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August 28, 2005

A Strategy for Winning in Iraq?

David Brooks' column in today's NYT discusses a provocative essay in the current issue of Foreign Affairs by Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr. Krepinevich argues persuasively for what he calls an "oil spot" strategy in Iraq: securing key areas and helping to restore civil society there and then slowly expanding out to the rest of the country. As Brooks summarizes:

The core insight is that you can't win a war like this by going off on search and destroy missions trying to kill insurgents. There are always more enemy fighters waiting. You end up going back to the same towns again and again, because the insurgents just pop up after you've left and kill anybody who helped you. You alienate civilians, who are the key to success, with your heavy-handed raids.

Instead of trying to kill insurgents, Krepinevich argues, it's more important to protect civilians. You set up safe havens where you can establish good security. Because you don't have enough manpower to do this everywhere at once, you select a few key cities and take control. Then you slowly expand the size of your safe havens, like an oil spot spreading across the pavement.

This makes a lot of intuitive sense, though it is reminiscent of the "strategic hamlet" concept in Vietnam. (This is not surprising since Dr. Kepinevich is perhaps best known for his 1986 book The Army and Vietnam.) However, the conditions in Iraq are much more favorable to making this strategy work: Iraq is much smaller and a larger portion of the population lives in large cities and towns, rather than isolated farming villages. Also, unlike in Vietnam, there is no need to move large numbers of people from their homes into new areas that can be better defended against terrorist attacks.

Of course, one of the drawbacks of this strategy is that it would probably require a lot more troops on the ground to provide security -- troops that we don't really have, as Slate's Fred Kaplan recently explained. Another problem is political, the Iraqi government would have to agree to effectively abandon parts of the country to the Jihadi's and Baathists in order to focus security and economic resources on areas that could be effectly protected.

Finally, in reading Dr. Krepinevich's essay, I was struck by the significance of this strategic observation, highlighting the critical role played by US domestic opinion in determining the success or failure of our efforts in Iraq:

The current fight has three centers of gravity: the Iraqi people, the American people, and the American soldier. The insurgents have recognized this, making them their primary targets. For the United States, the key to securing each one is winning "hearts and minds." The Iraqi people must believe that their government offers them a better life than the insurgents do, and they must think that the government will prevail. If they have doubts on either score, they will withhold their support. The American people must believe that the war is worth the sacrifice, in lives and treasure, and think that progress is being made. If the insurgents manage to erode their will, Washington will be forced to abandon the infant regime in Baghdad before it is capable of standing on its own. Finally, the American soldier must believe that the war is worth the sacrifice and think that there is progress toward victory. Unlike in Vietnam, the United States is waging war with an all-volunteer military, which gives the American soldier (or marine) a "vote" in the conflict. With over 150,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers must rotate back into those war zones at a high rate. If confidence in the war wanes, veterans will vote with their feet by refusing to reenlist and prospective new recruits will avoid signing up in the first place. If this occurs, the United States will be unable to sustain anything approaching its current effort in Iraq. A precipitous reduction in U.S. forces could further undermine the resolve of both the American and the Iraqi people. At present, U.S. Army and Marine Corps reenlistment rates are strong. Army recruiting, however, is down substantially.

The insurgents have a clear advantage when it comes to this fight: they only need to win one of the centers of gravity to succeed, whereas the United States must secure all three. Making matters even more complicated for the coalition, a Catch-22 governs the fight against the insurgency: efforts designed to secure one center of gravity may undermine the prospects of securing the others. For example, increased U.S. troop deployments to Iraq -- which require that greater resources be spent and troops be rotated in and out more frequently -- might increase security for the Iraqi people but erode support for the war among the U.S. public and the military.

Given the current state of domestic opinion polls, the MSM liberal consensus (witness Frank Rich's latest in this same issue of the NYT), and the PR triumph of Cindy Sheehan's media circus, we have our work cut out for us on the home front. If Krepinevich is right, the fight to win hearts and minds in this country may well be the decisive factor in determining our ultimate victory or defeat in Iraq.

August 28, 2005 at 07:49 AM | Permalink


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