August 03, 2007

O'Hanlon & Pollack: Guilty of Rose Colored Glasses?

With each passing day, Iraq sinks deeper into the abyss of civil war. The history of such wars is that they are disastrous for all involved. Asking who won most civil wars is a bit like asking who "won" the San Francisco earthquake. Unfortunately, we may soon be forced to confront how best we can avoid "losing" an Iraqi civil war.

--Kenneth Pollack "Things Fall Apart: Containing the Spillover From an Iraq Civil War" (The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution, Analysis Paper, Number 11, January 2007)

The time may be approaching when the only hope for a more stable Iraq is a soft partition of the country. Soft partition would involve the Iraqis, with the assistance of the international community, dividing their country into three main regions. Each would assume primary responsibility for its own security and governance….unless the U.S. troop surge succeeds dramatically, a soft partition model may be the only hope for avoiding an all-out civil war. Indeed, even if the surge achieves some positive results, the resulting political window might best be used to negotiate and implement soft partition. As of writing, it is too soon to know exactly how the current approach will fare. We are highly skeptical of its prospects. But one need not have a final assessment of the surge to begin considering which “Plan B” might succeed it in the event of failure—or even a partial but insufficient success.

--Michael O’Hanlon “The Case for Soft Partition in Iraq” (The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution, Analysis Paper, Number 12, June 2007).

I quote the above not as ‘gotcha’ to try to embarrass Pollack or O’Hanlon, each reasonably competent foreign policy analysts. And aside from my discomfort regarding the dearth of "humility" issue, I will refrain from any heated accusations or personal broadsides here. I know neither of these think-tankers personally, and can only presume they wrote in this NYT op-ed exactly what they believe in good faith, despite their much more pessimistic (and very recent) views quoted above. But I thought I might respond to the O'Hanlon/Pollack piece on more substantive grounds, as I’ve not seen much criticism of it on that score elsewhere.

They write:

Today, morale is high. The soldiers and marines told us they feel that they now have a superb commander in Gen. David Petraeus; they are confident in his strategy, they see real results, and they feel now they have the numbers needed to make a real difference.

It is well and good to say morale is “high”. But saying so doesn’t make it so. Take this report from August 1st :

U.S. troop morale is being put at risk by the lack of political progress in Iraq, the Pentagon's new top uniformed leadership said yesterday. Adm. Michael Mullen told his Senate confirmation hearing the Iraqi government must do better at national reconciliation, a theme the Bush administration has sounded with increasing urgency in recent months.

"Barring that," Mullen said, "no amount of troops and no amount of time will make much of a difference."

U.S. troops are aware that Iraq's politicians have just gone on a month-long vacation, and "there comes a point at which they're going to look at that and say, 'How much longer, and for what price, if progress isn't seen?'" echoed Marine Gen. James Cartwright.

You have the nominees for Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Joints Chief saying in open Congressional testimony, where you’d suspect they’re trying to put a brave face on, that morale is problematic, at best. But O’Hanlon and Pollack, fresh from a week in Iraq, assure us it’s “high”. I don’t doubt they met soldiers excited by Petraeus’ leadership, or varied localized successes on the security front, and perhaps even a new-found sense of mission. But this does not mean morale is high across the board, and it is irresponsible and misleading, in my view, to so suggest. For instance, is the morale of the men featured in this video “high”? Let’s us be wary of blanket statements, overly cheery diagnoses, all clears, no?

Pollack and O’Hanlon continue:

Everywhere, Army and Marine units were focused on securing the Iraqi population, working with Iraqi security units, creating new political and economic arrangements at the local level and providing basic services — electricity, fuel, clean water [ed. note: do read this for context] and sanitation — to the people. Yet in each place, operations had been appropriately tailored to the specific needs of the community. As a result, civilian fatality rates are down roughly a third since the surge began — though they remain very high, underscoring how much more still needs to be done.

But what is “everywhere”? Is it Sadr City? Other parts of Baghdad military handlers didn’t take them because the security situation was overly problematic? Parts of Diyala and Niveneh provinces? Well, no, it appears Pollack and O’Hanlon were shepherded mostly around Mosul, Tal Afar, Ramadi and the Ghazaliya neighborhood of Baghdad (of which more below). This is quite a bit of ground, but it is not “everywhere”. Again, I am not trying to parse and play gotcha, I am trying to force us, now more than four years on in a conflict that has killed almost 4,000 of our country-men, not to mention tens if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, to contain our enthusiasms and retain some sobriety.

To continue, what does it mean that “in each place, operations had been appropriately tailored to the specific needs of the community”? This almost sounds like bespoke suits were being rapidly put together on expedite from Saville Row storefronts, specifically fitted to a tee for each and every remote hamlet of Iraq, given the ebullient tone. But where is the concrete manifestation that “new political and economic arrangements” have been persuasively created by Army and Marine units at the “local level”, or that “electricity, fuel, clean water and sanitation” have been provided “to the people” (this almost reads like Soviet propaganda, in parts, so giddy the tone)? Put differently, what Pollack and O’Hanlon are really saying is that the “building” part of clear, hold, build is going very well. But even relatively optimistic accounts of the surge urge greater caution than O’Hanlon and Pollack would have it:

…Energy Ministry is unable to muster and protect enough repair teams to work on the frequently attacked transmission grid. As a consequence, Baghdad enjoys an average of only 8.4 hours of electricity a day, and less during the sweltering summer months. For similar reasons, the Oil Ministry was able to spend only $90 million of its $3.5 billion capital expenditure budget in 2006, and Iraq's oil production remains below paltry pre-war levels, despite the billions of U.S. dollars invested in infrastructure. Across all ministries, the Iraqi government managed to spend only about 20 percent of its $6 billion capital investment budget last year; the flow of government services dried to a trickle.

"Our clear, hold, and build strategy will not work if people in the affected neighborhoods don't see government services, jobs, economic opportunity, and their quality of life improving as part of the process," said a senior U.S. officer who asked not to be named. Although the Iraqi government bears much of the blame, he says, U.S. government agencies have also failed to supply the robust support, mentoring, and oversight to other Iraqi ministries that the Pentagon has given to the ministries of Defense and Interior, probably the two highest functioning in Iraq's government.

"So once again we are seeing a synchronization problem. The U.S. military has surged forces into Baghdad and slowed the cycle of violence, but we can't keep these force levels up indefinitely," the senior officer said. "If we don't see political and economic initiatives fall in behind the surge and take advantage of that increased security, we will have missed another key opportunity in Iraq."

Pollack and O’Hanlon then write that, as a “result” of the successful ‘building’ function being performed by U.S. forces, “civilian fatality rates are down roughly a third since the surge began.” But was it Disraeli who famously quipped: “There are lies, damn lies - and statistics”? O’Hanlon has made something of a cottage industry crunching Iraq stats and having graphic designer types help provide accompanying imagery to plop into the Sunday Times now and again, so I’m not going to quibble with the factual accuracy of this statement given his wealth of experience with these numbers, save to say, according to this report at least, civilian fatalities sharply increased to 1,653 in July ’07 from 1,227 in June.

Yes, O’Hanlon is using some other metric, ostensibly allowing him to feel comfortable stating that civilian fatality rates are “down roughly a third since the surge began” (the official date of the surge’s commencement, of course, a matter shrouded in rather a lot of obfuscation and spin). And yet, again, let us contain our enthusiasm, as at least 1,653 civilian Iraqis died last month, well up from June (in fairness to Pollack and O’Hanlon, they do write that fatalities “remain very high, underscoring how much more still needs to be done.”)

Elsewhere in the op-ed, where O’Hanlon and Pollack are striving to highlight positive stories, they unintentionally reinforce that bad news is still more the underlying real story.

Take this statement:

In Ramadi, for example, we talked with an outstanding Marine captain whose company was living in harmony in a complex with a (largely Sunni) Iraqi police company and a (largely Shiite) Iraqi Army unit.

I am sure, when high profile visitors are being spirited through a barracks with U.S. forces obviously eager to have said personages leave with a good impression, the Sunni police company and Shia Army unit must have been behaving rather well so as to appear the very picture of “harmony”. But the fact that the police in Ramadi are all Sunni, rather than integrated, and the national army majority Shi’a, points to the festering danger of sectarian conflict rearing its head at any moment. These dorm-mates could turn on themselves quite violently indeed, certainly when (as is inevitable), U.S. forces in the area will have to begin to withdraw, and there is little we can do about this, alas, save agreeing to sign on for a decade plus long committment. Put differently, there exists no truly national Police, nor Army, and an excited Captain (one of course appreciates his pride in the progress he's trying to achieve) showing Pollack and O'Hanlon around a 'success story' in Ramadi doesn't change that undergirding dynamic, I'm afraid.

Similarly, Pollack and O’Hanlon write:

In Baghdad’s Ghazaliya neighborhood, which has seen some of the worst sectarian combat, we walked a street slowly coming back to life with stores and shoppers. The Sunni residents were unhappy with the nearby police checkpoint, where Shiite officers reportedly abused them, but they seemed genuinely happy with the American soldiers and a mostly Kurdish Iraqi Army company patrolling the street. The local Sunni militia even had agreed to confine itself to its compound once the Americans and Iraqi units arrived.

Well, of course, the local Sunni residents “seemed genuinely happy with the American soldiers and a mostly Kurdish…company patrolling the street.” For if they weren’t there, the Shi’a officers would be, at best, abusing them, and at worst, massacring them. The presence of the Americans is their main source of security, but again, we cannot stay there forever, however much this is difficult to countenance. In this vein, the notion that the local Sunni militia “even…agreed to confine itself to its compound” is no miracle that should precipitate such seeming surprise, rather it is realism that the Kurds and Americans can protect them, so why not retreat and hold their powder dry (at least for now)?

As for the larger state of affairs in Ghazaliya, other reports suggest matters mightn’t be so rosy:

In some Sunni neighborhoods in west Baghdad, such as Ghazaliya, some residents who were initially excited about the outposts and joint security stations have grown dissatisfied. They say the Americans are doing too little to stop attacks by Shiite militias. "The Americans won't come out to help unless they have orders," said Abdul Rahman, 29, a chemist. "They don't prevent the Mahdi Army from attacking us."

Here is another recent report (like the one above, also from July ’07) from Ghazaliya:

At one plant, all four delivery drivers quit last year after warnings that sectarian gangs would kill them if they continued to drive across the invisible but all-too-real lines dividing Baghdad's Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods.

Customers in one suburb cautioned them that takfiris - fanatical Sunni extremists - had decreed their frozen product un-Islamic.

"In Ghazaliya it is forbidden to sell ice because the takfiris said the Prophet Muhammad had no ice in his time," said Khatan Kareem, an ice factory manager, shaking his head at the absurdity.

Michael and Kenneth tell us they “walked a street slowly coming back to life with stores and shoppers” in this neighborhood. Perhaps they did, albeit doubtless with heavy security, and I fear with a good dollop of attendant Potemkinism in the air. Regardless, and at very best, the picture appears much more mixed, if the reportage of the LA Times and IHT is to be believed.

Pollack and O’Hanlon continue:

We traveled to the northern cities of Tal Afar and Mosul. This is an ethnically rich area, with large numbers of Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens. American troop levels in both cities now number only in the hundreds because the Iraqis have stepped up to the plate. Reliable police officers man the checkpoints in the cities, while Iraqi Army troops cover the countryside. A local mayor told us his greatest fear was an overly rapid American departure from Iraq. All across the country, the dependability of Iraqi security forces over the long term remains a major question mark.

I wonder about these somewhat airy sounding locutions, like “stepped up to the plate”, smacking of the naivete of a Pyle say, the character in Graham Greene’s Quiet American. But regardless, if the Iraqi Army and “reliable police officers” have “stepped up to the plate”, then why are local mayors so fearful that all hell will break loose when the Americans leave? Answer? Because the Iraqi Army and Police have not reliably “stepped up to the plate”, of course. Take this report, from August 1, via the Stars and Stripes paper:

U.S. military officials have talked of a possible drawdown in Iraq’s north, but two local Iraqi commanders here say they aren’t yet ready for such a plan to take hold. Iraqi army Lt. Col. Abdulkhaliq Hamed, commander of an outpost in what he and U.S. Army officials call the most dangerous part of the old section of Mosul, and Iraqi police commander Abid Hamad Hasan, who runs six stations in the central and northern area of the dense city, say they aren’t ready to take over security duties solely on their own. “There should be no type of any withdrawal — we are not ready yet,” Hamed said through an interpreter during an interview Saturday at his outpost offices in western Mosul. The Iraqi police commander’s comments were similar. “We have heard the notion in the media [of a withdrawal], but for us, we are still in need [of] the forces,” Hasan said through a translator Sunday in his station offices in central Mosul. “If there is a sudden or gradual withdrawal — I expect civil war here.”

Doesn’t sound like a resounding call to pull out the victory bugles, eh, or even a ringing of the “sustainable security” bells and whistles? And to the Iraqi police commander's statement that "we are not ready yet", why should we think he'll be ready in 3 months, or 6, or 12, or 18, and so on?

Pollack and O’Hanlon then write:

American advisers told us that many of the corrupt and sectarian Iraqi commanders who once infested the force have been removed. The American high command assesses that more than three-quarters of the Iraqi Army battalion commanders in Baghdad are now reliable partners (at least for as long as American forces remain in Iraq).

In addition, far more Iraqi units are well integrated in terms of ethnicity and religion. The Iraqi Army’s highly effective Third Infantry Division started out as overwhelmingly Kurdish in 2005. Today, it is 45 percent Shiite, 28 percent Kurdish, and 27 percent Sunni Arab.

In the past, few Iraqi units could do more than provide a few “jundis” (soldiers) to put a thin Iraqi face on largely American operations. Today, in only a few sectors did we find American commanders complaining that their Iraqi formations were useless — something that was the rule, not the exception, on a previous trip to Iraq in late 2005.

“American advisors”. “The American high command”. Some quick number-crunching on the composition of the Iraqi Army’s “highly effective” Third Infantry Division. Of late, “only a few sectors” with commanders complaining about the quality of the Iraqi Army units. Sounds great, and yet—is it only me who is bothered by O’Hanlon and Pollack’s huge reliance on MNF sources for the above cheery news?

There are other problematic parts of the op-ed, such as, A) a simple declaration that there exists “no more whack-a-mole”, without any hard evidencing thereto; B) a contention that the Mahdi Army has seen an “outpouring of popular animus” aimed against it (albeit to a “lesser extent” than that aimed at al-Qaeda, still a very debatable, indeed likely erroneous, proposition); C) a tacit acknowledgment, somewhat glossed over, that Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams are undermanned, and so on.

But even in the midst of this rah-rah call to summon our collective resolve ("Americans need to understand: we are finally getting somewhere in Iraq...") to keep the surge going “at least into 2008”, Pollack and O’Hanlon are nevertheless forced to concede the Iraqi National Police remains “mostly a disaster” (but I thought they'd "stepped up"!), that the “situation in Iraq remains grave” (add a deteriorating to this, and you’d have the Baker-Hamilton description of conditions in Iraq as “grave and deteriorating”), that we face “huge hurdles” on the political front, that politicians of all stripes “continue to dawdle” and avoid even basic steps towards accommodation, let alone reconciliation.

O’Hanlon, in an op-ed in the WSJ on July 13th of this year wrote that: “politics are 80% of any counterinsurgency operation”. Well, no less than the Chairman and Vice Chairman designate of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have declared the political track very problematic indeed, and we know Petraeus has had his fights with Maliki, and that Ryan Crocker wants to do away with benchmarks, so arduous the political challenges ahead (see this informative article for more on the political stalemate). Nor do Pollack or O'Hanlon deign to investigate growing Shi'a-U.S. tension, still an under-reported phenomenon, but likely the big story of coming months (as relations with beleaguered Sunnis continue to improve, in large part at least, relations with Shi'a will worsen).

In short, there is a breeziness and a cocksureness to this op-ed I found disconcerting. Something akin to think-tank apparatchiks, smart and well-meaning ones, knowingly throwing a bombshell into the Iraq debate by, as supposed left-leaning Brookings types, providing high-profile fodder for the Administration and its defenders that the surge is a viable strategy. But I continue to believe, in the absence of a major regional diplomatic initiative, undertaken in tandem with the appointment of high-powered non-American envoys to negotiate among Iraqi factions within Iraq, we are seeing only short-lived localized tactical improvements, with the overall strategic situation at best a status quo, and very likely to worsen in the days ahead.

Regardless, I hope O'Hanlon and Pollack are right, I really do. But to say I'd be surprised if they were would be an understatement, as no military victory per se is possible, only a political settlement among Iraqis can ultimately provide "sustainable security" (one involving Iraq's neighbors too, including the ones we don't deign to talk to at high enough levels, and in sustained enough manner). And neither David Petraeus, nor the bravest among his men, can force such an accomodation on the Iraqi people themselves, absent massive diplomatic efforts both regionally and within Iraq, aimed at complementing (a still under-manned) surge, something I fear is well beyond the abilities of this Administration, putting it politely.

Posted by Gregory at August 3, 2007 03:52 AM


Just one quick comment, your paragraph that begins with: "I wonder about these somewhat airy sounding locutions" needs to have the "close-blockquote" on it. It is missing the code and as such making the rest of the article and the comment section into a blockquote.

Otherwise, Hear! Hear!

Posted by: Dan at August 3, 2007 04:38 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I'm curious, from history, what are some examples of successful counterinsurgencies.

Posted by: Dan at August 3, 2007 04:41 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Yep, and here's the other book end.

Neocons in centrist, moderate, liberal or Democratic garb are still neocons.

Posted by: AlanDownunder at August 3, 2007 04:49 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

We should probably take a hard look at the common dismissal of "military" solutions as opposed to "political" solutions in Iraq.

The idea that there are no military solutions in Iraq really means there are no solutions the American military can impose consistent with the resources of men, money and time the American public is willing to provide. "Political" solutions in Iraq, by comparison, always include what most people would consider a substantial military component -- if one Iraqi faction thinks it can win a fight against its rival, it will fight until either it wins or it is proven wrong. There shouldn't be any self-deception here that "a political settlement" in Iraq means Iraqis seating themselves peaceably around a table, working out their differences and effectively requiring their followers to abide by the results of their negotiation.

The disconcerting possibility suggests itself here that the American military, by interposing itself between armed Iraqi factions and their intended victims, is actually postponing a political settlement in Iraq by delaying the day on which Iraqis consider themselves exhausted, spent by all the bloodshed and willing to accept something less than the annihilation of their enemies. This is only a possibility, in my view. It's a pretty strong one, though. At some point one really does have to start taking Iraqis at their word, accepting that their actions are a pretty good guide to their motives. Sunni Arabs settling off suicide bombs in Shiite sectors of Baghdad really do want to kill Shiites in large numbers; Shiite death squads want to avenge Sunni Arab attacks by slaughtering Sunni Arabs, taking their property, and locking them out of the government; Kurds fly the Kurdish flag because they want to be Kurds rather than Iraqis. What a "political settlement" in Iraq would signify is each faction's recognition either that they have everything they want to get, or that they have everything they can expect to get.

Posted by: Zathras at August 3, 2007 04:50 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The eerie emptiness of Potemkin villages. The intellectual emptiness of aparatchik propaganda masquerading as reporting and analysis. "Neocon realism." Maybe they did bury us.

After Judith Miller's stint as propaganda tool, and with Michael Gordon still operating as a teletype for conveying the administration's "message" as news, is there really any mystery about why the MS print media are sinking? RIP NYT.

Posted by: Adams at August 3, 2007 02:14 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Modern examples:

Kenya (British)

Malaya (British)

Huks (Philippines/US)

El Salvador (El Salvador/US)

Guatemala (Guatemala/US)

The first two examples were in the context of decolonization.

The measure of success is that there is no longer an active insurgency. The methods used, legitimacy, costs, and duration of the campaigns are open to debate.

Posted by: Tom S at August 3, 2007 04:07 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The Iraqi death toll is almost certainly in the hundred thousand range by now, and you can say that without paying any attention to the Lancet studies. Iraq Body Count has the civilian death toll at 70,000 and they acknowledge this is an undercount. Throw in insurgents (the guestimate for that is in the tens of thousands) and you're well past the 100,000 mark. There was also a recent poll (early 2007) which found that 1 household out of 6 had suffered at least one casualty (dead or wounded), which again puts the death toll well past 100,000. Whether it agrees with Lancet2 is another matter--it depends on how many casualties per household and the percentage of those which were dead, and whether they caught all the casualties in the interview (which wasn't designed to be a mortality study) and so forth.

Posted by: Donald at August 3, 2007 04:44 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

" each reasonably competent foreign policy analysts. "

Judging by their records, this can't be so.

Posted by: gcochran at August 3, 2007 04:59 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

i think what djerijian was doing there was what's called "damning with faint praise..."

Posted by: observer at August 3, 2007 05:13 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Meanwhile, Dan and Tom, we have examples of the following successful or ongoing insurgencies in the post war period alone:

Israel/Palestine (no US troops, but significant involvement obviously)
Vietnam (US)
Laos (US)
Cambodia (US)
Sri Lanka
Côte d'Ivoire
Sierra Leone
Colombia (US)
Somalia (US)
Afghanistan (US)
Algeria (this may or may not be a success)
Basque Country (partially successful in that large scale devolution has taken place)
Northern Ireland (similar to above; the Provos will never succeed in the main goal, but after Queen Elizabeth dies, we will likely see further devolution in Ulster)
South Africa
Congo/Zaire/DR of Congo
Haiti (US; this insurgency or gang war or revolution is a postwar phenomenon, but has essentially been ongoing since the birth of this nation; furthermore, the US intervened numerous times during the first part of this century alone)
Cuba (US involvement)
Philippines (US; yes, there is a still a substantial insurgency in the Philippines that millions of dollars and our special forces has been incapable of crushing)

Meanwhile, in Malaya, this was not just a post colonial conflict. The British were able to end the Emergency only because a. the insurgents were Chinese in a largely Malay population and b. the Government explicitly promised to leave after the Communists were defeated. Thus, they received the support of the majority of the population. Finally, they stayed for close to a decade.

Similarly, the Philippine insurrection was ended largely by the US implicitly offering semi-autonomy and later independence. The two successful Latin American COIN were very close to the US and utilized brutal tactics.

The Mau Mau were crushed by a combination their own brutality towards the neutral population, the British promising like in Malaya to get the hell out, and the extreme brutality (concentration camps and the like) of the Metropolitan power's response. And also like Malaya, it lasted many years.

Posted by: Greg at August 3, 2007 05:17 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Echoing gcochran's observation, can you point out a handful of meaningful foreign policy analyses that O'Hanlon/Pollack have gotten right? Greenwald et al have catalogued 5 years of O'Hanlon's gross mischaracterizations of the state of affairs in Iraq before and after the invasion. He's gotten so very much wrong, I'd sincerely like to know what he's gotten right to justify his reputation.

Posted by: Sam at August 3, 2007 06:36 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


The Huks fought against the newly independent Filipino government, and were finally defeated in 1954. The US played a major role in assisting the Magsaysay government.

Posted by: Tom S at August 3, 2007 07:41 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

My son is in the army and I can tell you the enlisted men feel a resposibility for what is happening in Iraq.Alot of them fell for the idea that we wanted to bring freedom and security to that god forsaken country.They dont want to give up because for them it would be a personal failure.To see the country go down in flames and have their buddies deaths be for naught is more than many can bear.Unfortunatly the reality is such there is no way without a draft and an infusion of hundres of thousands of more troops it is lost(even then it may not be possible to "win").So dont expect the troops to loose hope, they are proud and sadly many believed the lies they were told about saddam and al queda and dont want to leave their buddies to die which is what we have done to them.

Posted by: jeaninep at August 3, 2007 09:01 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Interesting that no one has mentioned the modern counterinsurgency campaigns most directly relevant to Iraq: Saddam Hussein's efforts to crush Kurdish nationalists in the 1980s and (especially) his destruction of the Shiite uprising after the Gulf War.

There is of course a huge distance between the objectives of, and the tactics used in, Saddam's counterinsurgencies and the American campaign over the last four years. It is also the case that Saddam's counterinsurgency campaigns were largely successful, and the American counterinsurgency effort over the last several years has not been.

Surely there are lessons to be drawn from this -- not so much about counterinsurgency as an academic discipline, but about why the war in Iraq has developed the way it has. To point out only one related to objectives, it must have been clear as glass that Saddam and his government sought absolute submission from their enemies, and would punish with deadly force anything but that. Iraqis used to that approach, and not just those on the receiving end of state terror under Saddam, must have found the publicly stated American objectives in Iraq from 2003 on almost literally incomprehensible, not related to anything in their experience -- except for the Kurds, for whom the American presence delivered much of what they had always sought in their resistance to Saddam.

This incomprehension surely must have played its part in the development of the Sunni Arab insurgency and the Shiite militias.

Posted by: Zathras at August 3, 2007 09:58 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I wouldn't call the Iraqi Kurd insurgency "crushed." I also wouldn't consider the crushing of the Shia uprising after the first Gulf War a counterinsurgency campaign. The Shias rose up, attempted to seize cities and government installations, and were decisively in a matter of weeks. Thanks Genral Schwartzkopf!

Saddam was a bit more subtle than Zathras describes. He was very successful at taking advantage of splits within the Kurdish movement, and at coopting Shiites. Fealty to Saddam was rewarding, and the penalties for not doing so harsh and far-reaching.

Posted by: Tom S at August 3, 2007 10:24 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
Saddam was a bit more subtle than Zathras describes. He was very successful at taking advantage of splits within the Kurdish movement, and at coopting Shiites.

Wow! You mean actually knowing something about the political situation in the country meant that Saddam could manipulate the situation for his benefit! What a concept.

Posted by: mrjauk at August 4, 2007 04:12 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


The Huks fought against the newly independent Filipino government, and were finally defeated in 1954. The US played a major role in assisting the Magsaysay government."

Tom: I was actually referring to the original Philippine Insurrection, the one Arthur MacArthur and William H. Taft put down. I readily concede the Communist uprising was fairly well crushed, but Marcos had to face other problems related to Communist (or so he said) agitation/terrorism in the 60s and 70s.

All in all, despite over a hundred years of involvement in the Philippines, the place is still very problematic for us.

Posted by: Greg at August 4, 2007 05:14 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"So dangerous is campaigning that Álvaro Colom, the leading presidential candidate, flies in a helicopter to avoid being ambushed and travels with a physician with extensive experience in bullet wounds. He is careful what he eats, lest someone poison it. “I hate to say this, but it’s more violent now than during the war,” he said"

Speaking of the alleged situation today in Guatemala. Hell of a way to 'win' a war against the insurgency.

Posted by: jonst at August 4, 2007 12:28 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

As with all the other overly optimistic assessments made by administration apologists and pro-intervention fantasists, O'Hanlon and Pollack's GOP-cheering analysis will be ground to bits by reality in Iraq. Within a month or so, their NYT piece will have been cast aside by the relentless occurrence of new bombings, sectarian killings, infrastructure disasters, and the continuing inability of the Iraqi government to govern.

Public support for the war will continue to decline as American casualties mount. At some point another supposedly unbiased and well-connected observer will become the new O'Hanlon and Pollack, delivering an upbeat assessment pulling all the familiar talking points off the shelf. The fine men and women at FoxNews will triumphantly point to the new op-ed as proof of our continuing success and the perfidy of Democrats and bloggers who hate the troops, and the GOP will clutch it to its bosom in a desperate attempt to deny reality through force of words. Then it too, will be ground to bits by reality, and American casualties will mount further.

This cycle will repeat itself many times, unfortunately.

Posted by: bluestatedon at August 4, 2007 03:00 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Sorry, forgot to put the link in from the quote I posted.

Posted by: jonst at August 4, 2007 03:46 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

What bothers me most about Iraq at the moment is how Petraeus' policies are designed for domestic consumption in the US, but will prove disasterous for Iraq in the long term.

In the name of going after "al Qaida" (in Mesopotamia) Petraeus is now making common cause with the same people we were calling "Baathist terrorists" less than a year ago. We are providing training and support for Sunni militias that are preparing for a civil war once the US leaves -- and for what? More Whack-a-Mole?

I guess Petraeus never bothered to read the benchmarks that his military strategy is supposed to make possible -- one of those benchmarks that the Iraqi government is supposed to achieve is disarming the militias.... Petraeus, of course, is supporting Sunni militias.

Posted by: p_lukasiak at August 4, 2007 05:53 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I think O'Hanlon and Pollack had a brain fart. What are they thinking? Eight days after all this? Their analysis is so bad, I wonder if they were just trying to attract attention to themselves. It's not that they didn't see some some better morale, etc, from the few people they could have talked to in eight days, it is the way that they overstated it so much.

Greg, I think you nailed them.

Posted by: napablogger at August 5, 2007 06:13 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
Saddam Hussein's efforts to crush Kurdish nationalists in the 1980s and (especially) his destruction of the Shiite uprising after the Gulf War.

In both cases the insurgency was fought by Arabic speaking natives who had a stake in the status quo ante, not to mention the momentum of history (Sadaam was the alpha and omega of all political thought).

While we have some natives on our side, the counter-insurgency strategy, tactics and execution is dominated by an occupying force, and the "good guys" on our side are at best hopeful that Iraq will survive as in independent state. They are more likely cynical that such a dream is no more than a pipe dream, and so now it's mostly about survival.

Posted by: Derek Scruggs at August 6, 2007 01:06 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

jeaninep, I appreciate your son's service to our country and your family's sacrifice. You write "... I can tell you the enlisted men feel a resposibility for what is happening in Iraq. [ ] They dont want to give up because for them it would be a personal failure." I would like to make two points and I'll try to do so delicately, but that is not my strong suit. First, while I am certain you have an accurate impression of your son's views and perhaps his opinion of the views of the soldiers and marines he serves with, it seems unreasonable to generalize these views across 162,000 members of our armed services currently stationed in Iraq. Second, the argument that 'the soldiers want to win, can't we just let them win' is a ruse. It is a disgusting ruse that attempts to shift the onus from the policy makers to the soldiers, the military leaders and the Iraqi people. Please do not be content to allow your son to accept responsibility for our leaders mistakes.

Posted by: FGF at August 7, 2007 07:50 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I am struck by the fact that the shifting reasons for the war and its continuation is basically a propaganda exercise. In itself that is way wars are fought in the media. However, in today's circumstances, with video coverage, I wonder why there are those who faithfully report the White House or DOD spin seemingly without reservations. It takes a tough person to be be factual at the end of a trip that is provided for and managed by the DOD. Perhaps Cordesman can deal with that pressure more effectively than O'Hanlon and Pollack. As you point out their own series of writings point to the essential shallowness of their latest effusions. The timing is deliberate (I hear loud protestations!) September is a month away. They have received losts of tv coverage. Is this a coincidence or was there an organised effort to get these men on the tube? I have yet to see Cordesman interviewed.

Shades of the months leading to the Iraq war. Lots of face time for those who want another Friedman unit of six months to turn yet another corner in the Iraq maze. The wonder of it is how people fall for this every time.

Posted by: St John Stevas at August 10, 2007 03:46 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The best solution to the problem of spinning the civil war in Iraq as a "victory" may be to just launch another attack on another country instead -- that should divert the discussion...

Posted by: Haploid at August 10, 2007 03:48 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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