News from the Front: America’s military has mastered 4GW!

Part II of a Series

By Fabius Maximus
Archive of Commentaries

September 2, 2007

Every war has its surprises. The major experts on 4GW have so far accurately forecast the nature and trends of the Iraq War, but recent developments have disproved one of their most important beliefs: that America’s government, especially its military, would be unable to master 4GW.

This is important news! I too believed it almost impossible, but recent operations have demonstrated that our senior political and military leaders have mastered the intricacies of their target’s culture, manipulating both old and new information media to shape the war’s outcome.

This is bad news, as the target of these operations is us, the American people. The goal: to deceive the American public in order to maintain support so that the Iraq War can continue.

They’ve succeeded, beyond what most critics of the war imagined possible. Polls show increased public support for the war. Pro-war geo-political and military experts exult at our success. Mainstream Democratic Presidential candidates grow even vaguer about their withdrawal plans.

As usual in 4GW, the methods by which this was achieved are not new. Our government’s actions display many of the classic elements of agitprop, skillfully applied.

You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.

Abraham Lincoln, attribution uncertain

I. Capturing the popular imagination with an attractive narrative

He (General Petraeus) lays out a model: "The Re-Liberation of Iraq," this time from a new wave of oppressors, the terrorists, insurgents and militias.

Ralph Peters interviews General Petraeus, NY Post (August 22, 2007)

Everybody loves a hero. No victory narrative compels belief without one. For the surge we have General Petraeus, the intellectual-warrior. Playing a role similar to that of General Maxwell Taylor in Vietnam, his participation builds confidence. Both accomplished soldiers, although Petraeus’ record in Iraq is largely PR spin by comparison with Taylor’s in WWII and Korea (a matter of opportunity, perhaps, not relative skill). Both brilliant, articulate leaders, the presence of such men gives a high gloss to failing strategies.

Also important is the deus ex machina, a standard Hollywood plot device to snatch victory from defeat in the last reel. For the Iraq War we have the “surge.” Unfortunately, there is no meaningful surge to the number of coalition troops in Iraq, which has been more-or-less stable since the end of 2004. See this graph (16 KB PDF), showing that current Coalition strength is only slightly above the average for the past 4+ years, since troop levels stabilized in Spring 2004. The increased number of US troops has been offset by departure of allied forces.

II.  Disinformation

Our government has used its influence with the mainstream media and pro-war private institutions to make repeated claims of success. This forces the war’s opponents to expend resources to research and correct these claims. Not only does this place the opposition in a reactive/defensive mode, but also refutation of official claims made through the major media is difficult to accomplish.

These include claims of reduced casualties or insurgent activity in certain places during varying time periods, often describing only certain classes of casualties or activities. Of course Coalition troops can stabilize small areas of Iraq. This ignores the larger picture: the rivers of blood still spilling each day, the general anarchy affecting much of Iraq outside of Kurdistan, and – most importantly -- the irrelevance of these tactical claims to the political objectives that are not only the keys to defeating an insurgency, but also our strategic goals of the war.

For instance, there are claims that the “Surge” of US troops has resulted in lower fatalities of our troops. There is no slowing, however, to the long-term increase of monthly Coalition deaths. The short time record (only 53 months) makes reliable analysis difficult, but as of July the long-term moving averages were all near or at record highs. The strong seasonality of insurgent activity -- troughs in February and July, peaks in April and November -- makes drawing short-term conclusions difficult. Hence the typical spring – summer decline in deaths, an obvious weather-related effect now masquerading as a result of the “Surge.”

The data for Iraq civilian casualties is of far lower quality and more “noisy”. It appears to have similar seasonal characteristics and, adjusted for this, shows little evidence of declining since the “Surge” began. The numbers are roughly flat on a year-over-year basis, similar to those of last summer.

However important to the casualties and their families (no matter if Iraqi or Coalition), these numbers are ephemera to the fate of the Iraq State. More important are the millions of displaced people in Iraq and more millions of exiles from Iraq. These are the numbers that count, the ethnic building a new polity for Iraq. It’s the difficult path to a new Iraq. Perhaps it was always the only path.

Either way, these statistics are not ones for which we will claim responsibility – either in victory or defeat.

III.  The ever-useful Potemkin Village

There is no “Iraq Army.” There are many units loyal to specific ethnic, regional, or religious groups – including some loyal (at least for now) to the Coalition. But few are loyal to the Iraq government.

The claim that we are increasingly in control of the battlefields in Iraq is an assessment arrived at through a flawed, American-centered framework. … What soldiers call the “battle space” remains the same, with changes only at the margins. It is crowded with actors who do not fit neatly into boxes: Sunni extremists, Al Qaeda terrorists, Shiite militiamen, criminals and armed tribes. This situation is made more complex by the questionable loyalties and Janus-faced role of the Iraqi police and Iraqi Army, which have been trained and armed at United States taxpayers’ expense.

…Reports that a majority of Iraqi Army commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric. The truth is that battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their militias.

Similarly, Sunnis, who have been underrepresented in the new Iraqi armed forces, now find themselves forming militias, sometimes with our tacit support. Sunnis recognize that the best guarantee they may have against Shiite militias and the Shiite-dominated government is to form their own armed bands.

“The War as We Saw It”, Op-ed by 7 US soldiers in Iraq, New York Times, August 19, 2007)

That this confusion continues, despite dozens or perhaps hundreds of articles explaining the falsity of these claims, casts doubt on our ability to recognize reality – let alone analyze and cope with it.

There is no “Iraq government.” See my earlier article for details. Even the shell of pretend government has fractured during the past few months, as key elements leave “ruling” coalition. What little credibility it has diminishes each time American leaders hector, threaten, and now – worse of all – alluding to coups. All advertise to the Iraq people that we too consider it no more than a puppet regime.

IV.  Control of the narrative.

Our primary goal in Iraq was to rebuild a strong and stable central government, preventing either a failed state (breeding ground for Islamic terrorists) or a satellite of Iran (making Iran the hegemon of the Middle East). Fragmentation of Iraq represents failure, making both these dangers more likely.

Here we see near-genius at work. Actual defeat, failure to achieve important strategic objectives, becomes victory in the eyes of the American public.

First we have the turn-over of security operations in the Kurdish provinces from Coalition to Iraq Forces. Here is Peter W. Galbraith describing it:

On May 30, the Coalition held a ceremony in the Kurdistan town of Erbil to mark its handover of security in Iraq's three Kurdish provinces from the Coalition to the Iraqi government. General Benjamin Mixon, the US commander for northern Iraq, praised the Iraqi government for overseeing all aspects of the handover. And he drew attention to the "benchmark" now achieved: with the handover, he said, Iraqis now controlled security in seven of Iraq's eighteen provinces.

In fact, nothing was handed over. The only Coalition force in Kurdistan is the peshmerga, a disciplined army that fought alongside the Americans in the 2003 campaign to oust Saddam Hussein and is loyal to the Kurdistan government in Erbil. The peshmerga provided security in the three Kurdish provinces before the handover and after. The Iraqi army has not been on Kurdistan's territory since 1996 and is effectively prohibited from being there. Nor did the Iraqi flag fly at the ceremony. It is banned in Kurdistan.

Although the Erbil handover was a sham that Prince Potemkin might have admired, it was not easily arranged …

“Iraq: The Way to Go”, New York Review of Books (August 16, 2007)

Second, there is the much-touted conflict between Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and foreign al Qaeda-allied forces. To support the defeat of al Qaeda, we’ve armed the locals. This is perhaps a blow to a Qaeda, but even more so to our goal of a stable Iraq state. At first glance, this may seem an odd conclusion because fighting al Qaeda does make them less dedicated opponents of the government.

Amidst the applause, one question remains unanswered – except by guesses: why the conflict now? The Shiite Arab – Sunni Arab mutual slaughter continues with unabated fury, suggesting that the methods and violence of al Qaeda are not inherently unacceptable to the locals.

Most likely the locals no longer need al Qaeda, and therefore have become unwilling to share power. Arming the locals just continues our mad policy of supporting all sides in what is obviously a civil war.

Third, internecine warfare continues throughout much of Iraq. As local elites regain control of areas like Anbar province, conflicts intensify in other areas – where control remains up for grabs. Like Kirkuk, as the days tick off until the November constitutionally-mandated referendum to determine its status.

Like Basra. The precipitous departure of UK forces from Basra leaves control of this vital oil-export center in the hands of quarreling Shiite militia. Although there were attempts to portray this as progress, events proved beyond the spin-masters’ control.

The central Iraq government has almost no presence in Basra, one of the most economically important areas of Iraq. This is particularly disturbing because if the Shi’ite-dominated government cannot exercise influence over Shi’ite-dominated Basra, what can it control? The UK’s handling of Basra was promoted as a model demonstration of COIN theory, mastered by the UK army during its long years in Northern Ireland.

"I regret to say that the Basra experience is set to become a major blunder in terms of military history," Mr [Stephen] Biddle was quoted as saying. "The insurgents are calling the shots … and in a worst-case scenario will chase us out of town."

"The short version is that the Brits have lost Basra, if indeed they ever had it … They did not have enough troops there even before they started cutting back. The situation is beyond their control." The officer warned of "a stink about this that will hang around the British military".

“British military sparks US fears of losing Basra”, Sydney Morning Herald (August 20, 2007)


Iraq is fragmenting. Local and regional elites are consolidating power by both military and political means, often after extensive ethnic cleansing. Their victories bring peace to these areas. In most areas Coalition forces were irrelevant to this process; in some cases we helped; in many areas we overlaid another level of violence on an inherently painful and brutal process.

As described in my March 13 paper, “The Iraq insurgency has ended, which opens a path to peace”, this fragmentation has long been Iraq’s only hope. On the whole it’s happened despite our efforts. That we take credit for the resulting “peace” is delusional.

It’s too soon to say what the result will be. Will Turkey and Kurdistan become enemies, escalating their long-standing enmity? Will Iran dominate Shiite-governed southern zone? Will the contested zones find some governing arrangement, or fight and bleed until one side wins and others flee? Can the northern oil revenue be peacefully divided?

A fragmented but peaceful Iraq might be the best realistic outcome for the war, however bleak compared with the price we paid. The trillion or so expended, including future costs and interest. And the thousands of Coalition dead. That’s why it is called “losing.”

We have no vision to guide Iraq. We support the “Iraq government”, almost powerless and still fading. We’re arming various sides in this civil war. We take credit for good developments but assume no responsibility for the bad. Our primary policy goal is an oil law allowing exploitation of Iraq oil by western companies, while other oil exports move in the opposite direction – rejecting foreign ownership, hiring necessary technical support on a fee-for-service basis.

Lessons Learned From This Surge of Disinformation

1. Vietnam War, Mark II.

The Iraq War continues to follow many patterns of the Vietnam War. Specifically, we see that our elites respond to bad news – of the kind found in most 4GW wars against foreign occupiers – by manipulating US public opinion in order to continue the war. They do so without attempting to diagnose our strategic and tactical errors, hoping that time alone will bring victory – not broader and deeper defeat.

2. The home court advantage again proves decisive in 4GW.

Our government’s ability to understand and manipulate public opinion in Iraq has proven to be minimal, but it does so with grace and skill at home. So it always goes in 4GW. The closer to home, the more effective are one’s operations. Insurgents often lose to fellow locals or to “neighbors” with long familiarity with the locals. Foreign occupiers almost always get kicked out.

Inability to see this simple relationship is the most common barrier to comprehending 4GW, even for experts. Why is this so difficult to accept, despite its pervasiveness in the historical record since Mao brought 4GW theory to maturity? Understanding this might help us reform America’s dysfunctional military and diplomatic apparatus.

3. Our OODA loop is broken.

This paper describes one example of a general and important phenomenon: America’s Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action loop no longer works properly. We cannot clearly see, understand, adapt, and move. Not just the government’s bureaucratic machinery, but our collective ability to do these things has degenerated over the past few generations. The basic cause, as it always is under such circumstances, is that our orientation has become locked and is not changing in response to changes in the situation.

Our elites appear dysfunctional in their preference for manipulating domestic public opinion over regaining traction in Iraq. We, the people, appear dysfunctional in our willingness to accept the nonsense fed to us and continue an obviously losing war. What a horrible combination.

Fortunately foreign policy experts are not so easily deceived.

Surveying more than 100 of America’s top foreign-policy experts — Republicans and Democrats alike — the FOREIGN POLICY/Center for American Progress Terrorism Index is the only comprehensive, nonpartisan effort to mine the highest echelons of the nation’s foreign-policy establishment for its assessment of how the United States is fighting the war on terror.

(Is Petraeus’s plan working?)

The index’s experts don’t think so. More than half say the surge is having a negative impact on U.S. national security, up 22 percentage points from just six months ago. This sentiment was shared across party lines, with {even} 64% of conservative experts saying the surge is having either a negative impact or no impact at all

The Terrorism Index “, Foreign Policy (September/October 2007)

Stratfor strikes a similar note.

A new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq was issued Thursday. It made grim reading. It asserted that "Iraqi political leaders remain unable to govern effectively," and said that this is unlikely to change in the future. It did say that there had been measurable improvements in security, but that these were uneven and that they had not curtailed the general ability of insurgents to carry out attacks.

… All three choices staying the course, slow withdrawal, quick withdrawal seem either to be unworkable or to have unacceptable consequences …the NIE report, which makes it clear that the current strategy has failed, obviously raises the question of what is to be done.

“Rethinking the Mission in Iraq”, Stratfor (August 24, 2007)

Translation: “unacceptable consequences” means defeat that we as yet refuse to recognize.


General Petraeus shows us the path home

Instead of backing mammoth, hyper-expensive construction projects designed in Washington, our new approach prods Iraqis to fix their existing infrastructure. Iraq's utilities won't be state-of-the-art, but they're beginning to work again: Iraqi solutions for Iraqi problems. Sounds like a no-brainer, but it took a profound change of mindset for us to get there.

Ralph Peters interview with General Petraeus, ibid

We spent billions attempting to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure, and much of it is worse than when we invaded. The General shifts this responsibility to the Iraqis, and rightly so. If they want electricity, clean water, and sewage treatment … they’ll have to make it happen.

Once we apply this insight to security, our troops will be on their way home.

“Iraqi solutions for Iraqi problems.”

General Petraeus is on his way to mastering 4GW.



Are the things reported here good or bad? Please consult a priest or philosopher for answers to such questions. This author only discusses what was, what is, and what might be.

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Who was Fabius Maximus?

Fabius Maximus was the Roman leader who saved Rome from Hannibal by recognizing its weakness and therefore the need to conserve its strength. He turned from the easy path of macho “boldness” to the long, difficult task of rebuilding Rome’s power and greatness. His life holds profound lessons for 21st Century America.

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