Nov 22, 2005 | 03:00 GMT

13 mins read

Iraq: The Battle in the Beltway

By George Friedman With President George W. Bush's poll ratings still in the doldrums, the debate in Washington has become predictably rancorous. For their part, the Democrats continue to insist that Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion of Iraq, despite the fact that Bill Clinton launched Operation Desert Fox in 1998 on the basis of similar intelligence. The Bush administration didn't manufacture evidence on WMD: If evidence was manufactured, it was manufactured during Clinton's administration — and the Democrats know this. On the other hand, the Bush administration has slammed the Democrats' criticism of the war, with one congresswoman charging a Democratic congressman — a congressman who served for 37 years in the Marine Corps and was awarded the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts while in Vietnam — with cowardice for advocating a withdrawal. Republicans know better. The current debate is making both sides look stupid. But lest we despair about the fate of the republic, it should be remembered that political debate in the United States has rarely been edifying and, during times of serious tension, has been downright incoherent. What is important about the current debate is not so much its content — there is precious little of that — as the fact that it serves as a barometer of the current situation in Washington as well as in Iraq. What the debate is telling us is that we have come to a defining moment in the war and in U.S. policy toward the war. That means that it is time to step back and try to define the root issues. Intelligence Failures and Guerrilla War Whatever the origin of the war — and STRATFOR readers are aware of our views on why the war was begun — we can pinpoint the moment at which the Bush strategy first ran into trouble. In mid-April 2003, just a few weeks after the fall of Baghdad, guerrilla attacks in the form of small bombings began to take place. By May 2003, attacks were occurring daily. It started to become clear that a guerrilla war had been launched. When people talk about intelligence failures, they inevitably speak about the WMD issue. That was trivial, however, compared to the failure of the U.S. intelligence community to discover that the Baathists had planned for continued warfare after the fall of Baghdad. Indeed, they did not even resist in Baghdad. Understanding that defeating the United States conventionally was impossible, they focused on mounting a guerrilla war after U.S. forces had occupied the country. The guerrilla campaign was not spontaneous. It came together much too quickly and escalated far too efficiently for that to be the case. The guerrillas clearly had access to weapons caches, possessed a rudimentary command, control and communications system, and had worked out some baseline tactics. They were too widely dispersed in their operations to be simply a pick-up game. Somebody had set these things in place. That meant that someone should have detected the plans. There were two reasons for this intelligence failure. First, detecting the kinds of preparations being made is not easy. The United States was heavily dependent on networks created by the Shiite leader Ahmed Chalabi, and the guerrillas were Sunnis. We suspect that the sourcing prior to the war blinded the United States to preparations being made in Sunni territory. Second, and more important, Washington had a predetermined concept about Iraq and Iraqi resistance, which many shared. The United States had fought the Iraqis during Desert Storm, and emerged with a complete lack of respect for the Iraqi forces. Just as the Israelis had developed a concept of the capabilities of the Egyptian forces in the 1967 war — a concept that proved to be disastrously incorrect by the 1973 war — so the Americans had reached a set conclusion about Iraqi forces. Moreover, they had drawn political conclusions: Saddam Hussein's regime was unpopular and its fall would be greeted with emotions ranging from indifference to joy. Thus, the Americans focused on what they expected to be a conventional military campaign that would create a blank slate on which the United States could draw a new political map. There was another side to this. The American experience in guerrilla warfare was fixed in Vietnam. The lesson of Vietnam was that the United States was defeated by two things: first, sanctuaries for the guerrillas that the United States could not attack — including a complex logistical system, the Ho Chi Minh Trail — and second, the terrain and vegetation of Vietnam, which prevented effective aerial reconnaissance and placed U.S. forces at a tactical disadvantage. Iraq's topography did not offer sanctuary or cover. Therefore, a full-scale insurgency would be impossible to mount. The United States had failed to learn important lessons from the Israeli situation, in which guerrilla warfare — incorporating wildly unconventional means such as suicide bombers — was waged without benefit of sanctuary or clear supply lines. But more importantly, the Americans had failed to take into account that while Iraq could not field a large, effective conventional force, guerrilla warfare requires a much smaller number of troops. Moreover, they failed to consider that the behavior of forces defending Iraq's seizure of Kuwait during Desert Storm might be different than the behavior of forces resisting American occupation of Iraq proper. Intelligence failures occur in every war, and this one was certainly much less significant than, for instance, the failure at Pearl Harbor. But this failure was conjoined with the administration's assumption that, given the character of the Iraqi soldier and the nature of Iraqi society, Iraqi resistance would not be sustained. That error, coupled with the intelligence failure, generated today's crisis. The problem is an intelligence failure overlaid by a misconception. Insurgency and Inertia If intelligence failures are a constant reality in war, the measure of a military force is how rapidly it recognizes that a failure has occurred and how quickly it adjusts strategy and tactics. In this case, the administration's concept about Iraq blocked the adjustment: The Bush administration's position, as pronounced by Donald Rumsfeld, was that the guerrillas did not constitute an organized force and that they were merely the "dead-enders" of the Baathist government. This remained the administration's position until July 2003. That meant that for about three months, as the guerrillas gained increasing traction, there was no change in U.S. strategy or tactics. Strategically, Washington continued to view Iraq as a pacified country on which the United States could impose a political and social system, much as it did with Japan and Germany after World War II. This had a specific meaning: The Baathists had been the ruling party in Iraq; therefore, driving former Baathists out of public life, a process that mirrored what happened in Germany and Japan, was the strategy. Tactically, since there were no guerrillas — only criminals and remnants of the former regime — no military action had to be taken. U.S. forces remained in an essentially defensive posture against a trivial threat. The decision to force the Baathists out of public life had two effects. First, it drove the Baathists closer to the guerrillas. They had nowhere else to go. Second, it stripped Iraq of what technocrats it had. After a generation of Baath rule, anyone with technical competence was a member of the Baath party. That meant that the United States had to bring in contractors to operate Iraq's infrastructure. But if we assume that the Baathists over time could be replaced by other Iraqis with sufficient training, then this was a rational policy. The administration realized its error in June and July 2003. It replaced CENTCOM commander Gen. Tommy Franks earlier than scheduled with Gen. John Abizaid. The problem was that the insurrection, by then, had taken root. It is not clear that there was ever a point when the insurrection could have been stopped, but certainly, the three-month lag between the opening of the guerrilla war and the beginning of an American response had made it impossible to simply stop the insurrection. At the same time, the insurrection had a basic weakness: It was not an Iraqi insurrection, but a Sunni insurrection. To underscore a point that most Americans seem unable to grasp, most of Iraq never rose against the Americans. The insurrection was confined to the Sunni regions and — despite some attempts to expand it — the Shia and Kurds were not only indifferent, but completely hostile, to the aspirations of the Sunnis. If the American Achilles' heel was its inability to force a military solution to the insurrection, the weakness of the Sunnis was their inability to broaden the base of the insurrection. However, once it was established that the insurrection was under way, the American conception collapsed. Reaction: Negotiations First, the view of the Iraqis as essentially passive following the war gave way to a very different picture: The Sunnis were in rebellion, and the Shia were confidently preparing the way for a government they would dominate. Iraq was not Japan. It was not a canvas on which a contemporary MacArthur could overlay a regime. It was not even an entity that could be governed. This led to the second shift. The United States could not unilaterally shape Iraq. The other side of this coin was that the United States had to make deals with a variety of Iraqi factions — and this meant not only the Shia, Sunnis and Kurds, but also factions within each of these groups. Indeed, the United States had to deal not only with the Iraqi Shia, but also with the Iranians, who had real influence among them. The United States had to try to split that community — which in turn meant dealing with former Baathist officials who were supporting the fight against the United States. In other words, the United States had to deal with its enemies. When you don't win a war, you can end it only through negotiations, and those negotiations will take place with the people you are fighting — your enemies. At the first battle of Al Fallujah, the Americans made their first public deal with the Baathists. Indeed, the American strategy turned into a political one: U.S. forces were fighting a holding battle with the guerrillas while negotiating intensely with a dizzying array of people that, prior to July 2003, the United States would have had arrested. The American concept about Iraq is long gone. The failure to identify the intentions of the Baathists after the war is now history. But the essential problem remains in Washington's public posture: 1. The administration cannot admit what is self-evident: it does not have the ability, by itself, to break the back of the Sunni insurrection. To achieve this, the United States needs help from non-jihadist Sunnis — Baathists — as well as the Shia. U.S. troops cannot achieve the mission alone. 2. In order to get this help, the United States is going to have to make — and is, in fact, making — a variety of deals with players it would have regarded as enemies two years ago, and must make concessions that would seem to be unthinkable. These negotiations are constant. The United States is doing everything it can to get former Baathists into the political process — people who were close to Hussein. It is working intently with people like Ahmed Chalabi who were close — some say very close — to the Iranians. It is cutting deals left and right like a Chicago ward boss. This is, of course, precisely what the United States must do. Its best chance at a reasonable outcome in Iraq is to split the Sunni community between jihadist and Baathist, and then use the Baathists to counterbalance the Shia — without alienating the Shia. It takes the skill of an acrobat, and the fact is that Bush has not been too bad at it. The war itself has become a sideshow. U.S. troops are not in Iraq to win a war. They are there to represent U.S. will and to act as a counterweight in the political wheeling and dealing. War is politics by other means, so being shocked by this makes little sense. Still, the numbers of U.S. troops are irrelevant to the real issue. Doubling them wouldn't help, and cutting them in half wouldn't hurt. The time for a military solution is long past. Battle in the Beltway The problem with the hysteria in Washington is this: In all the negotiations, in all the promises, bribes and threats, the one currency that counts is the American ability to deliver. The ability to craft a deal depends on the ability of Bush to threaten various factions, and to make guarantees that can be delivered on. There is a pretty good chance that some sort of reasonable settlement can be achieved — not ending all violence, but reducing it substantially — if the United States has the credibility it needs to make the deals. The problem the Bush administration has — and it is a problem that dates back to the beginning of the war — is its inability to articulate the reality. The United States is not staying the course. It has not been on course — if by "course" you mean what was planned in February 2003 — for two years. The course the United States has been on has been winding, shifting and surprising. The fact is that the administration has done a fairly good job of riding the whirlwind. But the course has shifted so many times that no one can stay it, because it disappeared long ago. Having committed the fundamental error — and that wasn't WMD — the Administration has done a sufficiently good job that some sort of working government might well be created in Iraq in 2006, and U.S. forces will certainly be withdrawn. What threatens this outcome is the administration's singular inability to simply state the obvious. As a result, the Democrats — doing what opposition parties do — has made it appear that the Bush administration is the most stupid, inept and incompetent administration in history. And the administration has been reduced to calling its critics cowards. The administration's position in Iraq is complex but not hopeless. Its greatest challenge is in Washington, where Bush's Republican base of support is collapsing. If it collapses, then all bets will be off in Iraq. Bush's challenge is to stabilize Washington. In fact, from his point of view, Baghdad is more stable than Washington right now. The situation inside the Beltway has now become a geopolitical problem. If Bush can't pull it together, the situation in Iraq will come apart. But to forge the stability he needs in Washington, the president will have to explain what he is doing in Iraq. And he is loath to admit, from his own mouth, that he is making deals with the enemy.

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