Lt. Gen. David Petraeus has taken command of the war in Iraq. He is a soldier with impeccable military credentials as well as admirable scholarly achievement. He is a man who has studied and understands history.
After successfully commanding the Army’s elite 101st Airborne Division in Iraq, he went to remote Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and directed a staff in writing new Army doctrine. The result: a new 282-page Army Field Manual called FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency. It is also adopted by the U.S. Marine Corps. The new manual recognizes each conflict is unique and tactics must be fluid and adaptive.
The Field Manual’s stated purpose is to fill a doctrinal gap … how to fight an insurgency. We may finally have a leader who understands that since 2003 we have fought an insurgency with mainly conventional forces and mostly conventional tactics. Hopefully, he will begin to fight the war in Iraq as a true counterinsurgency.
In Vietnam, our opponents learned early in the war they could not stand toe to toe with the U.S. military and slug it out. They would lose. They decided to go underground and fight an insurgency or guerrilla war where they could choose targets of opportunity and then melt back into the population that supported them. This also happened in Iraq. They learned and adapted; we didn’t.
About 2500 years ago, Sun Tzu, a Chinese philosopher and warrior, wrote his collection of thoughts on military strategy now known as “The Art of War.” Its application to the planning and conduct of war is as valid today in the pursuit of victory in the Global War on Terrorism as it was in the author’s day of feudal China.
Basically, Sun Tzu advocated carefully “calculating” before taking any action and even warned that “to gain a hundred victories in a hundred battles is not the highest excellence; to subjugate the enemy’s army without doing battle is the highest of excellence.” He added: “Therefore, the best warfare strategy is to attack the enemy’s plans, next is to attack alliances, next is to attack the army, and the worst is to attack a walled city.”
The United States did not attack Iraq’s plans, did not attack terrorist alliances by forming our own regional alliances, and did not attack their Army but disbanded it, creating a large unemployment problem consisting of armed, trained and disgruntled men. We, did, however, choose to attack the equivalent of a walled city, Islam, which is divided into factions we don’t even understand.
We have been conducting this war just like we conducted the last one in Iraq when Saddam ordered his forces to stand fast and block our advance. The enemy learned the hard way that they cannot survive the U.S. military forces’ overwhelming “shock and awe” but they can wear us down until our will to fight collapses and we go home. The enemy learned, and chooses to fight us differently. We didn’t learn and have been fighting the same war all over again.
Operation Iraqi Freedom is viewed by its supporters as an altruistic action to free the oppressed. But it is seen by those we fight and much of the world as an invasion of their sacred land and a direct attack on the “walled city,” Islam. Sun Tzu warned that the walled city is the worst option for an attack, exercised only as a last resort. The terrorists do not share our belief that we are there to help.
We hope Gen. Petraeus and his advisers take the advice of the ancient philosopher and use less to accomplish more. Use small teams to train, equip and advise the Iraqi Army to fight its own war. Use increased diplomacy, sanctions, coercion and persuasion with Iraq and its neighbors to support a scaled-down U.S. military involvement and achieve peace.
I believe this war is still winnable. Much of the rest of the world needs convincing.
William R. Cousins is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He is a defense consultant and senior military adviser to the National Defense Council Foundation.