George W. Bush and the Thinking Man's War

Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, upon returning to Fort Leavenworth from a tour of duty in Iraq, prepared a new field manual of counterinsurgency warfare. (You can read the whole thing here as a pdf.) After completing the manual without knowing he was headed back to Iraq, Petraeus was chosen by the Bush Administration to command U.S. forces in Iraq.

David Ignatius uses the manual written by the new in-theater commander to evaluate Bush's new "Surge" strategy in his Washington Post Op-Ed.

"Counterinsurgency is not just thinking man's warfare -- it is the graduate level of war," reads a quotation from a Special Forces officer in Iraq that opens the first chapter. And this theme runs throughout the manual: Many of the prescriptions that apply to normal wars don't apply to counterinsurgencies. Indeed, if they are used, they will backfire. In a summary of "unsuccessful practices," here's the No. 1 mistake: "Overemphasize killing and capturing the enemy rather than securing and engaging the populace."

The field manual summarizes some of the lessons that commanders have learned in Iraq: Long-term success "depends on the people taking charge of their own affairs and consenting to the government's rule." Killing insurgents "by itself cannot defeat an insurgency." Local commanders "have the best grasp of their situations" and should have the freedom to adapt and react to local conditions. As many officers ruefully admit, the Army is learning these lessons three years late -- but perhaps that's still in time to make a difference.

My favorite part of the manual, which I suspect Petraeus had a big hand in drafting, is a section titled "Paradoxes of Counterinsurgency Operations." The headings give the flavor of these unconventional ideas: "Sometimes, the More You Protect Your Force, the Less Secure You May Be." (Green Zone residents, please note: "If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede the initiative to the insurgents.") "Sometimes Doing Nothing Is the Best Reaction." "Some of the Best Weapons for Counterinsurgents Do Not Shoot." And this military version of the Zen riddle: "The More Successful the Counterinsurgency Is, the Less Force Can Be Used and the More Risk Must Be Accepted." (As the host nation takes control, "Soldiers and Marines may also have to accept more risk to maintain involvement with the people.")
I've never met President Bush, but his public personae does not appear to be one that revels in paradoxes. His famously clean desk as Governor of Texas belies a man that liked his problems (and solution) to be straight forward. Subtlety and stratagem are not words that come to mind when evaluating Bush in general, but they are particularly out of place when describing Bush's conduct of the War in Iraq.

Ignatious implies, and I agree, that the basic strategy implied in 'Surge' are counter to those that Bush's top Commander in Iraq has prescribed for success.

Petraeus' manual is formed around two themes: "Success in counterinsurgency requires a political strategy as much as a military one" and "broad political support back home -- which buys time on the battlefield -- is the crucial strategic asset in fighting such wars."

Bush's 'Surge' runs counter to both of these. Hitting the insurgency with a larger hammer while making no other real changes to the prosecution of the war will, at best, do nothing and will risk increased resentment of a larger occupying army, increasing both the level of public support for the insurgency and the size of the insurgency itself. Pushing what is a token escalation (14,000 troops for 6 months will not be enough to subdue Iraq.) of an unpopular war in the face of a newly elected congressional majority with deep apprehensions about the War in Iraq will do nothing to unite the country.

Bush would do best to listen to his new General. Given that increasing force size will do nothing to combat an insurgency, using the forces you already have there to better effect is the best way forward.

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