Looking out from the Forest of Iraq

By William Christie

August 8, 2005


Strategy, like politics, is all about recognizing the art of the possible. And the time has certainly come for a very realistic look at the strategic possibilities in Iraq.

Much of what’s been written lately discusses organizing and training the U.S. discusses organizing and training the U.S. military to wage 4th Generation Warfare and the particular tactics of 4th Generation Warfare. While these are always fun to read, they have nothing to do with our strategic options in Iraq, particularly now when the Bush Administration is giving every sign that it intends to begin backing toward the exits.

So rather than recap mistakes and imagine courses of action that aren’t going to happen, let’s take a step back and try to see the forest through the trees.

The actual reasons behind the decision to invade Iraq will be the subject of debate for many years. But we need to start with what should have been the strategic rationale:

  1. To prevent Iraq from developing or acquiring nuclear weapons.

  2. To prevent Iraq from invading or otherwise threatening its neighbors on a strategic level. Goal #1 had to be achieved in order to achieve Goal #2,

  3. To end the reign of Saddam Hussein, without which Goals #1 and #2 couldn’t be achieved.

I think we can safely say that the establishment of a working democracy in Iraq was the sort of goal that delights certain academics but leaves strategists cold. But this is exactly the sort of rationale politicians love to trumpet when making the case for their chosen course of action.

Seen from this perspective, all our original strategic goals have been achieved. In doing so, however, we’ve opened the Pandora’s Box of 4th Generation Warfare: sectarian conflict, transnational terrorism, and potential civil war. You might say that in achieving our initial strategic goals, we also achieved the strategic goals of Iran and al-Qa'ida. And with all (make no mistake) of the U.S. military tied up in Iraq, we're aiding the strategic goals of North Korea and China also.

But that toothpaste is out of the tube, and it’s not going back in. The facts on the ground are

You’ll find no better recipe for civil war.

And what about our ability to prevent it?

By now it’s clear that the U.S. military doesn’t have enough troops to do more than superficially contain the situation. There will never be Combined Action infantry platoons living in Iraqi towns, no matter how fine an idea that might be. The very fact that our troops have a choice of three desserts with every meal and staff officers working from air conditioned offices means there will continue to be huge bases that will continue to be suicide bomber and insurgent mortar magnets, and trucks will continue to be blown up on the roads in order to supply them. And the sheer number of support troops required means there will never be enough infantry to fight 4th Generation War. And what there is will be speeding from one brushfire to the next.

The U.S. military is not going to reorganize to fight 4th Generation War. Except for a few minor stylistic flourishes, what you see is what you get. Just as in Vietnam there was always the Red Army to be countered, so there will always be North Korea or China. Victory or defeat, there will never be any institutional imperative within the U.S. military to break all the existing organizational rice bowls. The “Strategic Corporal” will always be a 19-20 year old American, brave as a lion, who won’t be spending a solid year learning 4th Generation War fighting skills. He’ll be rushed through training, sent off to his always undermanned unit, and forced to learn on the job—or the battlefield.

Oh, there will be local successes, as there were in Vietnam. But the troops responsible will rotate out, and from a strategic standpoint their hard-won achievements will be meaningless.

We may be able to construct an Iraqi Army, but by necessity it will be a mirror image of the Iraqi Army we defeated in two wars, an army with no credible NCO corps, lackluster and corrupt leadership, and chaotic and corrupt logistics. The only new twist is that it’s now riddled with insurgent sympathizers. To build something new would take a generation and patience we don’t have. Our presence in Iraq will be strategically over one way or another long before then.

The Iraqi Army is really a Kurdish and Shia army, drawn from the various sectarian militias. The Kurds control the North, and the British have essentially turned the Basra area over to the various Shia militias, for the sake of peace and quiet, not to mention low casualties. The insurgency is predominantly Sunni. The tit for tat killings of Shia and Sunni leaders and clergy have become so regular that they’re no longer newsworthy, and any honest U.S. military officer will tell you that the civil war has been underway for quite some time.

Yes, we’ve heard all this before. But my point is that, when seen from the strategic level, the situation is not necessarily a disaster for the United States.

The question everyone is struggling with is: how do you fight, let alone win, 4th Generation War in Iraq?

History says:

Neither of these is an option for us in Iraq—at least now. And an insurgency that evolves in capability with experience, has no hierarchical structure and no centralized command, control, or even goals is quite possibly unkillable, no matter how many of its operatives we kill.

But I feel there’s another option. In his very useful book, The Sword and the Olive: A Critical History of the Israeli Defense Force, Martin Van Creveld briefly mentions Syria’s role in the Lebanese civil war. I quote: “The story of subsequent Syrian involvement is immensely complicated; suffice it to say they allied now with one side, then with another, taking on militia after militia and invariably defeating them in short, sharp encounters. How they managed this without falling apart, as would virtually every other army caught in a similar situation since 1945, has never been properly studied.”

No one is suggesting that the Unites States as a democracy can or should match the ruthlessness and cynicism of the Syrian dictatorship. But I believe that within Van Creveld’s two sentences is the germ of the strategic solution to America’s 4th Generation War in Iraq.

The way to win 4th Generation War is to let someone else fight the 4th Generation War for you. Preferably someone who is not only extremely eager to fight, but would do so anyway without your encouragement or support.

What do I mean? Let’s look at exit strategy from Iraq. Not what ought to happen—what’s going to happen. Understand, this isn’t about embarking on some new course—it’s about managing the inevitable.

The U.S. military will begin troop withdrawals sooner or later. The only common philosophy or objective among all the various groups of insurgents in Iraq is the removal of the U.S. from the country. So it stands to reason that attacks will not cease no matter how low our numbers go. But with fewer troops to put out the brushfires, the remainder are going to be base-bound and preoccupied with providing their own security.

If the insurgents do cut back on their tempo, we’ll boast about the success of the Iraqi Army and Police in establishing security. But of course we’ll be wrong. The insurgents will be waiting to see what happens, and gathering strength. There is money and future power at stake.

Unfortunately, one of three things is going to happen:

And the full-blown civil war that Iraqis have been waiting to have for the last 35 years will begin in earnest.

This will not be pleasant for the Iraqi people. But Americans always forget one thing: despite the countless mistakes the United States has made and continues to make in Iraq, the future of Iraq has always been and always will be in the hands of the Iraqi people.

Even if I’m wrong in believing this situation is inevitable, I’d like to propose, strategically, that it ‘s not necessarily a bad thing for the United States.

Instead of the United States militarily overextended and hemorrhaging money into Iraq, after our departure this situation will become the fate of other nations, none of them our friends.

Iran of course will back the Shia—as they do now.

Syria, Saudi Arabia, and quite possibly Jordan will directly support the Sunni, with help from the rest of the Muslim world—as they do now.

Given the stakes for all sides, and their need to court world opinion, like the Lebanese civil war and the current insurgency in Iraq, this will be a war of proxies not armies. And just like Lebanon, external aid will probably ensure that the conflict continues indefinitely. If either side looks to be gaining an advantage, the other’s supporters will up the ante. As in Lebanon, and the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988, mutual exhaustion is the likely result. Which is how the fire of insurgency dies.

The Kurds are the tipping point between those two sides. A U.S. ground and air presence in the north (something on the order of our garrison in South Korea) would hopefully save the Kurds from the strategic disaster of declaring (out loud at least) independence. And also keep our Turkish allies from the strategic disaster of trying to crush them once they did.

Will an Iraq at civil war become a haven for terrorists? Of course. Iraq is already a haven for terrorists, including training camps run right under our nose. At least in the future, Special Operations Forces and Ranger battalions might be able to fly in overnight from the Kurdish region, wipe out a camp and its inhabitants, and be back by morning. And at far lower cost than driving through ambushes and roadside bombs every day.

Considering Iraqi nationalism, it wouldn’t be surprising if they turned on the foreign terrorists in their midst once we were gone. In any case, in order to maintain their position in the country, the foreign terrorists will certainly be kept busy fighting on the Sunni side of the Iraqi civil war. They will not be fighting us.

Will the Iraqi government survive? In most parts of the world, government survival is a Darwinian process. The fittest survive. If the current Iraqi government does not, our strategic situation really hasn’t changed.

Won’t this destabilize the region? In case anyone hasn’t noticed, the region is far from stable. If Syria and Iran are destabilized by this conflict, all well and good. And as a bonus their citizens may see this as a consequence of their own governments’ actions, not ours—in keeping with 4th Generation strategy. Jordan will reap the results of its own decisions.

What about the supply of oil? There is minimal oil coming out of Iraq now. The Kurdish strategic goal, with or without our support, is to take over the oil production of northern Iraq. And where there’s oil production, pipelines are built. Even with ruined infrastructure, financial necessity may mean more smuggled Iraqi oil than is currently being produced. If they have to finance a civil war, Saudi Arabia and Iran will both be forced to pump oil.

Then what about Saudi Arabia? The U.S./Saudi relationship has always been an exchange of security for oil. No other nation can guarantee Saudi external security, and no other nation has the production capacity to supply the amount of crude oil we require. That’s not likely to change in the short term. But we have as little influence over (not to mention solid knowledge about) events inside the Saudi kingdom as we did in Iran prior to the fall of the Shah. Even before the invasion of Iraq, the long term survival of the House of Saud was open to question. The hostility of Venezuela and Russia, the long term energy needs of China, and the current rate of U.S. energy consumption are separate strategic questions, all much more important than Iraq, that we don’t seem to want to address. But nothing focuses the mind like necessity.

The bottom line is that as much as we’d like to pretend otherwise, the United States will have as much (meaning as little) control over post-Iraq events as we do today over an Iraq into which we’ve poured all of our power. Events will run their course, regardless of the Bush Administration’s prestige.

We think we’re looking into the abyss now, but it’s worth considering that thirty years after Operation Frequent Wind and the fall of Saigon, after the expenditure of enormous amounts of blood and treasure and equally uncountable mistakes, the United States of America ended up as the strategic victor in Vietnam.

William Christie is a former Marine Corps infantry officer who left the Corps as a First Lieutenant in 1987. He is the author of 5 novels, including most recently The Blood We Shed, currently in hardcover from ibooks. And Threat Level, which will be published in October by Pinnacle Books/Kensington Press. He can be reached at .

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