Old lamps for new
Greg Jaffe's article in the Wall Street Journal, "The Fight for Iraq:A General's New Plan To Battle Radical Islam" is fascinating on two levels. On the internal level, it describes the politico/military strategy which Gen. Abizaid has pursued not simply in Iraq, but over the whole of CENTCOM. It begins by describing Seabees constructing a school as a way of introducing these paragraph:
In an interview in Iraq later, he was even blunter about the limits of U.S. firepower. "Military power can gain us time...but that is about it," he said.
It's a striking comment from one of the country's most influential generals, whose views are increasingly being echoed by President Bush. As head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Abizaid oversees the U.S. military effort in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Horn of Africa, Central Asia and the Mideast. ...
But his view of the region is increasingly shaped by the inability of all that firepower to prevail against a violent strain of Islam seeking to expand its foothold. "The best way to contain al Qaeda is to increase the capacity of the regional powers to deal with it themselves," he says.
Gen. Abizaid's approach is part of a broader rethinking within the Bush administration of how best to fight terrorism, driven in part by the failures of the past five years. One of its tenets is that change must take place gradually and be led by locals. The U.S. can provide help training and equipping indigenous counterterrorism forces to break up al Qaeda cells, Gen. Abizaid says. But bigger changes that address the root causes of terrorism in the region must take place over years, if not decades.
Those paragraphs provide a stepping-stone to climb out of the article to view it from a second level: the role of the US military within a national strategic outlook. The WSJ description of Abizaid's strategy encapsulates all that is potentially revolutionary, controversial and misunderstood about the War on Terror. When President Bush declared his goal was to "bring democracy to the Middle East" it was immediately derided by those who believed democracy could never come to the region; and if it did would come only in the form of Islamism. Others argued that America already had a politco/military fighting team in the State Department and Department of Defense. Why should there be need of another?. But the WSJ article clearly describes a subtly different thing: politico/military warfare primarily executed by the military personnel at the level of communities, tribes and sects. It is integrated warfare many levels down from the sphere inhabited by diplomats. And if the WSJ speaks admiringly of it; it is nevertheless a method without a national strategy.
The genuine tone of amazement in the WSJ is a reminder of how poorly understood the military role of the War on Terror has been, especially in Iraq. As a military enterprise, one the Belmont commenters pointed out, the War on Terror would rank only a little higher than the War of 1812. A Washington Post article cited in the same post noted that military death rates in Iraq are actually lower than those of black males in Philadelphia. The Associated Press noted that there were actually fewer airstrikes in support of coalition activity Iraq than in Afghanistan. Any comparison in bomb tonnage, artillery rounds expended, and bullets fired to previous wars would tell the same tale. Strictly in shooting terms the War on Terror is minor league. In fact much of the criticism directed against the Bush administration's conduct of the War in Iraq has been that there is too little military. Niall Ferguson, writing in Time echoes a widespread view that "General Eric Shinseki turned out to have been right that 'something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers' would be needed to stabilize post-Saddam Iraq." Ferguson may be correct in some sense, but that is not the point. The point is that from the beginning the Administration's War on Terror was never primarily military; it was always -- even from the days of the First Fallujah campaign -- fundamentally a political war and continues to be to this day, as the continued existence of Moqtada al-Sadr illustrates.
It's politico-military character did automatically ensure its success. Iraq illustrates that it simply gives one the chance to lose, as well as win in two dimensions. Yet losing any particular hand doesn't mean it is the wrong game to play; it simply means one has to learn to play it better. The WSJ article unconsciously raises a different and more disturbing criticism of American strategy. The military's prosecution of a politico/military campaign can be viewed as an attempt to compensate for the failure of other aspects of American power (diplomatic, development and informational) to project themselves into the field. It's a Band-Aid to compensate for the absence of institutions which America, if it were truly an imperial power, would have had. But America will never have a BBC, which was itself the evolutionary product of Imperial Britain. Yet America has its own sources of strength, including media industries which enabled it to dominate the popular culture of the world. The most serious question posed by the WSJ article is not whether the politico/military approach is the correct approach, but whether such a broad campaign can be prosecuted by so limited an agency as the US military without the rest of America's "soft power" behind it.
Gen Abizaid's staff tracks everything from birth rates in places like Sudan to oil-pipeline deals to water consumption in the region. One of his staff officers, who has an advanced degree in Middle Eastern history, recently wrote a long paper for him on the British colonial experience in Iraq in the 1920s and '30s. The general's colleagues praise him for his ease with uncertainty and freewheeling debate.
In May, on a visit through Iraq, he was getting a briefing on security conditions in the country. An officer lamented that a significant share of Iraqis were telling opinion surveys it was honorable to attack U.S. forces. "You act like you're insulted or something," Gen. Abizaid said to the briefing officer. As the officer looked on, surprised, the general told him why he shouldn't be: Iraqis also thought it honorable to attack the British when they occupied Iraq, and they felt the same way earlier about the Turks. The attitude was "a part of the battlefield," and it showed the need to turn the fight in Iraq over to the Iraqis as quickly as possible, he said.
Gen. Abizaid's influence is evident in Iraq, where the U.S. has shifted away from its initial focus of building a U.S.-style democracy in the heart of the Muslim world. Today the top priority for commanders is building Iraqi police and army forces that can take over the fight and shoring up crumbling infrastructure. On the political side, U.S. and Iraqi leaders are working to persuade Sunnis who've supported the insurgency to take part in the political process. They're also trying to reach an accommodation with radical Shiite elements. "In Iraq, we are willing to accept a less-than-perfect democracy. Stability and security are more important," says one U.S. Army counterinsurgency expert. "Instead of mission creep, we are seeing mission shrink."
In the end, I don't think it can be. To be successful the "General's 'New Plan' to battle radical Islam" must be consciously pursued by all the organs of national strength. However, it will not. Not until America reaches a broad consensus on the need to wage a struggle of culture, politics and arms against Islamic fascism. Until then it will be inadequately though valiantly waged by the only agency which a Commander in Chief can directly wield. Maybe the best use to which the President can put the remainder of his term is to turn his efforts inward. America will have gained the strategic upper hand only when the majority of its population, including its opinion leaders, can read articles like Greg Jaffe's not with surprise, but with familiar approval.