The Corner

Magical Thinking

Another important piece by David Ignatius today (linked to by Jonah earlier). He argues that we finally have an effective counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq. A lot of people have written this lately, usually with the implicit suggestion that this is some sudden development, that out of nowhere these fairly effective Iraqi troops are appearing and contributing to a better counter-insurgency effort. But the strategy that is now beginning to bear fruit has been in place for a long time, as anyone would know who actually listened to what the administration was saying over the last year or more. All during the long, long period that the administration was scored for having no strategy in Iraq (a charge, I regret to say, echoed in this very Corner), the strategy that is now being recognized was in place. It just took time to take hold. Apparently few people anymore have enough patience to realize some things take time.

In this connection, Igantius writes of Iraqi forces standing up as we take a more of a support role, “This is the way it should have happened from the beginning.” Of course it should have. But sometimes the real world isn’t so cooperative. The fact is that we started training Iraqi security forces right away, but we were going about it the wrong way and had to start again almost from scratch. Regrettable? Of course. But who seriously thinks you can plop yourself down into the middle of an alien culture and create a major new institution like a military without trail and error?

To maintain otherwise is magical thinking. David Brooks engaged in some of his own earlier this week in this column (TimesSelect). He criticizes Rumsfeld for not adjusting sooner to the fact that we were facing an insurgency. Fair enough. But what would this adjustment have chiefly meant, according to Brooks? More troops. The additional manpower could have helped. But…

Brooks also wrote an excellent column recently on the importance of culture. Knowing and negotiating the culture of a country is particularly important in a counter-insurgency, which is why, in terms of troop levels, it tends to be a qualitative rather than a quantitative problem: It’s not necessarily how many troops you have, but what they’re doing. I’m no military expert (obviously), but this is why I tend to dis-believe anyone who argues winning in Iraq just required X-number of additional troops.

Would these additional troops have had a complex understanding of Iraqi tribal politics? Would they have known all the key players on the ground in their area–who to trust and not to trust? Would they have gotten better intelligence tips from the Iraqi public? Would they have understood that the traditional American “kinetic” approach to warfare really doesn’t apply in a counter-insurgency? I doubt it. All of this knowledge takes time to develop. It means being on the ground and tasting and feeling local conditions. It is conventional wisdom that we “wasted” the first year in Iraq. It is true that we were ineffectual during that year, but it wasn’t wasted as long as we were learning and adjusting–as we were.

A final point. Any additional troops wouldn’t have made much of a difference if they had been engaged in the kind of large sweeps without holding territory that we used for so long in Iraq. They might have made a difference, however, if they had been used to garrison every Iraqi town. But there was a judgment made that that would have been too heavy-handed and we should instead wait to hold territory until Iraqi forces were available to do it. You can argue with this strategic judgment, but it is not an unreasonable one. Indeed, the same people who suggest the administration didn’t have a strategy now praise our approach in Iraq because, in the words of Igantius, “Americans are stepping back into a training and advisory role.” So does the administration get any credit for having had this as its goal–and consistently working toward it–for so long? Of course not.

I have criticized the administration at various times for not being realistic enough; the same applies to some of its (well-intentioned) critics.

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