Doubts Raised Over Current US Strategy in Iraq
by Manuel L. Quezon III
In the immediate aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq, I had a chance to have an informal chat with an officer belonging to the US Marine Corps. He was skeptical about his comrades belonging to the US Army, due to their inexperience when it came to fighting guerrillas. He spoke highly (naturally) of the training of the US Marines. My impression was that they had recently studied an old handbook called “The Small Wars Manual,” which dated back to 1940 but was revived for use in Iraq. However the Marine did admit that trained as they were, and more used to operating in small groups, they simply didn’t have the numbers to become the dominant service in the American occupation.
The term “small wars” seems to date to a book published at the turn of the last century by a British general named C.E. Callwell, who examined the British experience in colonial adventures such as the Zulu and Afghan Wars, and the Indian Mutiny, together with relevant examples from the colonial subjugation of peoples: the French in Indochina, and the Americans and their wars against the American Indians. The American military manual with a similar name added the American experience in fighting Muslims in the Mindanao and Christians in the Visayas and Luzon in the Philippines. One could say that with their own research harking back to the writings of a British general, the US Marines are in a better position to appreciate successful insurgency-fighting than the other American services. After all, the British have had a good record, with their successful efforts in Malaya (today’s Malaysia) in the 1950s and in Northern Ireland over the past few decades.
In fact, historian Max Boot seized on the concept of small wars to write his “The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power,” which praised the US Marine Corps and argued the United States has a long tradition of intervention in all sorts of unlikely places. I myself suspect the Marine I talked to read this book, too, and was influenced by it more than the manual. The book is a ringing endorsement of American adventurism and quite a few readers have gone away with the impression that it was timed not only to capitalize on interest in the Iraq War, but to endorse it.
Now comes an article in the influential journal “Foreign Affairs,” (September-October 2005 issue) by Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., which suggests that the United States needs to reexamine its tactics in Iraq. It compares and contrasts what he calls the “search-and-destroy” strategy towards fighting insurgency and the “oil-spot” strategy. The former focuses on “killing insurgents at the expense of winning hearts and minds”; the latter, on “focuses on establishing security for the population precisely for the sake of winning hearts and minds.” He says the US military tried the search-and-destroy strategy in Vietnam, where it failed, and remains dangerously prone to that discredited way of thinking, while the oil-spot strategy was successfully employed by the British in Malaya and by Filipinos against Hukbalahap communist insurgents in the Philippines in the 1950s.
Columnist David Brooks thinks the article has a great deal to recommend it. However, it challenges the thinking of US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld too much for it to be taken seriously. As Brooks puts it, adopting the oil-spot strategy “requires a heavy troop presence, not a light, lean force…it doesn’t play to our strengths… it means we have to think in the long term…A lot of the military planning has extended only as far as the next supposed tipping point: the transfer of sovereignty, the election, and so on. We’ve been rotating successful commanders back to Washington after short stints, which is like pulling Grant back home before the battle of Vicksburg. The oil-spot strategy would force us to acknowledge that this will be a long, gradual war.”
Krepinevich proposes more than merely changing the emphasis of American military tactics (which, as they’d include substantially beefing up the American military presence, establishing longer-lasting commanders, and basically admitting they’ve gotten it wrong so far, does indeed sound like a tall order as Brooks says). He believes a change in military tactics must be accompanied by a more subtle political strategy that involves a better understanding of Iraqi “tribal” politics, and the creation of allies among all the political and religious groups in Iraq, in order to create a critical mass that no single grouping could hold back or derail. Only then could a second phase begin. That phase would involve the gradual reduction of American troops, who would be replaced by trained Iraqi troops, and then finally, the adoption of phase three, the reduction of American troops to a small number, while maintaining a “security umbrella” for Iraq, which would keep the government both in power and remove the temptation for such a government to begin arming itself with “costly nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons programs.”
There’s no doubt that debate is needed among Americans as to what they really want to achieve in Iraq, and how they will accomplish their objectives. The debate requires the most careful and critical observation on the part of non-Americans. What is being debated is the strategic future of the United States not only in the Middle East, but anywhere else it may decide to intervene.