Sinking in a Sea of Sand

The new policy from the Bush administration is becoming clear. When staying the course is politically wrong, change course; when all else goes wrong, claim something else was always planned; when the ship is sinking, find a new ship and say the old one belonged to Bill Clinton.

The LA Times is headlining today about a new counter-insurgency training base in Kansas,

When the Army and Marine Corps decided to rewrite their field manual on how to fight insurgents last year, [Lt. Col. John] Nagl was chosen as one of its authors. His doctoral thesis on guerrilla wars was just republished in paperback with an approving forward by the Army’s chief of staff.

But when Nagl’s two-year stint in the Pentagon ended this month, he did not, like most accomplished soldiers of his rank, take command of an armored battalion headed back to Iraq. Instead, he shipped out to this sprawling base in rural Kansas where the Army is attempting what some consider its most ambitious structural change since the Vietnam War.

Here, amid rolling fields dotted by scores of quickly built barracks, the Army is building a training base that by early next year will be turning as many as 2,000 of its most promising midlevel officers into military advisors every two months, most of them headed to Iraq.

The mission reflects the U.S. military’s vision of its long-range role in Iraq — as advisors for local forces who will be doing the actual fighting. But it represents something of a gamble as well: The effort is sucking thousands out of their normal combat deployments at a time when American forces are facing personnel shortages and violence in Iraq is surging.

On the other side of the country, the New York Times mentions the use of advisers as well.

As [Gen. George W. Casey Jr.] said Tuesday, “It’s going to take another 12 to 18 months or so till, I believe, the Iraqi security forces are completely capable of taking over responsibility for their own security, still probably with some level of support from us, but that will be directly asked for by the Iraqis.”

Certainly, the Iraqi security forces have made some gains. The Iraqi military is larger and better trained, and has taken control of more territory in the past year. Some Iraqi soldiers have fought well. But in Baghdad, which American commanders have defined as the central front in the war, it is still a junior partner.

To improve the Iraqi forces, the American military is inserting teams of military advisers with Iraqi units. American officials also say their Iraqi counterparts are trying to use the lure of extra pay to persuade reluctant troops to come to the aid of their capital.

Last week all the papers including the Washington Post were commenting that “Stay the course” was finally and truly dead. Indeed, most Republicans, both those up for re-election and those supporting them have already given up the fight.

Many senior Republicans with close ties to the administration also believe that essential to a successful strategy in Iraq are an aggressive new diplomatic initiative to secure a Middle East peace settlement and a new effort to engage Iraq’s neighbors, such as Syria and Iran, in helping stabilize the country — perhaps through an international conference.

One point on which adherents of these sharply different approaches appear to agree is that “staying the course” is fast becoming a dead letter. “I don’t believe that we can continue based on an open-ended, unconditional presence,” said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a centrist Maine Republican. “I don’t think there’s any question about that, that there will be a change” in the U.S. strategy in Iraq after next month’s elections.

Of course, anyone who missed this week’s sniping about George W. Bush’s comment claiming he had never said “Stay the Course” must be truly deaf.

Taken individually, one could say these are simply isolated raindrops in an otherwise arid political plain. But taken together, they might seem to actually point to a plan. Augment the Iraqi forces with American advisers and pull out the main body of troops. Not only is the administration willing to change course, it might have a direction.

Someone who was there and can report first hand would be Phil Carter. He’s a lawyer who returned to uniform and spent the last year in Iraq advising courts in Diyala together with one of the State Departement’s Provincial Reconstruction Teams. His article at Slate (he also had an Op-Ed in the New York Times, Hat Tip: DefenseTech) recommends exactly this strategy. He is also well aware of the current limitations in the application if not the theory.

To combat the insurgency, America must adopt a more holistic approach than simply building up the country’s security forces. We have the seeds of this in Iraq today—the State Department’s Provincial Reconstruction Teams. I worked closely with the PRT in Diyala to advise the Iraqi courts, jails, and police, and I saw their tremendous potential. However, having been hamstrung by bureaucratic infighting between the State and Defense departments, these teams now lack the authority, personnel, and resources to run the reconstruction effort effectively. America should reach back to one of its positive lessons from Vietnam, the “Civil Operations and Rural Development Support” program. There, the United States created a unified organization to manage all military and civilian pacification programs, recognizing that only a unified effort could bring the right mix of political, economic, and military solutions to bear on problems.

Although we copied some parts of the CORDS model in Afghanistan and Iraq when we created the PRTs, we did not go nearly far enough. It has become cliché to say that the insurgency requires a political solution; in practical terms, that means subordinating military force to political considerations and authority. Today’s PRT chiefs need to have command authority over everything in their provinces, much as ambassadors have traditionally exercised command over all military activity in their countries. We must also empower the PRTs to actually do something besides diplomacy—that means money. Like battlefield commanders, PRT chiefs need deep pockets of petty cash (what the military calls the Commander’s Emergency Response Program fund) to start small reconstruction projects and local initiatives that will have an immediate and tangible impact.

It seems to look forward, one needs to learn the lessons of the past and apply the technologies of the future.

Whether this new course will achieve what America (the American people – not the Bush administration) would consider to be victory in Iraq remains to be seen. The administration has already lost Iraq; the neocon experiment has failed miserably. For the administration, victory would have been an almost complete withdrawal of all troops in late 2004. It didn’t happen. Everything now is just damage control. For the American people, an Iraqi victory means peace and stablity in the country and the American soldiers back home. This is a hope shared, I’m sure, by most of the Iraqi populous.

I’m afraid anything now is too little, too late. No change of strategy can alter the course of events. The Iraqi civil war will have to play out with the hundreds of thousands of fatalities and the ultimate dissolution of Iraq into its components. This will be the fault of a few political theorists in Washington. But at least there is some understanding in those same circles that the original idea was flawed. Using ideas from Vietnam, the last major insurgent war America fought, is a good plan. It means looking to reality to find things that work. But than again, America also ‘lost’ Vietnam.

It’s like piloting an American Titanic through a sea of sand, all warnings were ignored – it was full steam ahead. The Titanic changed course at last minute too. It didn’t help either.

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