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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Military Strategy for Democrats – Part 3 – The surge isn’t “working”, it’s just “postponing” — and in the long run it’s making things worse

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During his opening remarks at the recent Senate hearings on Iraq, John McCain described the situation as follows:

At the beginning of last year…full scale civil war seemed almost unavoidable… (But) since the middle of last year sectarian and ethnic violence, civilian deaths and deaths of coalition forces have all fallen dramatically. This improved security environment has led to a new opportunity, one in which average Iraqis can in the future approach a more normal political and economic life.
…Today it is possible to talk with real hope and optimism about the future of Iraq and the outcome of our efforts there…we’re no longer staring into the abyss of defeat and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success.”

McCain’s optimism was somewhat dampened by the fighting in Basra and Sadr City that was occurring even as he spoke, but most of the discussion of Iraq during the Senate hearings indeed accepted the basic proposition that the generally falling level of violence during the preceding months did represent undeniable proof of “progress” or “success”. Up until the week before McCain’s testimony, most journalistic reports about Iraq quite optimistically described formerly empty streets now filled with pedestrians and markets and stores that had been closed and shuttered now open and filled with customers. On the surface, it certainly seemed plausible to assume that if the relative calm could be maintained, Iraq could steadily advance toward stability.
This corresponds with the average person’s conception of civil or urban warfare — that if the streets of an area can be made safe, the local population will rapidly come to support the authorities and reject the forces seeking to create violence. For this reason, the citizens of western nations almost always approve of temporary cease-fires to stop violence.
Many military historians and strategists, however, disagree most strongly with this view. There is, in fact, a very substantial body of opinion which holds that temporary cease fires in civil wars very often do not permanently reduce violence, but simply postpone the fighting and can even make it worse when it recurs.
One of the leading contemporary military theorists, Edward N. Luttwak, Senior Fellow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is a prominent advocate of this perspective. In his influential book, “Strategy – The Logic of War and Peace” he notes that many civil wars are “low intensity” conflicts that do not automatically escalate to major set-piece battles. Rather, they proceed for long periods of time with a low, constant level of violence punctuated with occasional flare-ups and clashes.
As he says:

…in civil wars the intensity of the fighting is often low, the scale small with violence localized within a wider environment that the fighting might affect only marginally if at all…civil wars can therefore last for decades. No intense, large scale war can last for many years, let alone decades and some have burned themselves out in weeks or even days.
…But if war is interrupted before its self-destruction is achieved, no peace need ensue at all. So it was in Europe’s past when wars were still fought intermittently during spring and summer campaigning seasons, each time coming to an end with the arrival of winter – only to resume afresh in the spring…

Luttwak then proceeds to argue his main point, using the Balkans as one example:

Since 1945 wars among lesser powers have rarely been allowed to follow their natural course. Instead they have typically been interrupted long before they could burn out the energies of war to establish the preconditions of peace…cease fires merely relieve war-induced exhaustion, favoring the reconstitution and rearming of the belligerents, thus intensifying and prolonging the fighting once the cease-fire comes to an end.
…Dozens of UN imposed cease-fires interrupted the fighting between Serbs and Croats in the Krajina borderlands, between the forces of the Serb-Montenegrin federation and the Croat army and among the Serbs, Croats and Muslims of Bosnia. Each time the belligerents exploited the pause to recruit, train and equip additional forces for further combat. Indeed it was under the protection of successive cease fires that both the Croats and the Bosnian Muslims were able to build up their own armed forces to confront the well-armed Serbs….the overall effect was to greatly prolong the war and widen the scope of its killings, atrocities, and destructions.”


Luttwak applies the same logic to longer-term armistices:

Unless directly followed by successful peace negotiations, (long-term) armistices perpetuate the state of war indefinitely because they shield the weaker side from the consequences of refusing the concessions needed for peace. Fearing no further defeats or territorial losses behind the indirect protection of the great powers that guarantee the armistice, the losing side can deny peace to the winning side, and even attack its lands in deniable ways by infiltrating raiders and guerillas. Armistices in themselves are not way stations to peace but rather frozen wars

Luttwak’s analysis, which is shared by many other military historians, has profound implications for how the success of the surge should be measured. Simply counting monthly casualties or noting the return of cheerful Iraqis to the local marketplace is not an adequate measurement. If the underlying sources of civil conflict remain, the period of cease-fire may simply provide the opportunity for the combatants to rearm and resupply for renewed – and possibly more violent and widespread — conflict later on.
For example, Bobby Ghosh, Time Magazine’s former Bureau Chief in Iraq, concluded a April 14th 2008 update on the situation as follows:

…the murderous rage I saw in 2006 and 2007 continues to fester. The Mahdi army may have ceased fire, and the Sunni insurgents may pose as friends of America, but both are just waiting. Unless Americans have a major change of heart about maintaining a substantial and aggressive military presence in Iraq, all the gains of the past year will amount to nothing.

This analysis of cease-fires is widely shared by many of the “realist” critics of the Administration and has been incorporated into their analyses.
For example, As Zbigniew Brzezinski argued in the Washington Post:

Contrary to Republican claims that our departure will mean calamity, a sensibly conducted disengagement will actually make Iraq more stable over the long term. The impasse in Shiite-Sunni relations is in large part the sour byproduct of the destructive U.S. occupation, which breeds Iraq dependency even as it shatters Iraqi society. In this context, so highly reminiscent of the British colonial era, the longer we stay in Iraq, the less incentive various contending groups will have to compromise and the more reason simply to sit back.

General William Odom, former director NSA, argued similarly in testimony to the Senate:

The surge is prolonging instability, not creating conditions for unity… Violence has been temporarily reduced but today there is credible evidence that the political situation is far more fragmented.
Let us consider the implications of the proliferating deals with the Sunni strongmen. They are far from unified among themselves. Some remain with al Qaeda. Many who break and join our forces are beholden to no one. Thus the decline in violence reflects a dispersion of power to dozens of local strongmen who distrust the government and occasionally fight among themselves. Thus the basic military situation is far worse because of the proliferation of armed groups under local military chiefs.
This can hardly be called greater military stability much less progress toward political consolidation, and to call it fragility that needs more time to become success is to ignore its implications. …What we are witnessing is more accurately described as the road to the Balkanization of Iraq, that is, political fragmentation. We are being asked by the president to believe that this shift… is the road to political centralization. He describes the process as building the state from the bottom up.
I challenge you to…name a single historical case where power has been successfully aggregated from local strongmen to a central government except through bloody violence…It took England 800 years to subdue clan rule on what is now the English-Scottish border and it is the source of violence in Bosnia and Kosovo….it has placed the United States astride several civil wars and it allows all sides to consolidate, rearm and refill their financial coffers at US expense.

Finally, Steven Simon, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and past member of the NSA argued as follows in a recent, much discussed article in Foreign Affairs:

(The surge) is not linked to any sustainable plan for building a viable Iraqi state. If anything, it has made such an outcome less likely, by stoking the revanchist fantasies of Sunni Arab tribes and pitting them against the central government and against one another. In other words, the recent short term gains have come at the expense of the long-term goal of a stable, unitary Iraq.
The surge may have brought transitory success…but it has done so by stoking the three forces that have traditionally threatened the stability of Middle Eastern states: tribalism, warlordism and sectarianism. States that have failed to control these forces have ultimately become ungovernable and this is the fate for which the surge is preparing Iraq. A strategy intended to reduce casualties in the short run will ineluctably weaken the prospects for Iraq’s cohesion over the long run.

In principle, it would be possible for advocates of the current policy to argue that Iraq is atypical of most civil wars and that, for some specific reason, in this particular case a temporary reduction in violence will rapidly lead to sustained reconciliation between the country’s ethnic and religious blocs. But no serious argument along these lines has been offered by any major military historian sympathetic to the administration’s views. Instead, the temporary reduction in violence over the last 9 months has been invariably presented as presumably self-evident proof that the surge is a success.
Yet average Americans, both those with military experience and those without, can see that the evolution of Iraq over the last five years offers far more evidence for the view that temporary reductions in violence simply postpone conflict rather than that they end it.
Of course, this time might turn out to be totally different, but, without a plausible rationale for why it might happen, such a hope is an exercise in wishful thinking rather than military strategy.
But what do the architects of the administration’s military strategy actually think? Every senior commander in the American military has read Luttwak’s book and is aware of its contents. What is their response?
In fact, the major architects of the “surge” do not base their strategy on the hope that temporary cease-fires will lead directly to sectarian and ethnic reconciliation. They actually have a quite different strategic vision – one with deep roots in military history.
Tomorrow: The Republicans do have a military strategy. Its called “divide and Rule”. It takes at least 50 years, requires lots of casualties and – the half-hearted way we’re doing it – almost never works.

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