis, like the Lebanese 30 years ago, were turning away from the conflict and wanted it over. He said he thought there was a definite chance the surge could succeed. Rose quickly changed the subject.

Posted by Andrew Hamilton at November 20, 2007 12:41 PM

Offside said: "the long war is best won by exposing Muslim societies to radical Islam"

Three problems with that.

First, the Saudi's who fund the sustenance and spread of radical Islam without allowing it to interfere with the creature comforts of the rich and the royal. While those folks control the price of the liquid fuel of the world the long war will continue. Never mind global warming. Switching from petroleum to various other motive power sources (electric, bio-diesel, alcohol, things yet to be invented) should be a national security imperative for the US and made available to the world.

Second, the military center of radical Islam is located within the territory of a nuclear state which so far has been powerless to control it. The indigenous customs of those territories have been identical to radical Islam for a long time. They aren't likely to get tired of the customs, however brutal, that have defined their lives for generations and throw them off. Nobody else around them wants to live under their system, but they still provide training and logistical support for terrorist foot soldiers. As long as oil money continues to fund their recruitment and training efforts, or until they are militarily crushed, this will continue.

Third, Iran. They are certainly as dangerous a terror supporting state as Saudi Arabia, and their nuclear effort isn't so diffuse as the now defunct A.Q. Khan network. Their population is currently well exposed to the Shiite version of radical Islam, but unable to do anything about it. Iran is a brittle state, but it would take some serious and gutsy pressure to crack them without use of military force. If the Mullahs are not absolutely convinced that the US is prepared politically and militarily to do whatever it takes to prevent them from coercing the nations around them then they are going to keep on their present path. A world wide alternate fuel economy would cripple their efforts at regional hegemony, but that has no chance of happening within the time frame necessary.

Whoever is the next President is going to have to be very gutsy and unwilling to let dangerous situations fester.

Posted by Ed Nutter at November 20, 2007 12:44 PM

The name "surge" comes from the fact that the increased troop levels are above the rate you can sustain for extended operations. With the size of today's military, about the maximum number of personnel you can sustain in Iraq for extended periods - keeping in mind the other obligations in Afghanistan and around the world - is about 100,000 to 120,000 troops. The "surge" added about 30,000 more to that number but you'd have a hard time sustaining it.

That's the point that McCain and others who keep calling for more troops in country keep ignoring. We downsized the military over 30% in the 1990s. Now we're paying the price for the "peace dividend." Congress has authorized higher troop levels but it takes time (and a lot of money) to recruit, train, and equip those troops. You also have to reassign NCOs and other leaders to the new units. It takes many years to grow a good NCO and field grade officer which could deplete existing units of expertise.

Posted by Larry J at November 20, 2007 12:45 PM

That's the point that McCain and others who keep calling for more troops in country keep ignoring. We downsized the military over 30% in the 1990s. Now we're paying the price for the "peace dividend." Congress has authorized higher troop levels but it takes time (and a lot of money) to recruit, train, and equip those troops.

Actually, we are still downsizing:

The Air Force is in the middle of eliminating about 40,000, a transformation that will bring its uniformed force down to about 328,600 people in the next year. The Navy is shooting for a total force of 322,000, down about 16,000 from earlier this decade.

Yes, there are increases to the Marines (5,000) and Army (7,000) but the net is negative growth in the US Armed Forces.

One suspects we will hear more "chicken-hawk" arguments in the future, as if there was enough billets in the US military to allow those who want to serve, the opportunity to serve.

Posted by Leland at November 20, 2007 01:07 PM

This piece confirms the sense I have that if things are changing, they are only barely, but apparently surely, beginning to change. It's going to be a long long slog, or else the victory being claimed might quickly vanish:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/20/world/middleeast/20surge.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

A significant troop reduction would seem to be out of the question at least until the millions of refugees feel as comfortable as this family to return to their homes. And then there would have to be some truly impartial local authority to maintain law and order. On the latter front there seem to be very slim showings so far.

Posted by Offside at November 20, 2007 03:09 PM

Another factor in the success of the surge, new tactics, etc. is the fact that Iraqi army, police and other security forces have now reached a level of size, capability and reliability (major continuing issues notwithstanding) that they can play a significant role. It took a few years to bring them to this point, and it probably wouldn't have been possible to execute current tactics in prior years because the organized local support would not have been there. Plus we would not have had the technology, local knowledge, databases, Arabic speakers, etc. that we needed. Some things just take time, and in retrospect Bush and Rumsfeld will not look that bad. I do agree we should have paid more attention to the INC and less to State/CIA/UN types.

Posted by Mahon at November 20, 2007 04:02 PM

Winning the War in Iraq
-----------------------
...
"Adopt a military counterinsurgency strategy. For most of the occupation, our military strategy was built around trying to secure the entirety of Iraq at the same time. With our current force structure and the power vacuum that persists in many areas, that is not possible today. In their attempt to secure all of Iraq, coalition forces engage in search and destroy operations to root out insurgent strongholds, with the aim of killing as many insurgents as possible. But our forces cannot hold the ground indefinitely, and when they move on to fight other battles, the insurgent ranks replenish and the strongholds fill again. Our troops must then reenter the same area and refight the same battle."
...
"To enhance our chances of success with this strategy, and enable our forces to hold as much territory as possible, we need more troops. For this reason, I believe that current ideas to effect a partial drawdown during 2006 are exactly wrong. While the U.S. and its partners are training Iraqi security forces at a furious pace, these Iraqis should supplement, not substitute for, the coalition forces on the ground. Instead of drawing down, we should be ramping up, with more civil-military soldiers, translators, and counterinsurgency operations teams. Our decisions about troop levels should be tied to the success or failure of our mission in Iraq, not to the number of Iraqi troops trained and equipped. And while we seek higher troop levels for Iraq, we should at last face facts and increase the standing size of the U.S. Army. It takes time to build a larger army, but had we done so even after our invasion of Iraq, our military would have more soldiers available for deployment now."
...
"Knowing the enemy is the essential precondition to defeating him, and I believe our counterinsurgency strategy can do more to exploit divisions in the strands of the insurgency. Foreign jihadists, Baathist revanchists and Sunni discontents do not necessarily share tactics or goals. Recent Sunni participation in the constitutional process and especially the decision by Sunni parties to contest parliamentary elections present opportunities to split Sunnis from those whose only goal is death, destruction and chaos."
...

John McCain, November 10, 2005

http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/iraq/2005/11/iraq-051110-mccain01.htm

As the man says, read the whole thing. Quite an amazing, and prescient, speech.


Posted by RJ at November 20, 2007 04:17 PM

It is my understanding that the U.S. Army's authorized numbers have been increased by 30,000 soldiers so that they can help to sustain these activities.

Also, the Army is at what, somewhere around 380,000 today? At the height of Reagan's years the Army was at 785,000. That is a lot more than a 30% cut.


Posted by Dennis Ray Wingo at November 20, 2007 05:29 PM

"One minute of patience, ten years of peace. - Greek Proverb"

Posted by Josh Reiter at November 20, 2007 06:45 PM

Agree 100%.

Posted by Reid at November 20, 2007 06:49 PM


The announcement of Al Sadr to hold fire in August had much
to do with this also. Now wether his forces pulled back
because they didn't want to fight the increased US presence
or because he had a strategic cause is in his mind.

If Sadr gets back in the fight the game changes.

US troops will be building down in 12 weeks, we will see what
happens then. The surge was always unsustainable, it
may well be that all sides decided to wait it out, until US
forces have to pull back.

To the Arabs, the war between the Sunni and Shiite has
been 700 years, now that's a long war.

Posted by at November 20, 2007 08:23 PM

whether you agree or disagree with john mccain's comments, at least he was one of the few remaining republicans who remained vocal about supporting an increasingly unpopular war and advocated for a change in the failing strategy even though most of his colleagues have either bailed out or remained silent in their support of the iraq war..

Posted by john marzan at November 20, 2007 10:07 PM

whether you agree or disagree with john mccain's comments, at least he was one of the few remaining republicans who remained vocal about supporting an increasingly unpopular war and advocated for a change in the failing strategy even though most of his colleagues have either bailed out or remained silent in their support of the iraq war........

Posted by john marzan at November 20, 2007 10:09 PM

"One fears that the attention-deficit, teevee-remote, video game generation won't have the patience to win the long war against our new ideological enemy,"

Rand,

This is grossly unfair. This very generation is the one FIGHTING the war. Furthermore, Army equipment controls (especially UAVs) have been reconfigured to match the video controllers. Heck, "America's Army" and other first person shooters provide a degree of training in tactics and spatial visualization prior to this generation arriving at basic training.

No, the lack of patience belongs squarely with the grandparents of today's generation. The old wineskins (of the old "New Left") present ideas of stability and "realism" that would match Kissinger quite well. They are the ones that call for precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, and damn the consequences.

The REAL challenge is partly met, albeit tardily, by the reconstruction of the US Army from a smaller version of its Cold War structure, into something more suited to contemporary realities. Here is a useful link:

http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0PBZ/is_5_86/ai_n17093153

Key question for all readers -- why did it take until 2006 for the Army to get this far in its doctrinal remake? Why wasn't this done in 1996?

The answer has little to do with who is President**, and everything to do with the inertia present within the Army's senior leadership.

The remaining work is to get the rest of the national institutions (judiciary, legislature, and rest of executive) focused on the task at hand. *sigh*

---

** except, of course through the selection of cabinet officials and senior executive positions; budget priorities, flag officer nominating process, and Presidential example. In all these regards, the current Administration has been vastly superior to its predecessor.

Posted by MG at November 21, 2007 01:32 PM

"One fears that the attention-deficit, teevee-remote, video game generation won't have the patience to win the long war against our new ideological enemy,"

Rand,

This is grossly unfair. This very generation is the one FIGHTING the war.

I was wondering how long it would take someone to point that out--I was thinking about it even as I wrote it.

My point was really more directed at the boomers, who were the first generation to grow up watching television, and think that all of life's problems can be solved in a half-hour episode, and that if you don't like the show (or the war), you can alway switch the channel.

Posted by Rand Simberg at November 21, 2007 01:42 PM

Ayup. Early boomers, in particular.

Posted by MG at November 21, 2007 07:56 PM

George Bush is a Boomer, does this complaint
apply to him?

Posted by at November 22, 2007 07:19 AM

George Bush is a Boomer, does this complaint
apply to him?

Obviously not.

Did you mean to ask a more intelligent question than that?

Posted by Rand Simberg at November 22, 2007 07:50 AM

"",

A mature adult would read my major post, and see the "longhand" version. To wit:

"The old wineskins (of the old "New Left") present ideas of stability and "realism" that would match Kissinger quite well. They are the ones that call for precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, and damn the consequences."

The "early boomers" is a shorthand for that. It refers to the 50- and 60- something leftists who steered the Democrat party away from liberal (as in "liberty") politics, and toward leftist (as in "statist") politics.

Again, a mature adult would have understood the shorthand comment in the context of the longhand comment. You didn't, and you aren't.

Next?

Posted by MG at November 22, 2007 10:23 AM

Only a small percentage of today's generation is fighting this war. That small percentage is doing exceptional work but that doesn't necessarily apply to the generation as a whole. The same can be said about the boomers. Not all of them (us) were turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. Several million of them served in the military in places like Vietnam. It's hard to generalize about something as broad as a generation.

Posted by Larry J at November 23, 2007 08:08 AM

"The only wars that America has lost are those in which it got tired, and gave up."

How long were you willing to keep 500,000 men in vietnam?

Posted by at November 23, 2007 11:37 AM

First was the change of tactics, in which rather than hunkering down in bases and training Iraqis to go out and fight the insurgency, Petraeus put the troops out in the field and worked with the locals.

Yeah, he was putting them out in the field to replace the supremely competent Australian and British forces as we pulled out.

Your untrained sissies thought that 'counterinsurgency' operations could be performed from airconditioned bunkers. That reality could have eluded your highest ranks for more than three years boggles my mind.

Posted by Adrasteia at November 24, 2007 11:38 PM


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