Saturday, January 10, 2009

November 2006: The War

For months, I have wanted to write about the war in Iraq. I have written about it often in my daily writing, but never felt comfortable sharing the thoughts in this letter. Finally with the recent US elections and the increasing in violence there, it seemed like the time.

Writing about such a topic is not so easy for me. First, it is a rather complicated. Weighing all the issues and drawing an intelligent conclusion is tedious work. It is easier to take the biased assumption route. Biased assumptions can lead to easy viewpoints e.g. the war is good, the war is bad, the US has no business in the Middle East, the US is a pawn of Israel and doing their dirty work, Islam is evil, Christianity is evil. The war makes easy sense or non-sense when one takes one of these extreme assumptions.

Obviously, I decided to write about the war. I decided to do it in the following way. I broke it up into sub-topics that struck me this month. I will comment and share my thoughts and confusions.

US Elections: The war in Iraq has not been going well for many months. This is not only my perspective but a message that the media has bombarded everyone with. The voting populace of the United States was convinced us of this view as evidenced by the Democrats taking back both the House and Senate. This was a definite switch from 2004 where the re-election of George Bush and gains in both houses by the Republicans was viewed as a mandate and firm support of the war.

Is it that the populace is frivolous, easily swayed or perhaps even naïve? That is all I heard in 2004 by staunch Democrats in New York who were shocked by the results of that election. They could not understand how all the states not on a coast voted Republican. I cannot say I heard the same thing about this election. There is a quiet acceptance from the populace that the war is, in fact, not going well.

This was confirmed by the alacrity with which Donald Rumsfeld was replaced as Secretary of Defense. I was surprised at how quickly this happened… after the election. Clearly, the administration also believed it was time for a change. Either that or they were cutting their losses and Rumsfeld was the fall guy. It is not clear why they did not make the change earlier and campaign on a revised strategy for the war. Probably, the Democrats would have had a field day campaigning against an admittedly failed strategy. On the other hand, maybe the Republicans did not actually believe they would lose their majority in Congress. Some Republicans who knew they were in tight House or Senate races were actually looking for just this kind of change before the election. It did not come and most of them did not win.

From the beginning of the war, there was criticism of Rumsfeld’s strategy. The military complained that they did not have enough troops. We proved we had enough force to topple the regime, but certainly not enough to “win the peace” and create a smooth regime change.

Enemy of my Enemy: Speaking of Donald Rumsfeld, his “relationship” with Saddam Hussein goes back to 1984. At that time, during the Iran-Iraq war, Ronald Reagan dispatched Rumsfeld to Iraq to begin the process of resuming diplomatic relations. For the life of me, I cannot remember why diplomatic relations were suspended. Maybe it had to something to do with their building a nuclear reactor and Israel bombing it.

At that time, the US viewed that Iran was the greater enemy and it was in the best interest of the US to have Iraq win the war. The US helped Iraq with intelligence and satellite surveillance. We sold Iraq Huey helicopters and other arms. At the same time relations were being normalized, Hussein used chemical weapons on the Iranians. I guess if they were used on Iranians, they were not considered WMDs.

Rumsfeld went back to Baghdad again in 1984 and met with Tariq Aziz. Twenty years later, he was leading a war against Iraq and both Hussein and Aziz were enemies. Yet, he learned his lesson. No envoys were dispatched to Tehran.

I hope Rumsfeld writes a book. I would love to get his perspective on his unique relationship with Iraq. Will he continue to justify his actions and strategy? Or will he question himself and regret some of his decisions like Robert McNamara?

On Strategy: The Iraq war unfolded much as I expected. Their army could not and would not face the US in the open battlefield. It would have been no contest based on several technical superiorities of the US forces in terms of, air support, armor, and surveillance to name just three. The Iraqis did what they had to do, the only strategy available to them; melt into the background and go guerilla. The bet was that they would mire the US down in a long tedious, urban action, war of attrition. They were betting the long steady flow of body bags would turn the US people against the war, much like Vietnam.

On Sunday, November 26, 2006th, the press was buzzing with a somber statistic. The Iraq War, as of this day, equaled the number of days the United States spent fighting World War II: 1,347 days.

One cannot compare the two wars. WWII, and to a lesser extent, Korea, were classic wars of armies fighting armies. Each army had the clear objectives. The objective was to destroy the opposing army’s ability to fight any further. The goal was moving the Forward Line of Troops (FLOT) until the opposition gave up or their country was conquered and the populace demoralized to fight any further.

In World War II, the Allies fought on several fronts and moved the FLOT towards Rome, Berlin and Tokyo. The allies were successful and the enemy governments sued for peace or effected regime change and the new government sued for peace.

This was not the case in Vietnam and it is not the case in the current Iraq War. It was the case in Desert Storm, the first Gulf War. In that first war, there was a clear military objective which was to take back the territory Saddam Hussein had taken from Kuwait and annexed. Regime change, of a sort, has been accomplished. Yet, we are in a quagmire. There was a FLOT but it only lasted a few days.

These thoughts are not really my own. I first read them in a military critique of the Vietnam War, On Strategy by Harry G. Summers. Summers retired from the Army and wrote this book analyzing the war from the perspective of von Clauswitz’s principles of war. He argued that the US was unsuccessful in Vietnam because we fought the war on the terms of the North Vietnamese Army. It was a guerilla war. Summers emphatically pointed out that there were no Viet Cong or insurgents they were mostly definitely North Vietnamese regulars fighting a guerilla war, the only kind of war they could hope to win. The US had won every classic battle in Vietnam. The US lost because we did not establish a FLOT and drive to a military objective. That objective should have been to drive to Hanoi and force the government to abdicate or sue for peace.

The US Army was designed and trained to fight the kind of war just outlined. The mission in Vietnam was different. It was a police action. It was a guerrilla war. The Army was spread out and diffused by this North Vietnamese strategy.

Bush the elder and Colin Powell understood this in Desert Storm, the first Gulf War. That is why they stopped at the Iraqi border. They did not “finish the job” and drive on to Baghdad and topple Hussein. They understood the risks and the commitment of manpower over a long time period. The strategy of Rumsfeld and George W took this risk; they took this risk with an undermanned force and a poor plan for what to do post regime change. I believe this is why Colin Powell resigned or was let go by this administration.

Different than Vietnam: There are major differences between Iraq and Vietnam. First, there was a draft in during the Vietnam war. All of the troops in Iraq voluntarily joined the Armed Forces including the Reserves and the National Guard. While these troops might not want to be in Iraq, the consequence was easier to accept because they volunteered for service. In Vietnam, a large majority of the forces were drafted and many were not happy about that.
Congressman Charles B. Rangel D-NY pops up in the news every now and again, as he did this month, by advocating, again, the establishment of a universal draft. By universal he means a draft without all the deferments built into the Vietnam era draft such as the college deferment that tended to favor those that could afford college. Rangel claims that while we have an all volunteer force, the troop make up is skewed to the lower economic tiers, people with less education, less options and less money. Rangel is not a supporter of the war. Beyond establishing an equitable representation of the population in the Armed Forces, he is also betting that the opposition to the war would get much more intense with the establishment of a draft. I think he is right. If a universal draft were established, the war would end in a hurry.
Secondly, contrary to Vietnam, there is a much greater support of the troops in Iraq. Whatever debate there is about the war, be it tactics or politics, it is done independently of supporting the troops. In Vietnam, the support of the troops varied. Soldiers returned home to protests against the war and against the troops. Some of these protesters called them baby killers and such. It was quite an ugly time. This is just not the case in Iraq.

My friend Tom is a reader of this letter. His son had joined the Marines before 9/11. After 9/11, his son was deployed to Afghanistan. Tom was continually sending updates and forwarding e-mails from his son to friends and family. Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, Tom sent one of these updates. A cousin responded quite negatively on the invasion of Iraq, the US in general, the President, and the Armed Forces. The response by Tom and others was strong and indignant; basically telling the cousin to stop denigrating the troops as a dear friend and relative was in harm’s way.

Sunni-Shia: I can understand Jews and Moslems not getting along. I can understand Christians and Jews, Moslems and Christians not getting along. I even understand how not getting along combined with economics and territorial disputes can transform not getting along into hatred. I do not get this Sunni-Shia schism. They are killing each other in this war. I would venture to say that more Iraqis have been killed by each other than by the US, but it is only a guess on my part.

Bombs are set off by either Shias or Sunnis. A recent and most gruesome twist to car bombs and suicide bombs is the double bombing. When people approach a bomb scene to provide aid, investigate, or out of simple curiosity, a bigger second bomb is detonated. There is no horrific indignation of this by Moslems or anyone else for that matter.

There has even been bombing of Shia Mosques by Sunnis in Iraq. There has been no Islamic outrage of these bombings, at least none reported in the Western media. Yet, while a few Danish cartoons offend the sensibility and dignity of Moslems worldwide causing massive protests and the random killing of a few Christian clerics, detonating a bomb in a mosque killing Moslems worshipping does not elicit the same reaction. If the same act was done by a non-Moslem… whoa Nelly, as they used to say. It is Moslems killing Moslems and no one complains and worse no one can explain why. This schism dates back a thousand years and the hatred is still incredibly strong. With this kind of strong reaction in country, how can any non-Moslem entity like say the US Army expect to have any effect or influence?

I do not get the Sunni-Shia divide and no one has been able to explain it. Not talking heads on CNN, PBS, or the History Channel. My Armenians friends from Lebanon understand the “Arab mind” and the “Arab culture” far more than I ever will. They cannot explain the difference. Even Moslem friends have been unable to explain the schism in any meaningful way.

I truly hope that if I ever write about this war again it is in some historical perspective and not because it went on another 1,347 days.

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