Monday, May 21, 2007

I haven't read the book but...

...the review had some very interesting and compelling things to say about the Iraq War. But first...

I haven't said much about the war. I supported our entry into the war for a number of reasons. But there has always been an issue that holds me back from being you-rah-rah about our continuing, though necessary, effort there.

That issue is the new kind of war that the U. S. invented in the waning years of the Reagan administration: technology-aided warfare. Because our armed forces had come out of a period of low defense budgets after the Vietnam War, the appeal of techno-war with little commitment of ground forces seemed to be just the ticket for future conflicts. The U. S. could keep its nose from getting bloodied if we just bombed from afar with smart bombs. Of course, when we did get our nose bloodied, as in Somalia, we ducked out. Those conflicts didn't fit the profile of low-intensity ground action with high-intensity air strikes.

The Gulf War seemed to justify faith in high-tech operations. I think everybody remembers the pictures of the incredible smart bomb strikes. Not all of our bombs hit what they were aimed at, but there was extensive effort to make it seem as if they did. The mop-up of Saddam Hussein's much-vaunted Republican Guard seemed to be an anti-climax after the pummeling it took from our Air Force. We certainly didn't stint when it came to applying overwhelming ground forces for that mop-up, though.

In the mid-90s I remember wondering how the heck the Balkans could be pacified simply by bombing everything in sight. The Clinton administration did everything it could to prevent troop casualties in the former Yugoslavia. That was its main strategy; but there didn't seem to be any way that Milosevic would stop slaughtering Kosovars unless there were at least some troops on the ground. Clinton managed to get away with putting the United Nations peace-keeping forces in the front lines, so to speak. The U.S. lost far more men in training accidents than we lost in combat in those years.

Then after the Balkans came Afghanistan and the Iraq War. With a lightning fast ground assault supported by better smart bombs than ever, the United States and coalition forces waltzed into Kabul and Baghdad in jig time. The total of the ground forces was much smaller than that used for the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. The faith we had in our technologically-backed armed forces was nigh onto unshakeable.

But we have been shaken, and, according to the book I mentioned up-front, it's because we had too much faith in technology. That is the conclusion drawn in Finding the Target: The Transformation of American Military Policy, by Frederick W. Kagan. The book is reviewed by Colin Dueck in the Spring 2007 edition of the Claremont Review of Books. Unfortunately, there is no on-line version of the review, so I'm going to transcribe portions of it here.

As I said at the outset, I haven't read the book myself, but this review makes me want to very much. Dueck summarizes the points Kagan makes in his book:
During the 1980s and early 1990s, the argument began to gain steam that precision air strikes could be used to attack a country's leadership, infrastructure, troops, communications, and equipment to paralyze and overwhelm it without the need for heavy, costly ground campaigns. In some circles, the first Gulf War was viewed as a vindication of this argument. The air campaign against Saddam in 1991 certainly achieved remarkable effects. It removed Iraq's air force from the equation; undermined and damaged Iraqi command and control, communcations, and logistics; demoralized Iraq's rank and file soldiers; and dramatically reduced the Iraqi army's maneuverability. As Kagan explains, however, it was not airpower by itself that won the Gulf War: a major ground campaign, executed with skill and preparation by the U. S. Army and Marine Corps, was critical in forcing Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. There is no reason to believe that this outcome could have been reached through airpower alone. Yet the images of precision weapons destroyig Iraqi targets from great distances encouraged the impression that a new age had dawned in warfare, an age of smart bombs and real-time intelligence, in which the U. S. would be able to fight its conflicts at minimal cost or commitment on the ground, by relying on high-flying technological advanteages.
The impressions arising from the first Gulf War grew over the course of the 1990s. America's pin-prick wars against Slobodan Milosevic during the decade were not really fought in the absence of ground support. The United States relied upon MUslim and Croat proxies in 1995, and upon the Kosovo Liberation Army in 1999 together with the ultimate threat of some kind of U. S. grouhd intervention to achieve significaant effects against Serb forces. It is still not enitrely clear why Milosevic conceded when he did in 1999; Russian diplomatic pressure seems to have played an important part. In any case, the widespread perception that the war over Kosovo was won entirely from the air perhaps the first such victory in history only strenghthened the hand of air-power enthusiasts and advocates of transformation. War could now be seen as a kind of targeting drill, in which the United States would launch precision strikes from great distances against critical nodes in the enemy's command, logistical, and communications sytem, while minimizing risk to American forces. Here was the military equivalent of Dell Computers, delivering light, efficient, "just-in-time warfare" to mimic the wonders of information-age business models. It was a vision that had much appeal during the Clinton years for reasons financial, political, and bureaucratic. The practical international and military disadvantages of this vision its inability to accomplish the political mission at hand or to deliver effective control over events unfolding on the ground were not given equal consideration. Apparently nobody in high office asked the question: what if, after being pummeled by our high-tech precision weaponry, the enemy does not surrender?
Far from disowning the concept of light, agile, long-distance warfare, George W. Bush campainged in 2000 in favor of the military's accelerated transformation. He also campaigned against "nation-building" missions overseas. The appointment of Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense indicated his seriousness in both regards. Rumsfeld made military transformation his leading priority, downplayed the importance of operations other than war, and pressed his vision with keen bureaucratic skill and eenergy. After the terrorist attacks of September 2001, he saw no reason to question this emphasis on transformation. On the contrary, he saw the war against the Taliban, and then the invasion of Iraq, as opportunities to fight and win America's wars using transformational weapons and techniques, without the burden of heavy or protracted postwar stability operations. In practical terms, this meant conducting both wars with a relatively small number of troops on the ground, and with every intention of having those troops leave as quickly as they had arrived.

The war in Iraq has now lasted almost four years, degenerating first into a bloody counterinsurgency and then into multidirectional sectarian violence of increasing brutality. The war in Afghanistan, though less visible in the daily headlines, has also seen disappointments, as Taliban forces fight to recover their former influence. We are now entitled to ask whether or not the emphasis on military transformation Rumsfeld's preferred method, and apparently President Bush's as well, for fighting these wars has been vindicated by events.

Kagan's achievement in Finding the Target is to show that America's "postwar" frustrations were not simply unpredictable complications of war, but were massively, and unnecessarily, aggravated by the administration's emphasis on military transformation. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the administration failed to match military means to political ends. The obvious and stated purpose of American intervention was not only to overthrow hostile regimes, but also to create a stable postwar environment in which support for terrorism could not flourish. The latter goal was at least as important as the former; without it, neither invasion would have made sense. Yet despite lip service to the contrary, the planning for both wars was conducted with an astonishing indifference to the entirely foreseeable need to create a secure political environment after conventional military operations had ceased.
To say that hindsight is 20/20 is simply not good enough: both contingencies [the escape of al-Qaeda terrorists from Afghanistan and the period of chaos and the rise of the insurgency in Iraq] were foreseen and warned of at the time by numerous defense, intelligence, and foreign policy experts and officials within the U. S. Yet the administration apparently chose to ignore them because of its commitment to a particular form of light, detached, high-tech warfare.

What is to be done? The U. S. military has learned (or more properly, re-learned) hard lessons about the nature of counterinsurgency and stability operations since 2003 and has begun to move in the right direction. Kagan believes our military forces are over-extended and recommends immediately increasing the size of both the Army and Marine Corps. ... But if the U. S. is going to intervene abroad to establish friendly new governments, it has no choice but to prepare itself for some form of nation-building. Troops must be properly trained not only to fight and win high-tech conventional wars against conventional opponents, but to prevail in postwar conditions against guerilla tactics and terrorist insurgencies. A primary emphasis on technological transformation is positively unhelpful under such circumstances, because it creates the illusion that these relatively low-tech, messy, close-in, unconventional conflicts are simply temporary distractions from the larger and more important project of modernization. They are not. On the contrary, they are the only kind of wars the U. S. is actively fighting, and there is no more urgent priority than winning them.

This fills in quite a few pieces of the puzzle for me, particularly my understanding of the progress of U. S. strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. We will never be free of the need for well-trained troops on the ground to secure the political goals of war. Our faith in high-tech has caused us to forget that. It has also caused opponents of the war to clamor for withdrawal; the justification being that a precipitous withdrawal is the best if not the only practical option left open to us. The number of casualties is the flag around which the anti-war troops are rallying, so to speak.

I don't believe that this is a war we can walk away from. I support the continued funding of our forces with increased troop strength to make use of the hard lessons they've learned. In no way do I feel that quickly withdrawing our troops will 1) make us safer, 2) repair our relations with our allies, or 3) bring peace to the region or to the United States.

Returning to the "nuisance" of pre-9/11 terrorism (as Senator Kerry put it in 2004), or to an "acceptable level of violence" as the Brits say about the troubles in Northern Ireland, is not our way. This struggle is one we have to face. We can't wish our way out of it, we can't negotiate our way out of it. We have to show that we are willing to fight and die to relieve ourselves of this threat, this reality, these butchers.

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