Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Iraq: Smoke, Mirrors and Escalation

"Every battle is won before it is fought."

-- Sun Tzu

Conversely, every battle is also lost before it's fought.

During his State of the Union address Tuesday, Mr. Bush asked members of Congress critical of his new Iraq strategy to "give it a chance to work." If ever a strategy appeared to have no chance to work, it's the one we're about to execute as part of the "way forward."

Earlier on Tuesday Lt. General David Petraeus, on tap to become the new U.S. commander in Iraq, told the Senate Armed Services committee that the "new" military strategy for Iraq can work, but not if the Iraqi government fails to carry out its political reconciliation program.

The government reconciliation program will be a difficult thing to carry out if the Iraqi politicians don't start attending sessions of parliament.

Damien Cave of the New York Times reports that:
[Iraq's] Parliament in recent months has been at a standstill. Nearly every session since November has been adjourned because as few as 65 members made it to work, even as they and the absentees earned salaries and benefits worth about $120,000.

Part of the problem is security, but Iraqi officials also said they feared that members were losing confidence in the institution and in the country’s fragile democracy. As chaos has deepened, Parliament’s relevance has gradually receded.

Petraeus, who oversaw development of the Army's new field manual on counterinsurgency, acknowledged that his own guidelines called for 120,000 troops to secure a city the size of Baghdad. Once the "surge" is in place, Petraeus will only have 32,000 U.S. troops in Baghdad, but he figures that ought to be enough because, well, he'll also have about 63,000 Iraqi troops and a bunch of civilian contractors (i.e., mercenaries) to guard government buildings and such.

Except that, uh, no, Petraeus won't exactly "have" all those extra forces because the Iraqi forces will be under direct Iraqi control, meaning Iraqi commanders will answer not to Petraeus but to the Iraqi government whose parliament can't assemble a quorum. And the U.S. civilian contractors aren't exactly under Petraeus's control because they're, um, civilians. Senator Lindsey Graham has introduced legislation that will bring contractors under military jurisdiction, but such a law will likely raise constitutional challenges.

This situation violates the "unity of command" warfare principle, a tenet of armed conflict that most military thinkers consider absolutely essential to any successful combat operation.

And yeah, Petraeus says he has concerns about that.

Phantom Benchmarks and Standard Disclaimers

One of the conditions of the new plan/new strategy/new way forward or whatever we're calling it today is that the Iraqi government--the one that never meets--agrees to meet a series of benchmarks. Carl Levin (D-MI) of the Senate Armed Services Committee has repeatedly asked the administration for a list of those benchmarks, but none have been forthcoming. Levin has threatened to use the committee's subpoena power to obtain the list, but having the list made public, or at least available to the committee, may not make a fly's eyelash worth of difference because whatever the benchmarks are, it doesn't appear Petraeus or anyone else in the administration plans to hold the Iraqi's responsible for meeting them.

Tuesday Morning, prior to Patraeus's testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Thomas E. Ricks of the Washington Post reported that Patraeus…
…plans to send all 17,500 additional U.S. troops ordered by President Bush into Baghdad, regardless of whether Iraqi army units join the fight as planned, according to officials familiar with his thinking. Anticipating an uneven performance by the Iraqi army, military planners are advocating using American force and funding quickly to establish early victories, both in improving security and showing economic progress.

Maybe Patraeus hopes that the Iraqi units will refuse to show up, as they've refused to so often in the past. That might solve a large part of his unity of command problem, but it leaves him another 60 something thousand troops short of the number he himself says he needs to bring Baghdad under control.

Pundits and politicians across the political spectrum describe Petraeus as the finest mind in our military today. Based on what I've heard from him in the past few weeks, I'd say he's madder than a Lewis Carroll hatter. I'd also say he's turned into a world-class political sycophant.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ), a vocal proponent of escalation, asked Petraeus if Senate approval of a resolution assailing Mr. Bush’s new strategy could hurt the morale of American troops. “It would not be a beneficial effect, sir,” Petraeus said.

Senator Joe Lieberman (?-CT), who also backs the escalation, asked Petraeus if such a resolution would “give the enemy some encouragement” Petraeus replied, “That’s correct, sir.”

This "encourage the enemy" and "demoralize the troops" rhetoric is the center of gravity of the Bush administration's Orwellian campaign to squelch any and all criticism and oversight of its woebegone Iraq flop, and Petraeus has, by all indications, bought into it.

Petraeus is being set up to be the ultimate goat. Our escalation in Iraq looks to be a historic equivalent of what the Sicilian Campaign of 415 BC was to Athens--a spectacular defeat that marked the end of an empire by virtue of its own incompetence. Why Petraeus, supposedly a brilliant strategist, is willing to take the helm of a campaign that by his own calculus has little to no chance of succeeding is anybody's guess.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has approved a non-binding resolution dismissing Mr. Bush's Iraq escalation initiative as "not in the national interest." The full Senate will begin debate on the issue next week.

I don't know if either the House or the Senate will be able to stay Bush's hand on the escalation issue, but it is, I think, important for some segment of America's body politic to be able to stand up after the fact and say, "Hey, we told you that was a crazy idea."


Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at Pen and Sword.


  1. The only thing that comes to mind is that Petraeus was given orders to implement the escalation and spout the Party line, and when he objected, was told either follow orders or resign and Dear Leader would find someone else to do it. Given that if Petraeus resigned some political hack would have ended up in charge, maybe he figured this was the best he could do for his soldiers -- follow orders, but do his best to make sure they didn't all get killed because of Dear Leader's insanity.

    I suppose some of Hitler's generals went along with their Dear Leader's orders for much the same reason. It didn't work, in the end. But maybe I'm being overly generous both to Petraeus and to Hitler's generals...

    - Badtux the Military Penguin

  2. Tux, you may have something there. During the confirmation hearings there was something in Petraeus' demeanor that was almost--surly. He made a comment --something like, well if I fail then find somebody better to do the job. It reminded me of a henpecked husband who , after being told all his faults endlessly, taunts his wife to leave him, half wishing she would, and says" Oh yeah? Well just try to go find somebody better than me--just go ahead and do it!"

  3. Tux,

    I don't relish what's going on right now, but everybody surroundng this strategy, including Petraeus, is contradicting him or herself every two sentences. We've had about enough of that.

  4. DeF

    I sensed a bit of that myself. Unfortunately, the SASC is still over a barrell. They can't at this point say they want Casey to stay on the job, and they really can't find anybody with better credentials than Petraeus to take it.

    Of course, one might well argue that P has been part of the failure in the past, but he's kind of the loser with the best track record.

  5. Hes not necessarily a bad general, but to engage in urban warfare with (at best) 25000 troops fewer than recommended by your own tactical manual sounds like stupidity.

    If he had refused, would they just have found another? The "good soldier" attitude made infamous by Powell seems to tie the US political and professional tracks together very closely.

  6. MK,

    Some years back I wrote that our politicians run wars and our generals play politics. I'd say that trend has continued.

    Green versus experienced troops? I don't know. My guess is that any unit going there will have some experienced NCO's junior officers, etc., but I couldn't say for sure.

  7. ozebloke9:37 PM

    I have now read 5 books on the Iraq debacle now - Plan Of Attack, Fiasco, State Of Denial, My Year in Iraq (Bremer) and The Assassins Gate - all of them quite extraordinary. Talk about chutzpah crossed with hubris - chutzris? hubzpah? You would almost swear that Rumsfeld, Cheney et al deliberately set out to fuck it up totally. Then to have Bush Jr and Cheney praise Rumsfeld as the best SecDef ever at his Pentagon send off! Gobsmacking - they should have fragged the lot of them while they had the chance! Petraeus came across as the only one with a clue in 'Fiasco' but he's obviously lost it completely if he thinks 20,000 more troops are going to make a difference.

  8. O,

    I don't know if they did this on purpose, but they couldn't have done a better job of it if they had. ;-)

  9. "Petraeus is being set up to be the ultimate goat." He'd better grab a lunch date real soon with ex-general Karpinsky.