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Does the new plan for Iraq have a chance?
Posted by: McQ on Wednesday, January 17, 2007

At the risk of sounding like a "war promoter", I found this article by Donald Stoker at the "Foreign Policy" website to be very interesting. It's premise is quite simple.
Vietnam taught many Americans the wrong lesson: that determined guerrilla fighters are invincible. But history shows that insurgents rarely win, and Iraq should be no different. Now that it finally has a winning strategy, the Bush administration is in a race against time to beat the insurgency before the public’s patience finally wears out.
To me, that very succinctly puts the argument in a nutshell, assuming that the strategy is a 'winning strategy'. As I've stated previously, I think it has an outside shot at succeeding if everyone (primarily the Iraqis) do everything they should. A tall but not impossible order.

Let's look at the first part of his premise, "Vietnam taught many Americans the wrong lesson: that determined guerrilla fighters are invicible."

Says Stoker:
Myths about invincible guerrillas and insurgents are a direct result of America’s collective misunderstanding of its defeat in South Vietnam. This loss is generally credited to the brilliance and military virtues of the pajama-clad Vietcong. The Vietnamese may have been tough and persistent, but they were not brilliant. Rather, they were lucky—they faced an opponent with leaders unwilling to learn from their failures: the United States. When the Vietcong went toe-to-toe with U.S. forces in the 1968 Tet Offensive, they were decimated. When South Vietnam finally fell in 1975, it did so not to the Vietcong, but to regular units of the invading North Vietnamese Army. The Vietcong insurgency contributed greatly to the erosion of the American public’s will to fight, but so did the way that President Lyndon Johnson and the American military waged the war. It was North Vietnam’s will and American failure, not skillful use of an insurgency, that were the keys to Hanoi’s victory.
In effect, after Tet of '68, the VC were considered "combat ineffective". They'd been all but destroyed. As is the case with all guerrilla armies, they didn't stand up well against a conventional army. South Vietnam fell to the regular troops of the NVA, not the VC. And it did so on the NVA's second try after we'd refused them arms, ammunition and air support to turn back the NVA (we'd provided them these things previously and the ARVN so badly bloodied the NVA that it took the NVA two years to again train and marshall the forces necessary to successfully invade the south).

But this basic misunderstanding, as Stoker points out, sems to have grown in time to a belief that insurgents always win. Another event which adds to that myth is the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan:
Similar misunderstandings persist over the Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan, the other supposed example of guerrilla invincibility. But it was not the mujahidin’s strength that forced the Soviets to leave; it was the Soviet Union’s own economic and political weakness at home. In fact, the regime the Soviets established in Afghanistan was so formidable that it managed to survive for three years after the Red Army left.
If there are similarities between VN and Afghanistan, it is the loss of political will at home which eroded continued support for their military remaining in the field in those two countries. Something very similar is occurring now in regard to Iraq.

His second point is equally as interesting: "But history shows that insurgents rarely win, and Iraq should be no different."
Of course, history is not without genuine insurgent successes. Fidel Castro’s victory in Cuba is probably the best known, and there was the IRA’s partial triumph in 1922, as well as Algeria’s defeat of the French between 1954 and 1962. But the list of failed insurgencies is longer: Malayan Communists, Greek Communists, Filipino Huks, Nicaraguan Contras, Communists in El Salvador, Che Guevara in Bolivia, the Boers in South Africa (twice), Savimbi in Angola, and Sindero Luminoso in Peru, to name just a few. If the current U.S. administration maintains its will, establishes security in Baghdad, and succeeds in building a functioning government and army, there is no reason that the Iraqi insurgency cannot be similarly destroyed, or at least reduced to the level of terrorist thugs.
The question, of course, is why did these insurgencies fail? Stoker's answer makes some very interesting points:
Insurgencies generally fail if all they are able to do is fight an irregular war. Successful practitioners of the guerrilla art from Nathanael Greene in the American Revolution to Mao Zedong in the Chinese Civil War have insisted upon having a regular army for which their guerrilla forces served mainly as an adjunct. Insurgencies also have inherent weaknesses and disadvantages vis-à-vis an established state. They lack governmental authority, established training areas, and secure supply lines. The danger is that insurgents can create these things, if given the time to do so. And, once they have them, they are well on their way to establishing themselves as a functioning and powerful alternative to the government. If they reach this point, they can very well succeed.
As anyone who has watched events surrounding the insurgency in Iraq unfold, it is apparent that at least some of the insurgent groups are indeed attempting to transition from an irregular force to a "functioning and powerful alternative to the government." Primary among them would be the Mahdi Army of al Sadr. Key to their transition has been and is Iran. Reports of training camps for Iraqi insurgents in Iran as well as arms shipments (supply line) support this contention.

The obvious way to defeat the insurgency then is to disrupt and destroy those capabilities (President Bush's declaration that we'd be going after those "networks" addresses this point), establish the elected government as the sole authority and, as Stoker suggests, reduce the insurgents to nothing more than "terrorist thugs". The longer the government holds a cleared area (and does things to improve life within them) the more likely that terrorists and insurgents will be viewed as such.

That brings us to the present strategy (again assuming, arguendo, that everything necessary to fight the insurgents will be present when needed):
That’s why the real question in Iraq is not whether the insurgency can be defeated—it can be. The real question is whether the United States might have already missed its chance to snuff it out. The United States has failed to provide internal security for the Iraqi populace. The result is a climate of fear and insecurity in areas of the country overrun by insurgents, particularly in Baghdad. This undermines confidence in the elected Iraqi government and makes it difficult for it to assert its authority over insurgent-dominated areas. Clearing out the insurgents and reestablishing security will take time and a lot of manpower. Sectarian violence adds a bloody wrinkle. The United States and the Iraqi government have to deal with Sunni and Shia insurgencies, as well as the added complication of al Qaeda guerrillas.

But the strategy of “surging” troops could offer a rare chance for success—if the Pentagon and the White House learn from their past mistakes. Previously, the U.S. military cleared areas such as Baghdad’s notorious Haifa Street, but then failed to follow up with security. So the insurgents simply returned to create havoc. As for the White House, it has so far failed to convince the Iraqi government to remove elements that undermine its authority, such as the Mahdi Army. Bush’s recent speech on Iraq included admissions of these failures, providing some hope that they might not be repeated.
The two sentences in bold type are the key. Have we indeed missed the window of opportunity to snuff this thing out? That's an unknown. But our ability to pursue it and find out will depend on two very important things: the will of the American and Iraqi people. Not just one or the other, but both. On the Iraqi side, they must stand up and fight for their country and it's security. On the American side, despite the argument about a war of choice (which is now moot) and the desire not to be there to begin with (we are), Americans have to make it clear to the Iraqis that if they will indeed stand up and fight, we're willing to fight with them. Obviously the opposite is true as well. If the Iraqis refuse, then I see no alternative but to call it a war and get our troops out of there as quickly and safely as possible.

We all know that. But here's the real test of will. Suppose the Iraqis do stand up and fight and do make a valiant attempt to take back their country from the insurgents. Are we aware of what that entails and what it may demand from us in the future?

Have we learned from out past mistakes? That too is an unknown, but if this plan is any indication, I'd tentatively answer "yes". Of course plans are plans and execution will tell the tale, but the plan seems to understand why we've not succeeded to date and what we have to do to change that.
Combating an insurgency typically requires 8 to 11 years. But the administration has done such a poor job of managing U.S. public opinion, to say nothing of the war itself, that it has exhausted many of its reservoirs of support. One tragedy of the Iraq war may be that the administration’s new strategy came too late to avert a rare, decisive insurgent victory.
That is the ever looming danger. There is no question in any fair observers mind that mistakes have been made in the management of post-war Iraq. The danger is, given the popular belief that insurgencies always succeed coupled with the culture of "instant gratification" which characterizes the American culture to some extent, the real danger in all of this is that it is America, not Iraq, which will lose heart and abandon Iraq just when there is finally a real possibility for success.

If that happens, blame for failure in Iraq could fall on all sorts of people and institutions depending on how the politics of the crisis are handled here at home in the present and future. But far and away, the bulk of it will fall on the Bush administration's inept handling of the crisis to this point, and properly so.

But as Stoker points out, this new plan, at least as a plan, has a shot at success as it provides, militarily, the proper assets to address the problem. I'm becoming more and more convinced that it should be given enough time to develop a real basis for further assessment as to its probability of succeeding, even though, initially I was dead set against the US fighting a counterinsurgency battle. Stoker's points are good points.

The first key to success will be found in the Iraqis. If they step up, then it should work. And we should be able to tell if they're going to do that in relatively short order (within 6 months). If they do, then the US must commit to seeing the fight through. If we don't we'll be party to a bigger foreign policy disaster than was ever Viet Nam. And, as almost a self-fulfilling prophesy, we'll reinforce the myth that insurgencies are invulnerable. We've got to understand this is a long war. That doesn't mean we'll be in Iraq in the numbers we now are for 8-10 years, but it does mean that we'll be there in these numbers for at least a year or two.

The question is, if we see all the markers for success via the Iraqis, will that be enough for Americans, especially those who oppose the war, to commit to the hard and long job of seeing that country through to stability, security and peace?
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Previous Comments to this Post 

The fixation on Vietnam is just a reflection on the narcissism of the Baby Boomer generation, i.e. "the worst generation." They are fixated on Vietnam, since they are proud of how they helped the tryanical North Vietnamese overthrow and conquer a semi-democratic nation, despite a US miltary victory. Thomas Sowell wrote about this recently.

There are better models for Iraq with the Boer War and the Brit’s campaign against communists in Mayalsia:
Written By: T
URL: http://
Written By: d
URL: http://
The question is, if we see all the markers for success via the Iraqis, will that be enough for Americans, especially those who oppose the war, to commit to the hard and long job of seeing that country through to stability, security and peace?
The ones that are screaming for us to leave now? Not a chance.
Written By: Mark A. Flacy
URL: http://
The ones that are screaming for us to leave now? Not a chance.
And that is primarily due to the fact that they were voting against the war before the war, even as congress was voting for the war, they were against the war while we were fighting Saddams army into non-existance, (you know the ones screaming quagmire in the 2nd week of the short campaign.)

And they’ve been screaming, and dragging their heels ever since. Refusing to acknowledge any success, or what the results of their favored strategy would be.
Written By: Keith_Indy
The question is, if we see all the markers for success via the Iraqis, will that be enough for Americans, especially those who oppose the war, to commit to the hard and long job of seeing that country through to stability, security and peace?
Absolutely not. We’re already being told this strategy is a failure and will be a failure.

Written By: shark
URL: http://
The problem in Iraq is less the insurgents, and more the sectarian violence. The militias, including pro-government Shi’ite militias are a bigger problem (al Sadr’s support allowed Maliki to get his job). Moreover, these militias (as well as insurgents) have infiltrated every level of Iraqi government, police and military. Nothing that happens is a surprise, there are few if any secrets. I suspect what’s happening is that: a) a deal between al Sadr and Maliki will get the Mahdi army to lay low, and allow the Iraqi military to claim they control Sadr city and Shi’ite regions (though al Sadr and Maliki will be happy to take on the elements of the Mahdi army that have broke away from Sadr’s control); b) US action will be primarily against Sunni insurgents or ’al qaeda in Iraq’, something welcomed by Maliki and al Sadr; and c) the result will be an opportunity for the US to declare success by late 2007 and start withdrawal.

Maliki knows that the Iraqi government lacks legitimacy as long as the US is there, and I think he is confident that with the help of Shi’ite militias he can handle the Sunni insurgency even with the US gone. The question is whether or not this turns into a wider and long lasting civil war with sectarian violence and militia activity rising again in 2008, or if Maliki can find a way to blend the Shi’ite militias into Iraq’s military and cut a deal with the Sunnis.

There is little the US can do to shape the outcome; the Sunni insurgents can’t defeat the Shi’ite majority, and the Shi’ite majority is not going to create a pro-American western style democracy. The best the US can do is create a situation where decreased violence and perhaps some military successes allow us to leave without appearing defeated: a ’peace with honor’ moment, as Richard Nixon might say.
Written By: Scott Erb
Reading that article was a complete and total waste of time. I have learned that insurgencies sometimes succeed, and sometimes they don’t. Brilliant. How on earth did this ’journalist’ get his job??
Written By: MinorRipper
URL: http://
What Scott Erb said, because the Shia political parties and religious establishment and clans are "a functioning and powerful alternative to the government". The Shia were excluded from power under Saddam and established their networks in resistance to this.

The best that can be achieved is that the democratically elected Shia government mitigates the problem of the Sunni insurgency and reaches accomodation with the Kurds, Turks, etc. To ask them to remove the religiously based Shia institutions that exist in parallel is to ask them the shoot their cousins, it will not happen.

Also as shark says the American Left makes out "this strategy is a failure and will be a failure". The Iraqi Shia government is not able to count on the longterm support of America and will likely need to defend their country against foriegn aggression if America withdraws prematurely. To defend themselves will require allies and only Iran looks immediately promising. They can ill afford to alienate Iran, because America will likely flee the scene.
Written By: unaha-closp

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