Harnessing the Desert Wind
Joe Klein of Time notices that not everything is going al-Qaeda's way in Iraq.
There is good news from Iraq, believe it or not. It comes from the most unlikely place: Anbar province, home of the Sunni insurgency. ... This is a result of sheiks stepping up and opposing AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] and volunteering their young men to serve in the police and army units there." The success in Anbar has led sheiks in at least two other Sunni-dominated provinces, Nineveh and Salahaddin, to ask for similar alliances against the foreign fighters. And, as TIME's Bobby Ghosh has reported, an influential leader of the Sunni insurgency, Harith al-Dari, has turned against al-Qaeda as well. It is possible that al-Qaeda is being rejected like a mismatched liver transplant by the body of the Iraqi insurgency.
Viewed from the standpoint of managing human resources winning wars is all about retaining institutional expertise at a greater rate than the enemy can. The classic example was Japanese naval aviation versus the USN. At the start of World War 2, Japanese naval aviatiors were arguably the best in the world. But unfortunately for the Empire, the IJN saw fit to keep its best aviators on the frontline and eventually lose them to attrition. Their wisdom went down in flames with their aircraft. On the other hand the US successfully passed on the lessons learned by its aces to new recruits. The institution gradually learned what worked and didn't. It seems like a trivial thing but it wasn't. By late 1944 a newly deployed Japanese aviator stood so little chance against his better trained American counterpart that they were of no other use than as Kamikazes.
Many seemingly plausible ideas also collapsed under the test of combat. Whole weapons systems were discredited. Battleships, unescorted bombers, American naval torpedoes -- things upon which entire doctrines were developed -- were consigned to the scrap-heap or modified to work. And wholly new concepts were developed. Generally speaking war both creates and destroys. It destroys the futile in order to make room for the effective. Today in Iraq the US is apparently starting to learn how to organize Iraqis at the most basic of levels to counteract al-Qaeda. The idea was not novel, having been employed by TE Lawrence, Mao Tse Tung and Edward Landsdale, but its acceptance was. Klein writes:
As I reported in September 2005, there is also the scandalous reality that an alliance with the tribes was proposed by U.S. Army intelligence officers as early as October 2003 and rejected by L. Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority on the grounds that "tribes are part of the past. They have no place in the new democratic Iraq."
Give it time and Bremer may be right yet. By directly empowering grassroots organizations in the fight against terrorism, the US military may be indirectly subverting the power of Baghdad. Blackfive recently linked to a letter by General Petraeus to the Iraqi people. It would be one of history's true ironies if American soldiers and not Iraqi politicians turn out to be the fathers of post-Saddam Iraq. But those difficulties, if real, lie in the future. For the present Bremer is proven wrong, and the American ability to organize and mobilize Iraqi allies is a vital capability which confers many advantages.
Unlike most military weapons systems, this "capability" doesn't consist of hardware. There are fundamentally no bombs, computers, rockets or death-rays involved in this organizing power, at least not directly. The ability to work effectively with indigenous populations consists in the institutional memory, human skill, language capability, cultural familiarity, in the fragile spiderweb of personal networks that Americans have painstakingly created and are striving to pass on. Like all capabilities based on human flesh, it is an extremely perishable commodity. This weapons system -- the one that has driven al-Qaeda from Anbar -- actually resides in an enumerable set of Americans and Iraqis, in their skulls and remembered conversations; it cannot be stored away in some missile silo and kept there for a distant decade. It is as fleeting and as powerful as the wind.
And its superiority is relative. While US forces have the temporary upper hand because they keep killing off experienced al-Qaeda cadres and tipping them off balance by constant pursuit, the advantage could evaporate in a moment if the enemy were given a chance to regroup. That would give the enemy a chance to rebuild their institutional memory; to learn from its mistakes. It could evaporate if bad political decisions drive experienced personnel from the US Armed Forces and and out into other jobs. The tribal networks themselves could even be turned against America should they feel betrayed. Such advantages as exist in Anbar are like embers in the time before matches. The fire must be passed on or it will go out. The value of tempo in warfare essentially consists of making temporary advantages last for the duration of the war. Once you are ahead, never relinquish the lead.
But the skill of organizing the tribes is but the first in a whole series of new capabilities that the West must acquire to combat the networked insurgency. It has not yet learned how to neutralize enemy sanctuaries across international borders without a conventional invasion. It has not yet discovered how to counter the insidious and hate-filled propaganda of al-Qaeda. It has not yet even learned to convey its successes to the Western public. But it has learned something. And it shows.