Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
The CENTCOM commander urged senators to see things in a wider perspective. The enemy that U.S. forces were fighting in Iraq was also present “in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and in Lebanon,” he said. “You name the location in the region and they exist there.” He continued:
People say the war started on September 11, 2001, but you can make a case for the war having started in October 1983 when Hezbollah destroyed the Marine barracks and killed over 200 American marines that were stationed there. You could say the war played itself out to a certain extent at a lower level in Somalia, where we stayed there for a short period of time and then left. You could say that throwing a few Tomahawk land attack missiles (TLAMs) at this enemy created the circumstances by which we had to end up facing this enemy with greater force and greater perseverance and greater patience and courage than we had been able to muster before then.
In the face of this proliferating threat, the immediate challenges facing the United States were threefold, Abizaid believed: first, to “defeat Al Qaeda and its associated movements”; second, to “deter Iranian designs for regional hegemony”; and third, to “find a comprehensive solution to the corrosive Arab-Israeli conflict.” Arguing that Iraq “sits at the center of the broader regional problem,” Abizaid clung to the proposition that fixing that country was a prerequisite to fixing the rest of the Greater Middle East. Notably, however, he no longer claimed that the armed might of the United States would suffice to restore stability to the country that had become the focal point of U.S. military attention. Ultimately, Iraqis would decide whether Iraq would continue to exist. On that score, Abizaid professed optimism since “there are still many more people in Iraq trying to hold that country together than there are trying to tear it apart.”
Yet his rote expressions of can-do spirit notwithstanding, Abizaid in effect conceded that Iraq was merely a subset of a much larger constellation of issues. The Iraq problem was one among many in the Greater Middle East. The CENTCOM commander’s testimony offered a made-to-order opportunity to reexamine the actual utility of military power in attempting to repair that region and to consider whether previous U.S. military actions may actually have exacerbated problems there. Here, in short, was an opportunity to reassess strategy. Narrowly preoccupied with Iraq, senators allowed that opportunity to pass unnoticed.
Ultimately, the assurances offered by senior military professionals that things were “broadly on track” proved unavailing. Events in Iraq told a different story. During 2005 and 2006, milestones came and went—elections and referendums yielding a constitution and a new government—without having any noticeable impact on the insurgency. Timelines slipped. Evidence that Iraq had indeed become a quagmire piled up.
On all sides, the mournful toll of casualties continued to mount. By the end of 2006, cumulative American fatalities in Iraq were approaching the total number of all those killed on 9/11. By that time more than twenty-two thousand U.S. troops had been wounded. Meanwhile, “terrorist” attacks in Iraq, primarily employing IEDs, kept increasing in number and lethality. Although coalition forces reported killing or capturing enemy fighters in impressive numbers, armed resistance showed no signs of slackening.
If anything, in the aggregate, it continued to gain strength.
Building effective Iraqi security forces, like building effective Iraqi political institutions, too often saw two steps forward followed by three steps back.
In contrast to all previous campaigns in America’s War for the Greater Middle East, Operation Iraqi Freedom (along with its neglected Afghan cousin, Operation Enduring Freedom) found U.S. forces caught in the very predicament that military leaders after Vietnam had sworn to avoid: a protracted conflict with little prospect of clear-cut victory at the far end and yet with no apparent way to call it quits without admitting failure. Tactical successes achieved in prior operations such as Praying Mantis, Desert Storm, Determined Force, and Allied Force had sufficed to create a simulacrum of actual victory. As the triumphal march on Baghdad receded into the past, with weeks of fighting turning into months and months into years, the challenge of spinning Iraqi Freedom as a successful enterprise grew proportionally.
So too did the sunk costs. These cumulative costs, whether measured in blood or treasure or credibility, seemingly removed the option of cutting U.S. losses and heading for home. Carter had chosen that course after the abortive Iran hostage rescue mission. So too had Reagan after the Beirut bombing and Clinton after the Mogadishu firefight. This time there was no easy way out. Not without reason, America’s armed forces were reputed to be the most formidable the world had ever seen. Yet reputations depend on circumstance. In Iraq, circumstances exposed the limitations of a military once thought to be invincible.
On February 22, 2006, the Third Gulf War did reach a turning point of sorts. On that date, terrorists blew up the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra. The destruction of this site, sacred to Shiites, triggered a spasm of what
The New York Times
called “sectarian fury.” Iraq now teetered on the brink of civil war, as “mobs formed across Iraq to chant for revenge.”
Shiites bent on retribution attacked dozens of Sunni mosques and assassinated Sunni imams. The upshot, as Casey noted with considerable understatement, was “a far more complex environment than we had previously dealt with.” As a direct result of the Samarra bombing, he concluded, “the fundamental nature of the conflict had changed from an insurgency against the coalition to a struggle among Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian groups for political and economic power in Iraq”—with coalition forces caught in the middle.
If not already a failed state, Iraq was precariously close to becoming one. By October, according to a classified briefing prepared by CENTCOM’s intelligence directorate, violence was “at an all-time high [and] spreading geographically.” On its color-coded “Index of Civil Conflict,” ranging from green (peace) to scarlet (chaos), CENTCOM rated the situation in Iraq as well into the red portion of the spectrum.
American policymakers had not anticipated this situation, to put it mildly. Yet the spike in sectarian fighting within Iraq had implications extending well beyond the boundaries of that country: Iran was now playing a covert but increasingly prominent role in supporting Shia extremists. To put it another way, a war begun with the expectations of putting the United States in the driver’s seat now found Washington in the back seat. In a turn of events rich with irony, the initiative now redounded to Iran.
Recall that in the First Gulf War of 1980–1988, with Iran and Iraq vying for regional primacy, the United States had tilted in Baghdad’s favor to prevent Tehran from coming out on top. In the Second Gulf War of 1990–1991, the United States had acted to frustrate Saddam Hussein’s own hegemonic aspirations. At the outset of the Third Gulf War, under the guise of advancing President Bush’s Freedom Agenda, the United States had made its own bid for regional hegemony. With U.S. forces unable to make good on Bush’s promise to pacify Iraq and transform it politically, Iran was now emerging as the principal beneficiary of American overreach. The sequence of U.S. interventionism in the Persian Gulf, initiated with an eye toward curbing Iranian power, was now producing precisely the inverse effect.
Back home Bush’s (or Rumsfeld’s) War had become increasingly unpopular and the administration’s “light at the end of the tunnel” assurances less and less persuasive. The off-year elections of November 2006 served as a referendum of sorts on a conflict now approaching its fourth anniversary. Voters intent on punishing Bush handed Democrats control of both houses of Congress. The president himself got the message. Within a day, he dismissed his secretary of defense, a tacit admission that the war had gone awry. The caustic, confident man once known as “Rumstud,” celebrated in his heyday as “a virtual rock star” and “babe magnet,” had long since become a political liability.
Few shed tears over his departure. Rare bipartisan applause greeted Bush’s decision to appoint Robert Gates, a seasoned national security hand, as the next defense secretary.
Yet the election also rendered a judgment on General Casey’s stewardship in Baghdad. Called upon to salvage Bush’s post-9/11 strategy of transforming the Greater Middle East, he had failed. By not winning, he had lost.
Casey’s own days in command were now numbered. In Washington, a plot to oust him, engineered by civilians and retired generals, was gaining steam.
It was a replay of the “Western excursion” that had forced a change in the CENTCOM war plan prior to Operation Desert Storm. In that case, General Schwarzkopf survived by modifying his intentions. In this case, a reluctance to change cost Casey his job. In early January 2007, President Bush made it official, announcing that David Petraeus was to replace him forthwith.
In retrospect, Casey’s failure appears all but foreordained. Certainly, the cards were stacked against him. He had inherited a mess. While Casey had counted on Iraqis coming together to shape their own destiny, the fractured nature of Iraqi society militated against that prospect. Al Qaeda’s appearance on the scene exacerbated that problem. And although provided with considerable resources, Casey never had sufficient boots on the ground to meet mission requirements.
During his tenure in Baghdad, U.S. troop strength in Iraq varied between 127,000 and 160,000. In historical context, these are not large numbers, especially in light of the importance attached to Operation Iraqi Freedom as the main effort of post-9/11 U.S. military strategy. By comparison, while drawing on a substantially smaller population base (and with women largely excluded from military service), the United States had fielded twice as many troops to fight in Korea and three times as many in Vietnam—neither of which had qualified as the main effort during the Cold War.
Even so, Casey got about as much as the Pentagon was in a position to provide. To lure volunteers, the Congress provided liberal increases in military pay and bonuses. In a policy known as “stop loss,” the services prohibited soldiers from leaving active duty at the end of their enlistment contracts. They repurposed sailors and airmen as de facto ground troops. The army reorganized itself to plus up the total number of combat brigades, while subjecting reservists to multiple tours on active duty. Yet rather than offering a remedy, all of these together merely provided a means to manage an ongoing shortage. President Bush’s decision not to mobilize the country even as he was embarking upon a “global war” essentially fixed the size of the force available to wage that war.
To narrow the gap between requirements and troops available, the Bush administration greatly expanded the Pentagon’s reliance on private security firms to perform functions traditionally done by soldiers. Yet this dubious practice served chiefly to highlight the inadequacies of the American military system. A “nation at war” was incapable of putting even 1 percent of its population in uniform.
Nor did the much-hyped coalition do much to make up any shortfall. Non-U.S. troops under Casey’s command peaked at a mere twenty-five thousand. By the end of 2006, that number had plummeted by 40 percent. In terms of quality, moreover, foreign troops tended to be a mixed bag, of limited value when dealing with the critical challenges of imposing order on Baghdad or suppressing Sunni insurgents in Anbar Province. A “coalition of the willing” was not necessarily a “coalition of the capable.”
All that said, Casey himself had fallen short, notably so in translating precepts into practice. As much as armies are hierarchical organizations, valuing loyalty and obedience, a gap always exists between what the general-in-chief directs his subordinates to do and what they actually end up doing. During Casey’s tenure in command in Baghdad, the gap loomed particularly large.
While Casey himself was settling in for the
the major formations under his command rotated in and out of country. As if per some informal contract, soldiers came to expect that they would deploy together, fight together, and then head home together, after serving a predetermined length of time.
This approach stood in sharp contrast to the individual replacement system used in Vietnam. There, the United States military had all but disintegrated under the stress of protracted war. In Iraq, under comparably trying circumstances, U.S. forces demonstrated impressive durability, at least in part thanks to the unit rotation system.
But there was a downside. Units that had fought in Iraq during 2003 and 2004 returned for a second tour in 2005 or 2006 believing that they already had the war figured out. They arrived bearing their own stock of lessons for implementation. As a consequence, they were less than receptive to instructions from on high to try a different approach—especially one that they had been conditioned to view with suspicion.
Imagine some hedge fund manager announcing to his employees that instead of profit, maximizing social value was now the name of the game. Some attentive and enlightened fraction might respond with alacrity to this change in priorities. The remainder either wouldn’t hear or wouldn’t know where to begin.
So too with Casey’s effort to persuade the forces under his command to embrace counterinsurgency. Too many of his subordinates either chose not to hear or didn’t know where to begin. As a consequence, brigade and battalion commanders, exercising wide latitude in deciding how to fight, made choices at odds with Casey’s intent. Reflecting on the “various operating styles” employed by U.S. units, one careful observer of the war concluded that as late as 2006 tactical commanders were still operating “in a vacuum, with no strategy to guide them because no strategy has been offered.” More accurately, Casey had formulated a strategy—one based on counterinsurgency—without adequately spelling out for his subordinates what adhering to its dictates required. “So they fight their own wars, blanketing their sectors with troops and funds right up until the day the Pentagon orders them to let go.”
Some were implementing a version of COIN; others were freelancing.