Outside View: Iraq's grim lessons

By ANTHONY H. CORDESMAN, UPI Outside View Commentator  |  Dec. 14, 2005 at 9:36 AM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 13 (UPI) -- There is a grim lesson to learn from the evolution of the insurgency in Iraq.

It is a lesson that goes firmly against the American grain, but it is a natural corollary of limited war. If the course of the political and military struggle shows the United States that it cannot achieve the desired grand strategic outcome, it needs to accept the fact that the United States must find ways to terminate a counter-insurgency war. Defeat, withdrawal, and acceptance of an outcome less than victory are never desirable in limited war, but they are always acceptable. For all the arguments about prestige, trust, and deterrence, there is no point in pursuing a limited conflict when it becomes more costly than the objective is worth or when the probability of achieving that objective becomes too low.

This is a lesson that goes against American culture. The whole idea that the United States can be defeated is no more desirable for Americans than for anyone else, in fact, almost certainly less so. But when the United States lost in Vietnam it not only lived with the reality, it ultimately did not suffer from it. When the United States failed in Lebanon and Haiti, it failed at almost no perceptible cost. Exiting Somalia was not without consequences, but they were scarcely critical.

This does not mean that the United States should not stay in Iraq as long as it has a good chance of achieving acceptable objectives at an acceptable cost. But it does mean that the United States can afford to lose in Iraq, particularly for reasons that are frankly beyond its control and which the world will recognize as such. There is no point in "staying the course" through a major Iraqi civil war, a catastrophic breakdown of the political process, or a government coming to power that simply asks us to leave. In all three cases, it isn't a matter of winning or losing, but instead, facing a situation where conditions no longer exist for staying.

In the future, the United States will need to pay far more attention to the option of declaring that it is fighting a limited war for limited objectives if it really is a limited war. It may well need to fully explain what the limits to its goals and level of engagement are and develop a strategy for implementing, communicating and exploiting these limits. One mistake is to tell the host government, or the people you are fighting with, that your commitment is open-ended and that you can never leave; the incentive for responsibility vanishes with it.

Similarly, if you tell the American people and the world that a marginal strategic interest is vital, the world will sooner or later believe it, which is very dangerous if you have to leave or lose. You are better off saying you may lose, setting limits, and then winning, than claiming that you can't lose, having no limits, and then losing. And this should not be a massive, innovative lesson, but it is one we simply do not seem prepared to learn.

The evolution of the insurgency in Iraq is yet another lesson in the fact that focusing on the military dimension of war is an almost certain path to grand strategic defeat in any serious conflict, and particularly in counter-insurgency. If the United States must engage in counter-insurgency warfare, and sometimes it must, then it needs to plan for both the complexity and cost of successful conflict termination and ensuring a favorable grand strategic outcome. It must prepare for the risk of long-term engagement and escalation, risks that will require more forces and resources; or it must otherwise set very clear limits to what it will do based on the limited grand strategic value of the outcome and act upon them -- regardless of short-term humanitarian costs.

The United States needs to prepare for, and execute, a full spectrum of conflict. That means doing much more than seeking to win a war militarily. It needs to have the ability to make a valid and sustainable national commitment in ideological and political terms. It must find ways of winning broad local and regional support; stability operations and nation building are the price of any meaningful counter-insurgency campaign.

Iraq, like so many other serious post-World War II insurgencies, shows that successful counter-insurgency means having or creating a local partner that can take over from U.S. forces and that can govern. Both Vietnam and Iraq show the United States cannot win an important counter-insurgency campaign alone. The United States will always be dependent on the people in the host country, and usually on local and regional allies. And to some extent, will be dependent on the quality of its operations in the United Nations, in dealing with traditional allies and in diplomacy. If the United States can't figure out a way to have or create such an ally, and fight under these conditions, a counter-insurgency conflict may well not be worth fighting.

This means the United States must do far more than create effective allied forces. In most cases, it will have to find a way to reshape the process of politics and governments to create some structure in the country that can actually act in areas it "liberates." Pacification is the classic example. If the United States or its allies can't deploy allied police forces and government presence, the result is far too often to end up with a place on the map where no one in his right mind would go at night.


(Anthony J. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair of Strategy at the center for strategic and International studies in Washington DC. This is taken from his latest CSIS paper "The Iraqi war and its strategic lessons for counter-insurgency.")


(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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