If Only This Had Happened to Start With

It appears the Pentagon is finally getting serious about planning for the war in Iraq.

Plans Happen

Or perhaps it’s finally letting the plans happen. Either way, I’m afraid it might be too late to do much that’s helpful to the Iraqis. Of course, that was never the goal, but it was the only possible justification.

War supporters who consider themselves liberals—for instance, New Yorker editor David Remnick and writer George Packer, author of Assassin’s Gate—seem to have allowed themselves the colonialist illusion, believing that American military force can pull a democracy out of a hat. Admittedly, the strategy involved shouldering the White Man’s burden in honorable and exemplary fashion, to the extent possible given the inherent contradictions in the position.

These folks share a certain innocence with the neo-cons, which in both cases can be engaging but is more often exasperating. A wish to make the world better can be evidence of a good heart properly oriented. But unless you’re pretty damn sure that description applies to you, you’d be wise to remember that it can also be evidence of an insecure ego needing validation from the world, an issue that often has negative results when played out on a community scale.

Ideology, Reality, and War Crimes

It has always seemed to me that invading Iraq was not only flat-out wrong militarily, politically, and legally, it was obviously so from the beginning. To the extent that there was any realistic chance of making something positive out of the invasion, it depended on having a viable approach to the growing insurgency; and the best chance of beating the insurgency was at its inception. The problem was the reluctance of the administration to admit that this was in fact an “insurgency”.

This is of course idiocy of the highest level, the kind of thing that arises from a combination of hubris and Big-Brother attitude that wouldn’t be out of place on a French dauphin a couple centuries back. Who ever said we deserve the leaders we get? Well, I probably did, but I didn’t mean it.

The policy upon which the conduct of the war was based produced predictable, and predicted, results. To ignore the dearly-bought store of American military experience is incompetence of an order that approaches criminality. Which makes me happy to note that the first suit against Rumsfeld, Tenet, and Gonzalez was filed in Germany alleging war crimes and requesting an investigation by the German Federal Prosecutor’s office.

This request, long in forming, was finally submitted when Bush convinced Congress to pass the Military Commissions Act. The retroactive absolution of the administration and those who followed their orders, at the core of the act, was considered proof that the US does not intend to prosecute the apparent war crimes, in particular those committed in Abu Ghraib. German courts have a principal of universal jurisdiction, allowing prosecution in Germany of war crimes, regardless of where they were committed. In addition, some people implicated in the abuse at Abu Ghraib returned to bases in Germany, so they could testify.

This is the very web in which General Pinochet became ensnared during his visit to Britain after being indicted in a Spanish court. He was eventually relegated to the senility defense, which means he can’t go out much; and even that defense isn’t certain to stand up. Are you listening, Rummy? Perhaps it’s time to jump on that senility bandwagon before it gets too crowded. Or, as I suggested three years ago, “if Rumsfeld’s ever indicted for war crimes, he can plead insanity”. A case can be made…

The Only Thing They Planned For

The existence of such suits and the danger they pose is well known to the cabal that decided on torture as a tool in the war on terror: they had their lawyer write some memos claiming the law didn’t apply, then they made him the Attorney General. Who’s to investigate?

It better be Congress. Because we’re not party to the relevant international law; we don’t recognize the International Criminal Court for exactly this reason, it limits our behavior. Chomsky points out that every American President since World War II has committed what the Nuremburg trials called war crimes. Of course, no one’s going to prosecute a former President; but I bet you won’t see Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Rice traveling outside the US very often once they no longer have diplomatic immunity and bodyguards. Perhaps Powell can get away with it. In any case, they’re all bound to be concerned by the difficulties Kissinger supposedly has in traveling outside the US.

In fact it seems that avoiding prosecution was pretty much the only area in which the administration considered planning to be worthwhile. Which, again, is a consistent theme throughout each career. Accountability? These guys have other priorities.

The Liberal Hawks’ Favorite Soldier

I expect the greatest irritant for the liberal hawks is the realization that the American military knew a lot about handling insurgencies. Permission to use the accumulated wisdom of American military experience was limited, but in a few cases great results were achieved. Liberal hawks are thus hot for H.R. McMaster. According to his Wikipedia entry, he made his military bones during the first Gulf War: leading Eagle Troop of the Third Armored Cavalry, he “overran and destroyed” a much larger force of Republican Guards without a casualty to his unit. Even better than the resulting Silver Star was Tom Clancy’s account of the battle in his non-fiction book Armored Cav.

McMaster has also done some serious and impressive thinking about military strategy. He’s taught military history at West Point. His Ph.D. thesis on the mistakes of Vietnam led to the book Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam, which criticizes the military leaders of the time for not challenging strategies of McNamara and Johnson that they considered deeply flawed. It claims that pressure from the White House and concern for career potential kept officers silent at critical times. The book is said to be influential with several of the retired generals who decried Rumsfeld and the conduct of the war. Apparently they don’t want to be subjects of the next edition, so they spoke up when it might contribute to a solution.

Some of the most impressive stories about McMaster come from George Packer’s Assassin’s Gate and the New Yorker articles derived from it. If all, or even 90%, of the American units occupying Iraq had from the beginning used the same approach as McMaster’s, the occupation would have been much more peaceful and in the end much more successful. His unit had counterinsurgency training, following the conclusions of the British military from an insurgency in Malaya in the nineteen-forties and -fifties: that counterinsurgency is one-fifth military and four-fifths political.

When they arrived in Tal Afar in the spring of 2005, McMaster’s unit’s first job was to wrest control of the city from the insurgents, an amalgam of hard-core jihadis and local Sunnis. By October, a combination of fierce fighting and patient negotiation with local leaders had significantly reduced the violence and established a base level of trust between the residents and the occupying force.

So the unit rotated out after nine months, a new unit arrived, and the process restarted, less successfully.

What Really Pisses Off the Liberal Hawks

The evident success of McMaster’s unit proves, to the richly-deserved and everlasting shame of the Bush adminstration and the partially-deserved embarrassment of the liberal hawks, that the hearts and minds of much of the Iraqi population could have been won with appropriate tactics. McMaster’s unit was taught that you might have to have tea with someone three or four times before they would trust you enough to pass you helpful information; so they learned to do that, no problem. The US military knew what to do, but they weren’t allowed to do it, for reasons that pretty much add up to homefront PR, not to say propaganda.

The Bobby Fischer-like avoidance of the possibility of failure is one of the most troubling aspects of the Bush administration and its appointees and cronies. (Fischer supposedly responded to a question with “Don’t even talk to me about losing, I can’t stand to think of it”; a senior Feith aide replied to an analyst’s worst-case question with “You’re thinking like the Clinton people. They planned for failure. We plan for success.” In other words, they generally wing it.) Experiments such as McMaster’s involving strategies other than the official one often worked; but scaling these solutions to the size of Iraq, or even provinces thereof, called for a massively different approach to the conflict than was evident in the Pentagon and the White House.

For instance, it would likely require a lot of troops who would need to be trained in the proper techniques. To put it directly, this would be a force quite unlike Rumsfeld’s small, quick, technologically sophisticated strike force. The job is really closer to nation-building, a prospect with which the administration has long had an uncomfortable relationship.

It was never really likely that Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush would be able to see around their visions and realize something of the true situation. Acknowledgement of reality hasn’t been a strong suit in any of their careers as far as I can remember.

Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda? Not Really…

What I take from all this is the impression that the US had a chance to come out with a much better situation than we’re now stuck with. (I don’t personally think that would have justified the war, but it seems worthwhile to examine missed opportunities.) Some people in the military, and some in the State Department such as Thomas Warrick, had plans, ignored by Rumsfeld, that incorporated a variety of perspectives and goals, and certainly would have been an improvement over what we actually did. McMaster is one of those.

I used this to justify a bit of optimism when I saw today’s Washington Post report that McMaster is one of three “high-profile colonels” leading a Pentagon attempt to discover some acceptable among the ruins. The other two, Peter Mansoor of the Army and Marine Thomas Greenwood, reinforce the conclusion that the Pentagon is belatedly putting the best and brightest available on the most important problems. Perhaps the imminent departure of the widely despised Rumsfeld has allowed a crack through which a bit of reason can sneak in the door.

In any case, they’ve apparently narrowed the choices down to three, which they disarmingly call Go Big, Go Long, and Go Home. Go Home is obvious, and obviously not going to happen under the Bush administration; plus it would lead to immediate civil war. Go Big would add enough troops to provide security and stability; the problem is, that would require about three times as many troops as we have there now, so that’s not going to happen. Which leaves Go Long: insert a few more troops now, say 20,000, attempt to stabilize critical areas, and withdraw as possible to the “enduring” bases.

You think they need a simplistic slogan like “Go Long” to distribute down the chain of command? How about “effects-based operations”, which, Packer says, as “a term of art in counterinsurgency, rolled off the tongue of every young officer I met in Tal Afar”? At least it implies that the result is important, but if that’s the rallying cry now, what were we doing before?

Then there’s the question of how to deal with the implied admission by the colonels that we’re flat out of attractive options.

As Chalmers Johnson said a long time ago, there was never a plan to leave because there was no intention of leaving.

This situation didn’t arise by chance. The strategy of removing all attractive options is a Republican favorite, whether it’s the neo-cons creating a no-exit war and promoting a “fail forward” attack on Iran, or the anti-taxers running up enormous federal debt in an attempt to shrink government to the size where they can drown it in a bathtub. They’re aware that a legitimate majority in favor of their self-interested proposals is not to be had, so they try to eliminate alternatives.

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