IN THE NEWS
A great power is flush with confidence after the defeat of its major adversary. Therefore, when it faces the likelihood of war on the other side of the world, it doesn't flinch. In fact, its leaders brashly declares that it will win a quick, inexpensive victory, paid for by the resources in which its armed forces will be operating.
However, the war proves far more difficult and expensive than expected. The insurgents, while making some initial mistakes, regroup to fight a dogged campaign of resistance. While the great power's army is able to occupy major cities and win battles, it doesn't ever seize the insurgents by the throat.
The original decision to limit the mobilization for war now comes back to haunt the great power. Fearing the domestic political backlash that a nation-wide call to arms might create, the government instead chooses to supplement its regular forces with mercenaries. (The locals loyal to the great power in the country where the war is taking place don't contribute substantially to the military effort.) Abuses at the hands of the private companies earn the hatred of many in the local population who need to be won over to the great power's cause. What the mercenaries have added in military strength, they have subtracted in political support.
Still, the politicians in charge of the war effort refuse to admit that they don't have enough resources to win a decisive victory. They try a few innovations, such as building a string of forts intended to net small insurgent groups. These outposts, however, become the targets of attacks, tying down more resources in the process.
The government, therefore, is racing against a political clock. Eventually, support for the foreign war will collapse. Even though the great power's regular forces could continue the fight, the national will to sustain the military effort will be gone. However, admitting the insufficiency of the current effort may trigger this public clamor to bring the troops home.
One last point: the person who heads the government is named George.
If you haven't guessed, I'm talking about the American War of Independence, not the war in Iraq. However, when reading Anthony Joes' America and Guerrilla Warfare, I was struck by the parallels, including a few I didn't mention.
Obviously, no two situations in history are perfectly analogous. Nevertheless, in his chapter on the American War of Independence, written before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Joes unwittingly identified what has become an important similarity between the two conflicts. The decision to initially "fight on the cheap," refusing to fully mobilize for war, is haunting the United States now the way it once haunted its rejected colonial parent, Great Britain. While the troops face greater peril than expected (and necessary) in the field, the leaders administering the war fear political perils at home.
The effort in Iraq is not going well. Iraqi troops are not yet sharing a substantive share of the military burden. US troops have faced increasing numbers of attacks since the invasion started. The different insurgent groups have made mistakes, but they have also learned from them. They've also proven skilled at avoiding decisive military defeat: while US forces besieged Fallujah, Iraqi guerrillas shifted their efforts to other cities. Political divisions among the insurgents exist, but the Iraqi and American governments have failed to exploit them. Iraqi and US outposts come under regular attack in a war where the insurgents clearly hold the initiative.
I don't think that the US is doomed to failure in Iraq, but its chances are increasingly poor under the current formula. Defeating the insurgents politically will take more than the good PR that the recent elections might have created. As shown in countless guerrilla wars, the local population supports the government or insurgents, or just stays on the sidelines, because of local conditions. For example, if someone in Mosul supports the government, but fears insurgent reprisals, their good will towards the government might as well not exist. Meanwhile, enlistment rates are dropping because young men and women are no doubt asking themselves, If the country isn't fully committed to the war in Iraq, why should I risk life and limb?
For the moment, let's put our opinions about how we got to this point and ask, Is the war in Iraq worth winning? If it is, the Bush Administration and Congress need to make the case for escalating the war effort. In many de facto ways, that has already occurred, with the overcommitment of the Guard and reserves, stop losses, redeployments from other theaters, and other steps taken to cover for the monumental errors in the post-invasion plan (such as it was). However, the Administration has yet to take an important political step: telling the American public that, to win this war, a real war effort will be required:
- Rather than playing silly mathematical games, the Administration has to be honest about the budgetary trade-offs between the war and other objectives.
- As a corollary, stop talking as if no sacrifices will be necessary to win in Iraq. It's well past time to revive the "home front" spirit of communal effort and sacrifice.
- Just as importantly, give people something to do. Ask them to learn Arabic, read a book about Islam, visit their local mosque—anything but passively waiting for victory or defeat.
- Rather than talking in mushy language about the global war on extremism, it needs to be a lot more explicit in saying, "To win the war in Iraq, we cannot pursue Al Qaeda with the same intensity we had originally planned."
- Rather than squandering political capital on quixotic and (from the viewpoint of a majority of Americans) suspicious campaign to "reform" Social Security, stay focused on items already on your to-do list, like Iraq.
The fundamental mistake the Administration made in 2003 was failing to ask for a declaration of war against Iraq, thus committing the nation to ultimate victory. The mistake of Congress, of course, was not demanding the declaration in place of a feckless "authorization." The damage is done, but it may not be irreparable.
When Cornwallis surrendered, Great Britain could have continued the fight. Other British armies were operating in the colonies under other British generals, and the forces under Cornwallis could have been replaced. Yorktown, like Dienbienphu, struck at the political underpinnings of the war. Another Yorktown awaits us in Iraq, except we're the ones who will leave after the last symbolic defeat.