The New York Times reported today that American forces, having once pronounced the city of Tel Afar free of insurgent activity, is now engaged in an effort to liberate the city a second time. As Yogi Berra is once purported to have said, “It’s like déjà all over again.” In more ways than one, Yogi.
Our military has experience in similar situations, having dealt with the frustration of repeatedly taking a box on a map in Vietnam during the day, only to see it slip into enemy control at night. This tragicomic wartime farce was played out the entire time we were involved in Southeast Asia, and is, in fact, a common occurrence in guerilla warfare.
One of the facts that is most surprising about our inability to hold the high ground in Iraq is the supposedly low number of insurgents we are battling against. Estimates from all over the spectrum never place the amount of enemy fighters at over fifteen thousand, and never less then ten thousand. We were vastly outnumbered in Vietnam four decades ago. Here, the tables are turned. We outnumber our enemy ten to one, yet Iraq is a deadlier place today than it has been at any time since the invasion, with the monthly count of suicide attacks dwarfing even Israel at the height of the last Intifada.
Our inability to hold Tel Afar seems to be directly attributable to our inability to be everywhere at once. I don’t know if Tel Afar is an isolated instance in the war, or if it is symptomatic of the types of problems we have been regularly facing, but the longer this war goes on, the more I think about General Eric Shinseki’s predictions before the invasion that it would take a force much larger than that which we had allocated, with a longer commitment on the ground than we had planned. I think about General Shinseki not because he was a soothsayer, but because his views were precise when they were issued three years ago. The prism of hindsight has shed no more light on what he predicted. His calls for more force and better planning were obviously the correct assessment even back then. The negligence and overconfidence that was shown by those higher-ups that ignored the general’s recommendations (and then effectively ended his career) borders on the criminal, and now we are mired in a situation overseas that holds dire consequences for the future of American foreign policy.
Of course, one thing that prism of hindsight does not do is tell us how successful Shinseki’s recommendations would be. Would the 500,000 American soldiers he recommended roaming the dusty alleyways of Iraq be any more effective than the 130,000 there now? Maybe not. It seems obvious that they would have an easier time, especially since they would more than likely be encountering no more insurgents than are in Iraq today. But for me, that’s the crux of the issue. Are there really ten to fifteen thousand insurgents, or are there more? The number has never seemed to decrease all these months, despite our expertise in warfare. For every insurgent we kill or imprison, are they replaced immediately, or are our estimates of enemy strength far too low? After all, how can we trust American intelligence any longer? Back in 2002, either they were dreadfully wrong in their analysis of Iraq’s WMD program, or they were all too willing to roll over for the Bush administration’s hawks. Either way, their information was wrong. What about today? There could be many more insurgents in Iraq than we know about, or are being led to believe. If that is the case, maybe 500,000 soldiers and Marines would still not be good enough.
Also, an insurgency that is a struggle against occupation is not easy to put down. Those fighting realize that losing means continued occupation, while for the occupying powers, losing means getting to go home. A hallmark of every successful, and many unsuccessful, insurgencies is the willingness of aggressors to battle for an unlimited amount of time against overwhelming odds and near-catastrophic losses, all in the name of liberation.
And there we have it. The word liberation applied both to our activities on Iraqi soil, as pointed out earlier in this article, and to insurgent activity, as well. This war could only be more complicated if the insurgency were focusing most of its efforts not on the American military, but on the new Iraqi government and Iraqi civilians.
Any look at news from the front over the last year, and then some, will tell a person that is exactly what has been happening. While American troops are running around the country trying to wipe out the insurgency, most insurgent effort has gone into attacking civilians, differing political factions, and the nascent Iraqi military. The thin lines that held Iraq together for so long are beginning to disintegrate, and there is a strong argument that the insurgency is pitting Iraqi against Iraqi to make the situation impossible for us, prompting American withdrawal, while the main benefit becomes a country in chaos ripe for an extremist power grab.
Maybe it’s time to think about just what our goals in Iraq are. A free, democratic Iraq, modeled after successful, western style democracies, leading all the nations of the Middle East in their struggle to throw off the yoke of totalitarianism was an unrealistically high expectation. Iraq will choose its own destiny, and I believe it will become a vibrant nation, but our leaders in Washington, and whoever takes over the Oval Office in 2009, needs to realize that Iraq is going to have it rough for a long time. At this point, far from helping the situation, it looks like we are hamstrung by our military’s continuing inability to stop insurgencies and guerilla warfare.