Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Eating Soup with a Knife and the Question of Time

Without question the hottest book on Iraq right now is Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam: Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife by Lt. Col. John Nagl. I have not read it, and given my other obligations it will be some time before I have an opportunity to. However, since the author is making the talk-show rounds, and I thought a few comments were in order.

Nagl's book is based on his Ph.d dissertation. I'm not sure if he's still in the military or is retired, but from what I can gather from various sources he was operations officer during the 2004 battle for Fallujah. The story is that his book has not only become very influential among Army and Marine Corps officers, but was given to Rumsfeld himself during a visit to Iraq, although I can't find any definite confirmation of this.

But just in case you haven't heard about it, here's the book description on Amazon
Armies are invariably accused of preparing to fight the last war. Nagl examines how armies learn during the course of conflicts for which they are initially unprepared in organization, training, and mindset. He compares the development of counterinsurgency doctrine and practice in the Malayan Emergency from 1948-1960 with that developed in the Vietnam Conflict from 1950-1975, through use of archival sources and interviews with participants in both conflicts. In examining these two events, he argues that organizational culture is the key variable in determining the success or failure of attempts to adapt to changing circumstances.
Defeating an insurgency described by Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as "Lawrence of Arabia", as being like "Eating Soup with a Knife". In other words, you can do it, but it's messy and takes a long time.

There was also an article the other day in the Wall Street Journal about the book (subscription only), that was excerpted by Rich Lowry on NRO's The Corner
Col. Nagl's book is one of a half dozen Vietnam histories -- most of them highly critical of the U.S. military in Vietnam -- that are changing the military's views on how to fight guerrilla wars. Two other books that have also become must-reading among senior Army officers are retired Col. Lewis Sorley's "A Better War," which chronicles the last years of the Vietnam War, and Col. H.R. McMaster's "Dereliction of Duty," which focuses on the early years.

The embrace of these Vietnam histories reflects an emerging consensus in the Army that in order to move forward in Iraq, it must better understand the mistakes of Vietnam.
In the past, it was commonly held in military circles that the Army failed in Vietnam because civilian leaders forced it to fight a limited war instead of the all-out assault it longed to wage. That belief helped shape the doctrine espoused in the 1980s by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Colin Powell. They argued that the military should fight only wars in which it could apply quick, overwhelming force to destroy the enemy.

The newer analyses of Vietnam are now supplanting that theory -- and changing the way the Army fights. The argument that the military must exercise restraint is a central point of the Army's new counterinsurgency doctrine. The doctrine, which runs about 120 pages and is still in draft form, is a handbook on how to wage guerrilla wars.
The Lesson

The point that Col Nagl makes is simple; we screwed up in our first two years in Iraq but we've got it right now. He's pretty critical of Army leaders and Secretary Rumsfeld. Fair enough. From time immortal wars have always been this way. Unless they are short, they never go quite the way either side thinks they will.

But despite what some people seem to think, yes counterinsurgencies can be won. With US help, the government of El Salvador defeated their communist rebels in the 1980s. Peru defeated the Shining Path in the 1990s. The Greeks defeated their communist rebels in the late 1940s, thanks to some timely aid authorized by President Truman. The classic case, of course, was the British defeat of communist insurgents in Malaysia in the 1940s and 50s. As Rich Lowry recounts that
The Brits at first considered the insurgency primarily a military problem, and tried to take the guerrillas on in conventional military formations. These tactics not only failed to engage the guerrillas, who easily evaded the large jungle sweeps, but their heavy-handedness alienated the local population.

The British were losing. One observer thought the guerrillas were "probably equal to that of government in the matter of supplies and superior in the matter of intelligence." Guerrilla attacks had been fewer than 100 a month in mid-1949, but spiked to more than 400 a month by mid-1950. This is when, had the Brits operated in our media and political environment, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd would have witheringly declared all lost, and calls from across the political spectrum would have gone up to quit.

With a patience born of fighting many "small wars" in dusty parts of the world, the British simply set about fixing what they had done wrong. Most fundamentally, they realized that counterinsurgency depends on winning a political battle for "hearts and minds" (a famous phrase that originated in the Malaysia fight). Military operations were conducted on a smaller scale. The Chinese population was secured from guerrilla influence. A Malaysian army was built, with Chinese involvement. Elections were organized and independence promised. Slowly, the air went out of the insurgency, which was officially declared over in 1960, 12 years after it began.
We made the same mistake in Iraq, and have made the same journey to our current counter-insurgency campaign.

Three Washington Post articles by Thomas Ricks, who was (or is) in Iraq tell the tale.
The Lessons of Counterinsurgency
U.S. Counterinsurgency Academy Giving Officers a New Mind-Set
In the Battle for Baghdad, U.S. Turns War on Insurgents
And let's not forget David Ignatious Fighting Smarter in Iraq from last Friday's Washington Post.

So contrary to what the critics would have you believe yes we are getting it right. We didn't at first, as I recounted in back in October of 2004 in What Went Wrong?

Wretchard, author of The Belmont Club(and arguably the best WOT blogger there is) doesn't share what is apparently becoming the "mainstream" opinion that we "got it all wrong at first but are now finally doing it right"
The US is not "finally becoming adept" at fighting in Iraq so much as reaping the result of a two pronged strategy. First, building up indigenous and de-Baathized forces (with a large Shi'ite and Kurdish component) and second, destroying the infrastructure of the insurgency.
He points to the impressive buildup of Iraqi forces as evidence(read his post for details or see the CENTCOM posture statement).

Wretchard concludes that
In retrospect three of the decisive weapons of victory in Iraq will have been the 190 military transition teams which raised the new Iraqi Army, the Transitional Administrative Law which made a new coalition government possible, and the US Armed Forces itself, which held up the shield behind which the training and political components could take shape. It now seems fairly clear that many of the 'far better' strategies which were suggested in 2004 and 2005 in place of CENTCOM's may not have been as good as they were made out to be. There were many calls for more American troops on the ground, up to 400,000 men. There were even calls for a return to the draft to rescue a "broken army". It had been suggested that it was a "mistake" to fire the old Saddamite Army, which alone could maintain control, or so it was said. In the end, CENTCOM's strategy did not prove so amateurish after all.
So much for the "More troops!" line that we've been hearing for the past three years. As the Brits found out in Malaysia, you win these wars not by sending in "More troops!" but by going back to counter-insurgency basics.

But the differences between Fall 2004 and Spring of 2006 are like the differences between the beginning of 1864 and the end of 1864. Once it looked like stalemate, then victory seemed possible if not assured.

The Question of Time

This morning I was listening to the Tony Snow show today, with guest host Brian Kilmeade (from Fox and Friends) standing in for Tony. Kilmeade interviewed Bill Hemmer, who is on assignement in Iraq for Fox News.

Hemmer was not all sun and roses, saying for example that things are more dangerous today, at least for journalists, than they were a year or so ago in Baghdad.

But his main point, and one that he stressed, was that he had spoken with many members of the US military, and they are convinced they can do it, that they can succeed, but they just need more time. "Give us more time" is what he heard again and again.

Will they be allowed to finish their job before political events in the US force a pullout, or a reduction in force before the job is done? We're already hearing about troops reductions scheduled for later this year, no doubt timed to coincide with the elections. Hopefully it won't be too soon.

Wednesday Morning Update

President Bush does the right thing
President Bush said yesterday that future administrations will have to grapple with how and when to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, indicating that he doesn't see an end to U.S. commitments until at least 2009.

"That'll be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq," Mr. Bush said at his second press conference of the year, during which he also said Iraq is not in the middle of a civil war and defended his continued commitment of U.S. troops.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Mr. Bush was signaling an open-ended commitment that "was never contemplated or approved by the American people."
When the American people signed up for World War II they never contemplated or approved keeping troops in Europe for another 60+ years, either. They thought that, like after The Great War, they'd all be brought home immediately after hostilities ended. Although I can't find it on the web at the moment, I do recall reading congressional testimony of the late 1940s whereby generals are grilled by congressmen who are not happy with what they are being told, that many US troops would have to stay in Europe for the indefinate future.

Was this a failure of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations? Of course not. Analogies are never exact, of course, which is why they call them analogies. The administration, and most of us war supporters, thought that the invasion aftermath would be easier (as Rich Lowry asked in "What Went Wrong" cited above, "We knew it would be difficult, but did it have to be so hard?"). Fair enough.

But as I've written in about a million posts over at The Redhunter, unless the war is very short, they always seem to go this way. Victory does not go to the side who doesn't make mistakes. Victory goes to the side that does not learn from them. And while we're not out of the woods yet by a long shot, we're learning a lot faster than the insurgents.

Update II

A commenter over at The Redhunter has been kind enough to let me know that you can read the preface to Nagl's book on the University of Chicago Press website here.