Friday, November 14, 2008
Never having served in the military, I have not actually "done" counterinsurgency, but I have followed it with some interest since my undergraduate days. In 1983, my undergraduate thesis was titled "The Possibilities for Clean Counterinsurgency," which is more than most corporate tool bloggers can claim.
Anyway, counterinsurgency has different rewards, satisfactions, frustrations, and burdens than conventional interstate war. One of its frustrations is that it is harder to know whether you are winning or losing, and victory is often not clear until long after the fact. In Iraq, hawks have thought we have "won" on many occasions, and doves argue that we can never win.
Well, Michael Yon, one of the most principled, knowledgeable, and intellectually honest journalists covering the war, now says that we have won. For my money, if Michael Yon says we have won, that is good enough for me.
Unreconstructed opponents of the war will still say we cannot have "won" because the cost of the war was too great and (or) it weakened our geopolitical position rather than strengthening it. Those qualifications torture the meaning of victory, at least according to the standard of history. Does anybody say that the United States did not "win" World War I, notwithstanding the good argument that, in retrospect, the costs far outweighed the geopolitical benefits? Of course not, because victory has its own value independent of cost and benefit. This is especially true in a global struggle with a competing ideology, for victory in that wider war will be a function of credibility as much as anything else. Winning a local war that essentially everybody believed had been lost is an important contribution to American credibility no matter what the opinions of the international chattering classes. The Arab Muslim masses can see, even if they do not publicly acknowledge what they see.
None of that necessarily rehabilitates the original decision to invade Iraq or the poor decisions that so influenced the first three years of the counterinsurgency. Either history will ultimately reveal the invasion as a boon to the United States and its allies, or it will not. Either way, however, the United States should take what good it can from the very real victory it has achieved. We should be proud of it, celebrate it, and above all capitalize on it, whether or not its geopolitical rate of return was everything that we supporters of the war hoped it would be.
I am quite sure Obama et al will never acknowledge this remarkable victory. And capitalize on it? I don't believe "capitalize" is in his vocabulary. If it is, it is neatly tucked behind his knowledge that we have "57 States".
No, our new overlords will do their best to appease the losers in the war and apologize to the world for our victory.
Referencing your comment on how Arabs view this whole thing...Highly recommend Bing West's "The Strongest Tribe". I have two combat tours and am impressed by the book's accurate portrayal of events. Also IMO, there were actually 3 separate "wars" that wne ton since the invasion.
Book also fairly effectively describes the disconnect between national strategy and operational decisions.
At this point, I only wish that a grateful nation could and would express its thanks to the men and women who served multiple tours and sweated this out. I know a few, personally (one is there now on his third tour). I also know a couple of people that lost their sons over there, too. Unless you have a son of your own, that is a difficult thing to understand.
I think it was worth it, as painful as it was for the guys who served and made it happen, from my dumb civilian point of view.
I hope it was worth it.
But only time will tell.
When you have 10x more people and 140x the GDP, and by far the largest and best trained military in the world, one would hope you would "win" in the sense of killing as you please. Such an optional engagement is always and forever a matter of costs, unlike a war against existential threat, and I daresay that the position the US was in to invade Iraq was unlike almost any other historic engagement; the contest has rarely been so totally lopsided, 1 country capable of outspending and outgunning the world, so this historical comparison seems inapt.
As for a war on wider ideology, I will take a strong military that has not been overtaxed and suffer the perceptions of others rather than burn resources and people over some ephemeral "credibility" in the eyes of adversaries. Particularly when 1) we can question whether or not the terrorists that might be "emboldened" are rational actors anyway, 2) it is easier to convince moderates of the rightness of your cause when you don't cut of your nose for the pride of your face, and 3) it doesn't much matter what people think when you can demonstrate your might, as compared to walking loudly and carrying a formidable twig.
Let's say the war ends up costing $1,000,000,000,000 (pre-interest), 5,000 American lives, 40,000 injured, some large number of civilian lives, and significant progress in Afghanistan. Was this actually, by any fair metric, even vaguely close to the best way to lose those resources? Can we all seriously not think of myriad other ways to spend that money, with far larger benefit? Not fighting world hunger, poverty, or disease, or investing in science and education, or merely siccing that money on the free market? If we wanted to convince the world that we were bound and determined, we might as well have just lined up the people, piled up the money, and burned everything for international press and video. That would sure convince people that we didn't care about costs and didn't mind killing. It would also make people think we were batshit insane, but failing to respond to the mastermind of our tragedy and instead pursuing national combat against an international threat (on the Afghan border) might do the same.
Lastly, it's great that we stopped the house from burning down and taking the village with it, but that doesn't make it wise to have set it on fire in the first place (in the deposing or installing of Saddam, or some other factor).
We won. Yay. Go team.
'ephemeral "credibility" in the eyes of adversaries'
You seriously underestimate the importance of international credibility, esp. ours. Do you think that nations like Iran and Syria behave themselves because they're committed to an international order, or they respect the United Nations? What prevents the North Koreans from invading the South? They have atomic arms now, you know. Or China from reabsorbing Taiwan? Or Russia from simply eating Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, etc.
Why do you think that Iran, Syria, N. Korea, S. Korea, Taiwan, and the Eastern European countries are all either enemies or friends of the US? (as opposed to apathetic) Because the threat (or promise) of American intervention is important to them (since they live on the edges of conflict) and the fact that such intervention is deemed both likely and effective.
If the balance of power in the world is no longer unipolar, but multi-polar, then we are in serious danger of multiple, simultaneous regional wars. Self-determination will dissolve as a political reality or even a theory and the system will return to the old days of rival alliances and spheres of influence as great powers dominate minor powers and jockey for position with their rivals.
'That's a silly doomsday scenario, Dawnfire. Hypocritical coming from someone who mocks global warming.'
That's the normal state of geopolitics. Having a single, unified and hegemonic power over the entire globe who actually gives a shit about maintaining some semblance of order rather than simply gobbling up rivals is unique in all of history. This is an aberration. End it, and things will return to their usual state.
And destroying American credibility is a way to do that. It won't matter if we have a dozen carrier battle groups if no one believes that we'll use them. (or use them long enough to win)
And this is only with international relations; it doesn't approach the beliefs of terrorist groups who *repeatedly* cited American withdrawals from Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia as proof of our weakness and therefore proof that third world shit hole militias and irregulars could defeat us if they simply outlasted our pathetic patience. And, had George Buch not been in charge, they would have been right. Again.
"Was this actually, by any fair metric, even vaguely close to the best way to lose those resources? Can we all seriously not think of myriad other ways to spend that money, with far larger benefit? Not fighting world hunger, poverty, or disease, or investing in science and education, or merely siccing that money on the free market?"
This is utopian silliness. It's only a rhetorical skip away from, 'let's do away with the military and spend all those billions on poor people in Africa and turn the soldiers into Peace Corps activists!'
Let's turn this around. Can you find a cheaper way to overthrow one of the most twisted and brutal dictatorships in the world and replace it with a functioning democracy, (which both replaces a source of stability and violence and enhances the causes of democracy and human rights in the region) *and* deal a crippling defeat against the chief non-state enemy of the United States (who threw down the gauntlet in Iraq and bragged about how they would send us packing)?
Supposing no unforeseen disasters, the Iraqi intervention may go down in history as a great success.
This is called "moving the goal posts."
The reasons for invading Iraq were pretty clearly spelled out in the 23 clauses of the Iraq War Resolution (see my Sidebar for a link).
Regime change was obviously the first victory. Saddam no longer held the levers of power and neither his WMD, genocide, support to international terrorism, nor ceasefire violations could continue.
What to do then, in "Phase IV"? Well, obviously the thing to do is to try to set things up so that, a.) none of the Saddam-related problems would continue under any future new management, less obviously, b.) try to incubate the Middle East's second democracy.
Victory Condition "b.)" was probably mission-creep, but the U.S. seems to have gotten out of the business of leaving countries in the hands of dictators when it can be avoided.
Time will tell, defeat can be snatched from the jaws of victory after all, but for today things are looking better and like they'll stay that way.
I've quoted you and linked to you here: http://consul-at-arms.blogspot.com/2008/11/re-celebrate-victory-in-iraq.html