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Iraq As A War Of Miscalculation

Last week, on the 2nd of November, the New York Times published a chart from a military briefing that it says indicates that Iraq is sliding into chaos. (1) However, analysis of the chart does not support that conclusion. The chart merely purports to demonstrate indications and warnings of civil conflict, and uses a bar to gauge the current level of civil conflict in Iraq on a continuum between peace and chaos.

The relative credibility of the New York Times slide notwithstanding, it would be very convenient if we could simply adjust our military's metrics in Iraq, and therefore achieve success. The reality, however, is not that easy. The strategic mistakes in Iraq are so egregious that it is sometimes difficult to know where to begin when discussing them. For example, what has been the effect of our military's success in killing al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, and what does it indicate about the level of civil conflict in Iraq? An answer can be found in the DOD Report to Congress: Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq (August, 2006). This quarterly report is required by law, and it states:

The death of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June was a major success for the Coalition and the Government of Iraq, but al-Qaeda in Iraq remains able to conduct operations due to its resilient, semi-autonomous cellular structure of command and control. (2)

In effect, the death of Al-Zarqawi has had little to no effect on the Iraqi insurgency because the insurgency has successfully taken on the characteristics of a resilient network.

The recently declassified National Intelligence Estimate has an even more dire assessment:

United States-led counterterrorism efforts have seriously damaged the leadership of al-Qa’ida and disrupted its operations; however, we judge that al-Qa’ida will continue to pose the greatest threat to the Homeland and US interests abroad by a single terrorist organization. We also assess that the global jihadist movement—which includes al-Qa’ida, affiliated and independent terrorist groups, and emerging networks and cells—is spreading and adapting to counterterrorism efforts.

Although we cannot measure the extent of the spread with precision, a large body of all-source reporting indicates that activists identifying themselves as jihadists, although a small percentage of Muslims, are increasing in both number and geographic dispersion.

If this trend continues, threats to US interests at home and abroad will become more diverse, leading to increasing attacks worldwide. (3)

From this assessment we can conclude that our counterterrorism efforts in the war on terror, and particularly our military operations in Iraq, are either having little to no effect on al Qaeda, or may even be fostering its growth and spread worldwide.

Some insight into why this is happening can be found in an article published by retired Marine Corps Colonel Thomas X. Hammes in the July-August 2006 edition of Military Review (published by the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, KS). In Countering Evolved Insurgent Networks Hammes makes the following points:

First and foremost, insurgencies [including the Iraqi insurgency and the al Qaeda global insurgency] are political and not military struggles. They are not amenable to purely military solutions without resorting to levels of brutality unacceptable to the Western world.

Second, the political will of the counterinsurgent's [the United States'] own population is critical. If that population [American public] turns sour when faced with the long time frame and mounting costs of counterinsurgency, the insurgent will win [Now in its sixth year, according to a recent report from the Center for Strategic Budgetary Assessment the total costs of the War on Terror are approaching $1 trillion dollars. (4)]

Insurgencies are measured in decades. The Chinese Communists fought for 27 years; the Vietnamese fought for 30 years; the Palestinians have been fighting since 1968. Even when insurgencies were defeated in Malaysia and El Salvador it took 12 years. [The United States has fought against 3 insurgencies - in Vietnam, in Lebanon, and in Somalia - and was defeated politically each time.]

Finally, our great technological advantage does not provide an advantage in counterinsurgency. In the past the side with the simplest technology has often won. What has been decisive in most counterinsurgencies were the human attributes of leadership, cultural understanding, and political judgment. [The United States has not performed well in these areas in the War on Terror.] (5)

Conclusion: The Iraqi and al Qaeda insurgencies represent political problems for the United States; in response we have attempted to apply a military solution. This is a dialectical mismatch to which metrics cannot effectively be applied.

The war in Iraq is going to be a long struggle and we are going to have to change our strategic approach to it if we are to be successful - which we must be if we want our nation to avoid strategic failure and the durability of its potential negative effects. Continued miscalculation as we have shown thus far has the potential to be our downfall.

(1) Michael R. Gordon, “Military Report Says Iraq Edging Toward Chaos,” New York Times (November 2, 2006).

(2) Department of Defense Quarterly Report to Congress, Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq, August 29, 2006. 25.

(3) Director of National Intelligence, Declassified Key Judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate “Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States,” April, 2006, 1.

(4) Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Five Years Later: Funding For Defense, Military Operations, Homeland Security, And Related Activities Since 9/11, September 7, 2006. 1.

(5) Thomas X. Hammes, “Countering Evolved Insurgent Networks,” Military Review (July-August 2006).


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