- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2008


It has been exactly five years since Operation Iraqi Freedom kicked off with the strike to kill Saddam Hussein. But had Saddam perished in that attack and had the regime immediately collapsed, permitting an even swifter victory on the ground, would Iraq be a safer, more stable and more viable place today? The answer is probably not.

Writing in last Sunday’s New York Times, former Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul Bremer protested that there were too few coalition troops on the ground to deal first with the looting and by inference afterward, with the necessity of restoring order, guarding the huge ammunition dumps that were prevalent throughout the country and other tasks essential to restoring a measure of peace and stability. Richard Perle, one of the architects of the strategy for bringing democracy to the Middle East via Iraq, complained that no one could conceive that the Bush administration would so mishandle the occupation to steal defeat from the jaws of a great military victory.

These admissions from individuals with great responsibility for the war and the subsequent peace withstanding, well prior to invasion, the State Department analysis that forecast much of what was to come would still have applied. Our current ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, was part of that analytic team. Operation Iraqi Freedom was headed for tears. Today, the administration is claiming that the “surge” has worked, violence is down and Iraq is on the road to success.

Yet, last week, Gen. David Petraeus voiced concern over the failure or pace of political reconciliation to take hold. An objective assessment of the political process in Baghdad would not lead to optimistic conclusions about what Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will be able to achieve as the surged U.S. forces are drawn down, raising the prospect of a return to violence and instability. So, five years into the war, what can we learn that may be useful in keeping Iraq from failing and in informing future White Houses to steer clear of repeating past mistakes?

First, “lessons learned” is an oxymoronic term. We simply don’t learn lessons. Presidential candidates may promise not to repeat past errors. Unfortunately, history paints a different picture. We failed in Vietnam because we were not prepared to seek ground truth and in our arrogance and hubris lumbered down a path that led to disaster. The parallels between this administration’s engagement in Iraq and Vietnam suggest that this propensity for self-denial may be in our political DNA.

Second, we do not do well in elective wars (i.e. wars we initiate). Of the past six wars — World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War I and Afghanistan — Vietnam was elective. And that is the one in which we did the worst, so far. The current Iraq war is still to play out. However, there is little doubt that Iraq has obscured the battle in Afghanistan, making it the invisible war. And if we do not impose profound shifts in how we deal with governance — controlling corruption, implementing legal reforms, fielding a credible police force, providing job alternatives and coping with the drug-production epidemic (Afghanistan, by the way, is now the leading producer of not merely opium but marijuana) — we, the Afghan people and the international community will not succeed there, either.

Third, we trivialize the need for a comprehensive strategy based on viable, realistic and achievable outcomes. What was and is our strategy for Iraq? What outcomes are we seeking and how are we going to achieve them as the surge winds down? Similarly, what is the strategy for Afghanistan, or for that matter Pakistan, Russia, China etc? What we have instead are slogans and soundbites convenient for politicians to engage the media and not effective strategies and plans for winning.

Fourth, we refuse to organize ourselves for the conduct of war in a way that gives us the best chance of winning. In Vietnam, we fought four or five different air wars, ground wars and pacification wars. These wars were largely fought by service assignments, not strategic necessity — Navy and Air Force pilots conducted strikes against North Vietnam in respective areas of responsibility; Marines were in I Corps, the Army had the remainder of the south.

In Afghanistan, command is divided among three commanders — Central Command, Special Forces Command and NATO — and when asked who is in charge here, no one individual comes to mind. Iraq is complicated by the need of the president to go directly to his commander there, routinely bypassing Central Command. And while the public is constantly told we are a nation at war, not all of the government has been forced to rally ‘round the flag.

That none of these realities suggests that much will change with the next administration is very depressing.

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