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Missing The Point In Our Iraq Strategy

Two days prior to his resignation Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld sent the White House a memo suggesting new options for Iraq. Here are a few key points from the Rumsfeld memo, with a critique for each:

Rumsfeld Memo: “Clearly, what U.S. forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough.”

• This is a clear admission that the administration's current military-only strategy has not worked. Rumsfeld's memo misses the point that the problems posed by insurgencies are political rather than military in nature.

• Hammes’ point: Insurgencies are still based on Mao Zedong's fundamental precept that superior political will, properly employed, can defeat greater economic and military power.

Rumsfeld Memo: “Publicly announce a set of benchmarks agreed to by the Iraqi Government and the U.S. — political, economic and security goals — to chart a path ahead for the Iraqi government and Iraqi people (to get them moving) and for the U.S. public (to reassure them that progress can and is being made).”

• Rumsfeld’s memo acknowledges the necessity of maintaining public and political will, i.e. the national will, to continue the war. However, it does not provide details on what the new benchmarks would be.

Rumsfeld Memo: “Aggressively beef up the Iraqi MOD and MOI, and other Iraqi ministries critical to the success of the ISF — the Iraqi Ministries of Finance, Planning, Health, Criminal Justice, Prisons, etc. — by reaching out to U.S. military retirees and Reserve/National Guard volunteers (i.e., give up on trying to get other USG Departments to do it.)”

• Despite suggesting benchmarks above for political, economic, and security goals, here Rumsfeld’s memo suggests cutting the other USG departments out of the political process, in favor of a go-it-alone approach by DOD. This goes completely against other strategies for winning the war on terror, to include the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission to engage all the elements of national power.

• Hammes’ point: Learning to adjust is the key to success in counterinsurgency. Conventional military weakness forces insurgents to be adaptable, so defeating them requires coherent, patient action -- encompassing a range of political, economic, social and military activities -- that can be executed only by a team drawn from all parts of government. You don't outfight the insurgent. You outgovern him.

Rumsfeld memo: Among the less attractive options - Try a Dayton-like process.

• Rumsfeld’s memo is suggesting that a diplomatic approach to bring the warring parties together to bring an end to the sectarian violence should not be used. This would require brokering negotiations between the Shiites, Sunnis, and the Kurds, and possible Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

• The Dayton Accords for peace in Boznia and Herzegovina were conducted at a secure site in a bid to curb the participants' ability to negotiate in the media rather than at the bargaining table. In a far-from-subtle hint of the consequences should agreement not be reached, early in the talks a dinner for the participants was held in a hangar at the nearby U.S. Air Force Museum. The final agreement mandated a wide range of international organizations to monitor, oversee, and implement components of the agreement. (See Wikipedia)

Other key points from the Hammes’ article:

• Counterinsurgency is a very different animal. Insurgents practice the art of destruction, which is easy; counterinsurgents have the far more difficult task of creating a functioning government.

• Journal articles offer another rich vein of enlightenment on the conduct of counterinsurgency. In "Best Practices in Counterinsurgency" in the May-June 2005 issue of Military Review, Kalev I. Sepp, a former Special Forces officer and now a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, studied 51 recent counterinsurgencies to develop a list of 12 "best practices" common to all successful ones, and nine "worst practices" of the unsuccessful ones. Sadly, in Iraq, the United States scores below 50 percent on the first and above 50 percent on the second.

• In "Challenges in Fighting a Global Insurgency," in the summer 2006 issue of Parameters, Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, commander of U.S. and Coalition forces in Afghanistan from October 2003 to April 2005, highlights the insurgents' ability to think in terms of 25-year wars. "The Americans may have all the wristwatches," he quotes the Taliban reminding villagers, "but we have all the time."

CONCLUSION: The Rumsfeld memo focuses on defeating the insurgency, rather than achieving political and social reconciliation between the warring parties, as the key to U.S. success in Iraq. Our senior leadership continues to miss the point.


1. Rumsfeld Memo of Options for Iraq War, 3 December 2006
2. Thomas X. Hammes, Insurgency from Mao to Iraqis, Special to The Washington Post


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