Time After Time
A number of readers have linked to Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr.'s How To Win In Iraq in Foreign Affairs, in which he puts forward a number of metrics which he claims are not being used by current strategists.
Without a clear strategy in Iraq, moreover, there is no good way to gauge progress. Senior political and military leaders have thus repeatedly made overly optimistic or even contradictory declarations. ... To date, U.S. forces in Iraq have largely concentrated their efforts on hunting down and killing insurgents. ... Instead, U.S. and Iraqi forces should adopt an "oil-spot strategy" in Iraq, which is essentially the opposite approach. Rather than focusing on killing insurgents, they should concentrate on providing security and opportunity to the Iraqi people, thereby denying insurgents the popular support they need. Since the U.S. and Iraqi armies cannot guarantee security to all of Iraq simultaneously, they should start by focusing on certain key areas and then, over time, broadening the effort -- hence the image of an expanding oil spot. Such a strategy would have a good chance of success. But it would require a protracted commitment of U.S. resources, a willingness to risk more casualties in the short term, and an enduring U.S. presence in Iraq, albeit at far lower force levels than are engaged at present.
David Brooks takes up the Krepinevich theme in the New York Times and suggests that policymakers at least consider the possibility that he may have some points to offer.
Krepinevich calls the approach the oil-spot strategy. The core insight is that you can't win a war like this by going off on search and destroy missions trying to kill insurgents. There are always more enemy fighters waiting. You end up going back to the same towns again and again, because the insurgents just pop up after you've left and kill anybody who helped you. You alienate civilians, who are the key to success, with your heavy-handed raids.
Instead of trying to kill insurgents, Krepinevich argues, it's more important to protect civilians. You set up safe havens where you can establish good security. Because you don't have enough manpower to do this everywhere at once, you select a few key cities and take control. Then you slowly expand the size of your safe havens, like an oil spot spreading across the pavement.
Krepinevich cites Lieutenant General Sir Gerald Templer's successful counterinsurgency campaign in the Malayan Emergency of how to conduct an "oil spot" strategy. There are many valuable lessons to be found in the Malayan Emergency, but also a few things differences with Iraq which deserve highlighting. Some of the most important are the following:
First, the British strategy took a long time to get things right: the Emergency ran a dozen years from 1948 to 1960. This despite the fact that the British enjoyed certain implicit advantages that Americans lack, which enabled them to shorten the duration. The British as the former colonial power of Malaya had literally tens of thousands of Britons who knew the language and culture of the country and had a pre-existing intelligence network. In contrast, Iraq was dominated by a Baathist regime for decades. It is they who have the pre-existing intelligence network.
Second, the enemy in Malaya were a relatively small, visible ethnic Chinese minority without a cross-border sanctuary in a supportive state. The tension between the ethnic Chinese and the Muslim Malays were such that it contributed to the formation of the Republic of Singapore in 1963. In Iraq, the Sunni triangle, without the borders can be conceived as an extension of Syria abutting upon Shi'ite and Kurdish areas. The insurgency is occurring primarily within the Shi'ite area, where they are the majority.
Third, the international context of the Malayan emergency was the Cold War. There was widespread support, especially in the early 1950s for a confrontation with Communism, especially following the Berlin crisis and the invasion of South Korea. Europe, facing a Soviet enemy at its doorstep rose more readily to the challenge than today. Today it is psychologically confident in its security, never mind that this security is not of its own making and maintenance.
One campaign which more nearly paralleled the Malayan insurgency was the Huk insurgency in the Philippines. Although the enemy was ethnically indistinguishable from the population (which should have made them harder to fight), the US had the same familiarity with local culture than the British had, notwithstanding the fact that it had been in American possession for much less than than Malaya had been under the Brits. The US and Philippine governments beat the Huks handily, a task the Japanese Imperial Army had never been able to achieve during the Pacific War. The Japanese were operating in about the same time frame and US is in Iraq and with the same handicaps as to culture.
But the central problem, of course, is that America has lost the battle for time in the Global War on Terror. It has implicitly conceded, both to its domestic and international constituencies, the unacceptability of prolonging the process for more a few more years. In short, it has taken Krepinevich's scenario, if ever it were valid, off the table. To be fair, part of the blame must lie with the Bush administration itself, which implied that the process of defeating the enemy was shorter than it was. But if George Bush did not manage public expectations, his opponents certainly did. By repeatedly raising the specter of Vietnam, they implicitly engendered the counterassertion that all post-Vietnam American overseas commitments had to be casualty-free and of short duration. For example in the drafting of the Iraqi constitution, delays of a few days are described by newspapers as major setbacks. I wonder what Templer would have thought of that.