Analysis: Confronting change in Iraq

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Dec. 11, 2005 at 6:24 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 11 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush's major policy speech on Iraq last Wednesday reflected the same personal strengths --and weaknesses -- as one of the greatest generals in U.S. history: Ulysses S. Grant.

For the president, as many U.S. Civil War historians have said of Grant, was so determined to take the offensive to the enemy and force them to react to his forces and strategy that he neglected to consider what new offensive initiatives, both tactical and strategic, they might be coming with first to derail our own.

This is an special cause for concern because, as Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told an audience there recently, the Sunni insurgents in Iraq have over the past two years proven themselves a complex, flexible and formidable foe, capable of repeated tactical innovations and fast adaptation, offensive as well as defensive.

The president, in his speech to the Council on Foreign Relations Wednesday, characteristically refused to acknowledge any major mistakes had been made in the planning or conduct of military operations by him and his top officials. But he nevertheless acknowledged that adjustments had had to be made to prevent the highly successful insurgent tactic through much of 2004 of quietly moving in to retake major towns and cities from which U.S. forces had just dislodged them with immense effort.

And in the first of his projected four major policy speeches on Iraq delivered to an audience of young midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., the week before, Bush won praise for making the development of far stronger, more reliable and far better trained and equipped Iraqi security forces capable of operating on their own, a U.S. strategic priority in the war.

However, in neither speech did the president address the challenge of dealing with the formidable tactical flexibility of the enemy in an ongoing way. And it is that tactical ability to adapt and change quickly that has been the insurgency's most formidable asset.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made clear in his speeches and public comments through the second half of 2003 that he did not take the insurgency seriously, did not believe it would spread and did not believe it enjoyed significant support among the 5 million Sunni Muslim minority who comprise 20 percent of the population of Iraq.

However, the insurgency has grown to encompass 20,000 active participants backed by an estimated strongly supportive pool of 200,000 sympathizers according to White and other U.S. military analysts. Even worse, it has repeatedly shown an ability to inflict serious casualties on U.S. forces by continually upgrading its own tactical capabilities.

The most important example of that has been the evolution of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) which, according to the Department of Defense's own figures, have for many months now caused more than 50 percent of the U.S. military fatalities in combat in Iraq.

At first, IEDs were relatively simple and ineffective against any serious armor. They were nevertheless able through the second half of 2003 to inflict significant and escalating casualties on U.S. forces because even the most basic armored protection for patrolling and ground supply of U.S. forces had not been foreseen by the Pentagon civilian planners who pushed through the war and following occupation of Iraq with only one third or less of the number of troops that former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki publicly warned before the war would be necessary to do the job.

Eventually the necessary armored protection came, in one form or another. But the insurgents did not stand still. They moved fast to formidably improve the killing power and lethality of their IEDs. They used basic weapons technology such as shaped charges, or the simple expedient of piling two or three IEDs on top of each other to penetrate the armor of U.S. vehicles.

U.S. military planners did not sit back complacently while this was going on, and they have made continual adaptations and upgrades too. But so far the insurgents have retained their formidable and even growing ability to inflict significant levels of losses on U.S. troops. Well over 2,000 have died in Iraq so far and more than four times that number have been so severely injured they will be unable to serve on active duty ever again.

A large proportion of these more than 8,000 seriously wounded have lost limbs, suffered brain damage or incurred other injuries that will prove incapacitating for life or for many years to come. Senior army officers now privately admit the equivalent of one U.S. Army or Marine battalion is used up in Iraq in every five weeks of fighting and casualties.

The tactical race and interplay between both sides in any war is a common phenomenon. And it is also true, as Defense Secretary Rumsfeld pointed out this week, that vastly higher casualties have been suffered by victorious U.S. armies in their campaigns throughout American history.

But the difference between Iraq and, for example Iwo Jima (cited by Rumsfeld), or the U.S. Eighth Army's defeat of numerically vastly superior Chinese forces in Korea in 1950-51, is that on those occasions, it quickly became apparent that major, or even decisive, victories had been achieved, whatever the cost.

By contrast, there is no sign whatsoever in Iraq that after two-and-a-half years of fighting, the insurgency is losing its capabilities to any significant degree. On the contrary, more than twice as many insurgent attacks and incidents around the country per day are now documented compared with a year ago.

The clash of tactical adaptations between the U.S. armed forces and the insurgents in Iraq can be compared to a gigantic chess game. But a better metaphor would be the complexities of chaos theory. In chess, the capabilities of each piece are precisely defined and unchanging. The consequences of moves can clearly be predicted two or three moves in advance. None of these certainties apply in war, especially guerrilla wars.

The U.S. grand strategy in the war, once again reiterated Wednesday by the president, reflects the approach to the world of the Classical Greek philosopher Plato and his disciples -- ideas and values, such as the spread and inherent superiority in this case of democracy (a position Plato would have certainly repudiated) are unchanging, pure and must not be diluted. Physical reality must conform to the idealistic definitions imposed upon it by superior rational thought.

But the complexities of war more often reflect chaos theory, where new and unanticipated patterns that could not have been predicted emerge unexpectedly out of seeming chaos. And they also reflect the approach of Plato's arch-critic and successor, the philosopher Aristotle, who argued that defining intellectual theories must arise out of, organize and be shaped by the myriad of data points that comprise them, like building a creation out of many grains of sand.

Among uniformed military planners in the Pentagon and in Iraq itself, the messy and unpredictable tactical demands of dealing with a rapidly adapting and evolving insurgency can only be coped with through the methodology of Aristotle. But as the president made clear in his speech Wednesday, Plato still rules the shaping of grand strategy in the White House. This disconnect between realities in the field and the underlying assumptions on which high policy is based do not augur well for the future.

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