Thomas Ricks, the accomplished military reporter for the Washington Post, has a front page article excerpted from his upcoming book, Fiasco, yet another richly detailed account of the failures of the US in Iraq.

The article is certainly worth reading.

Ricks asserts that the US was in trouble from the beginning:

The very setup of the U.S. presence in Iraq undercut the mission.

Echoing my earlier post, top administration officials were blinded by their own ideological zeal to the on-ground reality:

Complicating the U.S. effort was the difficulty top officials had in recognizing what was going on in Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld at first was dismissive of the looting that followed the U.S. arrival and then for months refused to recognize that an insurgency was breaking out there. A reporter pressed him one day that summer: Aren’t you facing a guerrilla war?

“I guess the reason I don’t use the phrase ‘guerrilla war’ is because there isn’t one,” Rumsfeld responded.

A few weeks later, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid succeeded Gen. Tommy R. Franks as the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East. He used his first news conference as commander to clear up the strategic confusion about what was happening in Iraq. Opponents of the U.S. presence were conducting “a classical guerrilla-style campaign,” he said. “It’s a war, however you describe it.”

This strategic blunder set the tone for failure:

When you’re facing a counterinsurgency war, if you get the strategy right, you can get the tactics wrong, and eventually you’ll get the tactics right,” said retired Army Col. Robert Killebrew, a veteran of Special Forces in the Vietnam War. “If you get the strategy wrong and the tactics right at the start, you can refine the tactics forever, but you still lose the war. That’s basically what we did in Vietnam.”

For the first 20 months or more of the American occupation in Iraq, it was what the U.S. military would do there as well.

Key was forgetting the lessons of Vietnam. In a counterinsurgency designed to promote a stable and friendly democratic government, the people and the legitimacy they confer on a government are the prize–not the territory or capability of the insurgents:

One reason for that different approach was the muddled strategy of U.S. commanders in Iraq. As civil affairs officers found to their dismay, Army leaders tended to see the Iraqi people as the playing field on which a contest was played against insurgents. In Galula’s view, the people are the prize.

“The population . . . becomes the objective for the counterinsurgent as it was for his enemy,” he wrote.

From that observation flows an entirely different way of dealing with civilians in the midst of a guerrilla war. “Since antagonizing the population will not help, it is imperative that hardships for it and rash actions on the part of the forces be kept to a minimum,” Galula wrote.

Check out the whole article, as well as tomorrow’s follow up.

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