war in Iraq came at a strange moment in technological history. The 21st century
saw mass proliferation of affordable cellular telephony, altering not simply
the way people kept in touch, but did business and waged war. For the U.S.
military, cell phones posed a potentially dangerous problem. In addition to
enabling a new generation of remotely-controlled IEDs, they helped insurgents
coordinate larger and more complex groups, extending mobile C3 to any group
with a tower in range and minutes bought.
Yet, as Jacob Shapiro and Nils Weidman argue in a fascinating study, booming cellphone use cut against insurgencies. Rather than enabling more IED attacks, they made it easier for civilians to inform on insurgents. Cellphones could even fill gaps in counterinsurgent communication networks while exposing insurgent communications to U.S. superiority in electronic warfare. Looking at a systemic level rather than narrowly at one actor’s applications of a technology, mobile telephony’s expansion more likely helped than hindered counterinsurgents.
The dynamic between new technology, conflict, and social systems frequently lends itself to oversimplification. Cell phones neither made nor broke U.S. operations in Iraq, and although the Taliban appears to recognize their threat, they do not determine the course of the war there either. Despite the rapidly proliferating quantity and falling price of many new technologies, technical military dominance remains and incredibly expensive affair.
While it is not incredibly difficult to probe the DoD’s cybersecurity or even penetrate its networks, launching computer network attacks sophisticated enough to significantly degrade the U.S.’s overwhelming strength requires not just a built-up IT infrastructure for computer network attack, but a wide spectrum of electronic warfare capabilities and enough conventional punch to exploit the gap. Even in these scenarios, states such as China, Russia, the U.S. and Israel continue to enjoy massive advantages over non-state groups and poor or weak states when it comes to information warfare. The costs in human and technological capital significantly mitigates the disruptive effects of the technology.
Similarly, with remotely-operated and robotic weapons, rudimentary capabilities vastly proliferated but constraints remain on their ability to substitute for or supplement inadequate conventional capability. Basic, cost-intensive issues of physics and logistics, such as size, payload, and the availability of military-grade air-launched munitions limit the lethality of “personal” aerial drones, while even state actors without adequate C4ISR infrastructure or the conventional means to enable drone operations will find it difficult to radically change their means.
It should be unsurprising that until the mid-20th century, a major narrative in Western thought was not technology getting the barbarians closer to crashing the gate, but fueling the rise of an ever vaster and more terrible Leviathan. Increasing technical complexity and costs to waging war indeed promoted the ascent of the modern state. As the trend continued, bureaucracies and state power grew even in the most liberal states, while the Soviet Union and fascist Europe pointed towards state power, economic advancement, and military-technical strength going hand in hand. Even before totalitarianism, fin de siècle Britons such as Halford Mackinder, Leo Amery, and H.G. Wells saw new technology militating towards stronger and larger states. This was a trend the experience of the World Wars and Cold War only seemed to reinforce, until the fall of the USSR and heightened concern with disruptive technologies, anarchic failed states, and the power of individuals.
Despite the obvious oversights of those who took the writings of Orwell and Burnham a bit too far to heart, it’s important to remember that many of the technologies thought to be rolling back state power came about through state action and operate most powerfully with the state’s resources behind them. The glut of small arms and light weapons in conflict zones are frequently legacy of state-backed mass production and proxy war supplies, or states toppled with the aid of conventional power.
Keil Lieber ably demonstrated the errors of confounding technical systems with undue political attributes in his dissection of offense-defense balance in IR theory. For issues of state-building and insurgency, a similar look at how disruptive technologies require enabling and support from a wider variety of social and political factors makes it much easier to explain why some technology erodes the power of one state while vastly bolstering another. At a broader, systemic level, though, asking whether this or that technology bolsters or erodes state authority is likely asking the wrong question.
To note the increasing sophistication of non-state groups is not to imply the erosion of the state or even an adverserial relationship between state authority and other forms. Instead, given that assemblages of state power remain the dominant territorial and political forms (even if they deviate from our expectations), investigating the parasitic, commensalist, and symbiotic relationships between them will likely be the best way both to assess the political impacts of proliferating technology and the emergent shape of world order.
In tomorrow's New York Times Sunday Review, Lucian Truscott IV blasts General David Petraeus for failing to "conquer" Iraq and Afghanistan. Truscott unfavorably compares Petraeus to generals who "stormed the beaches of North Africa and southern France with blood in their eyes and military murder on their minds" and were "nearly psychotic in their drive to kill enemy soldiers and subjugate enemy nations." Yesterday at the venerable Halifax International Security Forum, Wolfgang Ischinger admonished Western policymakers to avoid "military solutions" for "political problems." The temporal juxtaposition of Truscott and Ischinger's comments is striking precisely because they represent the Platonic ideal of two similar--and conceptually misguided--approaches to understanding modern conflict.
To Truscott IV, what matters in war is violence, and only one kind of violence. In this reading, the worth of a general derives only from his enthusiasm for pursuing decisive battle of the kind seen in popular "drums and trumpets" military history. But that kind of warfare is only one small slice of human history. That is why the Prussians were so confused by French resistance that continued long after her main armies were crushed on the field in 1870. It is also why German dreams of a second Cannae--on a battlefield that dwarfed any ancient engagement in size and intensity--foundered in 1914. In war, violence is ideally used to advance the dictates of policy, not for its own sake. Violence for the purpose of aesthetic should be left to Quentin Tarantino films, not the real world of war. Indeed, words like "conquer" and "subjugate" imply that Truscott IV imagines that the US should have executed an OPLAN derived from a certain major operation in CENTCOM's AOR that took place in 1258.
Truscott IV's rather Mongolian reading of American strategy's purpose brings to mind the confusion inherent in hard-boiled critiques of modern counterinsurgency that idealize tools such as the destructive raid, targeted killing, or collective punishment rather than analyze how they were actually used to further a political community's desired future condition. Phrased differently: does it really matter if Patton or Truscott IV's grandpappy were nail-chewing, "nearly psychotic" go-getters if such "military murder" was inappropriate for the policy? Warfare in all eras of history is characterized by political and material constraints. These constraints were intimately familiar to American commanders in World War II, who had to balance operational necessity with keeping an unlikely worldwide coalition together. Breaking the will of the enemy was of paramount importance, but the manner in which it was done also had implications for the peace that would follow.
There will always be people that point out what ideally could be done with a certain military tool, like those that called on the US to utilize an "elastic defense" in Western Europe during the late Cold War. That had a superficial plausibility to it--why not trade space for time, bleeding out the Soviet army as reinforcements streamed into Europe? The problem with that approach is that the West German government would not tolerate a strategy that explicitly allowed much of its territory to be ravaged. Like it or not, the US had to fight with rules the Germans defined if we hoped to keep NATO united against the Red hordes.
Ischinger's confusion is the product of a similar focus on tools rather than purpose. Indeed, to be fair, the idea has a long intellectual pedigree. But the argument that there are separate "political" and "military" problems with bifurcated solutions ignores the time-tested concept that the purpose of the military is to break the will of the violent objector to the policy. Hence by creating new political realities, the military is also a "political solution." Admiral Mike Mullen's now-famous dictum that "we can't kill our way to victory" is often repeated but is also empirically unfounded. If the policy is correct, the strategy is sound, and the tactics are appropriate for the task one can often do precisely that. Indeed, recent academic research confirms Clausewitz's hypothesis that it is precisely the nature of the war aims that weighs highest in questions of victory and defeat. Because an objective definition of "victory' has never existed above the level of tactics, the way a state defines victory is key to whether it can achieve it through organized violence.
But that's a rather long chain of "ifs" that a strategist must keep track of. Making good policy is hard. Crafting good strategy to break the enemy's will and executing it is simple in conception but fiendishly difficult in practice. And there's an entire military innovation literature about the problems of correctly judging military trends and developing appropriate tactics. That said, we shouldn't confuse periodic failure of the military instrument with the idea that the utility of force itself has somehow universally declined. Some political objectives are genuinely unresolvable through force. But the reasons why matter. Maybe the enemy's military power is too strong. Perhaps defeating the opponent is not worth the cost. The nature of the military instrument could be too blunt and imprecise to deliver the desired effects. The political community in question might normatively oppose a certain kind of violence and thus take it off the list of possible solutions.
Explaining precisely why the use of force would be ineffective is all more useful and helpful than a blanket statement that military solutions are inappropriate for a "political problem"---because the idea of a solely "military problem" defies thousands of years of history and most of what we know of strategic theory. There are only political problems, and they are decided through combinations of force and statecraft. And when someone criticizes a supposed "military solution" it is often a veiled way of stating that they disagree with an envisioned political end that differs from their own.
Unfortunately, the idea that tools are ends is common in most discussions of modern security topics. The depressing result of tool-fixation is that those ends remain unquestioned. That's why "drone war" remains the topic of conversation rather than the fact that the United States has become an active participant in internal conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Shouldn't the casualness with which we inject ourselves into local political disputes be cause for concern, flying robots or not? Tools are sexy, but how they actually advance (or don't) policy most surely isn't.
* Some apologies to readers unfamiliar with the show that inspired the title.
A few months ago, it was still fashionable on the American Right to blame President Obama for withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq and thus squandering any residual U.S. leverage over events there. I pressed back on this narrative, pointing out that it was the Bush Administration that, to its credit, successfully negotiated the Status of Forces Agreement in the fall of 2008 that established the terms for the U.S. withdrawal. It was not logical, I argued, for critics of the Democratic Obama Administration to blame it for faithfully executing a course of action established by the Republican Bush Administration.
The American Left, though, is increasingly giving the president credit for the withdrawal from Iraq. Here is former New York Times editor Jospeh Lelyveld writing in the New York Review of Books:
Barack Obama can claim two big foreign policy accomplishments: getting American forces out of Iraq and compressing his predecessor’s expansive, grandiose-sounding “Global War on Terror” into a narrowly focused, unremitting campaign against the remnants of the al-Qaeda network, relying largely on high-tech intelligence gathering and pilotless drones.
The Left needs to be reminded, today, of what we reminded the Right yesterday. The Bush Administration started the disastrous war in Iraq, but it also ended it. I remember the debates on Iraq in the 2008 presidential campaign, and what neither campaign was quick to acknowledge was that the U.S. mandate in Iraq expired on 1 January 2009 and that it would thus be the Bush Administration -- and neither a McCain or Obama Administration -- that would negotiate a withdrawal with the government in Baghdad. Campaign debates over Iraq policy were thus of little consequence. Any administration would inherit a policy largely dictated by the parameters established by the one that preceded it.
The Right wants to blame the Obama Administration for withdrawing from Iraq without recognizing the role played by the Bush Administration in 2008. The Left, by contrast, wants to give the president credit for withdrawing from Iraq -- again without recognizing the role played by the Bush Administration. Neither should be allowed to both have their cake and eat it too.
There has been much understandable worry about the civil war in Syria re-igniting dormant conflicts in Lebanon and Iraq. Despite the ongoing violence in northern Lebanon, I used my World Politics Review column yesterday to explain why spillover was likely but also why it would not take the form of civil war.
(As my article went online, Emile el-Hokayem published this excellent analysis on the drivers of conflict in northern Lebanon. Highly recommended.)
I have a new column in World Politics Review arguing that most criticisms of President Obama on Iraq miss the mark.
Most recently, GOP critics of the Obama administration have been quick to fault the White House for withdrawing U.S. troops at the end of 2011. But the incessant, myopic focus of many Republicans on America’s military means is wrong-headed and ignores where the administration has actually fallen short in Iraq.
If you're going to criticize the administration, I argue, you're better off criticizing the administration for enabling the sectarian re-polarization of the country. Read the entire article here.
John Tirman has an important if flawed op-ed in today's New York Times. He urges U.S. military and political leaders -- as well as the general public -- to be honest about civilian casualties in war. Tirman argues that U.S. military officers need to be wary of civilian casualties for strategic reasons, and here the two of us are in violent agreement. Tirman also argues that the U.S. public and its leaders need to consider the total human cost associated with war for moral reasons, and here too we are in violent agreement. Whenever I speak about the war in Iraq -- whether it is over dinner with friends last night or on NPR a few weeks ago -- I always make sure I mention the terrible loss of Iraqi lives. We Americans have to be honest about this. Last night, someone asked me if I thought the Iraq War had been worth it, and though I said the Iraq war had accomplished certain things (the fall of Saddam, a nascent democratic system of government), it most certainly had not been worth it. The three pieces of data I went on to cite were a) the $1 trillion spent, b) the 4,484 U.S. military lives lost, and c) the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian lives lost. I could have gone on to cite coalition casualties, the Iraqi refugee crisis, and wounded soldiers and civilians, but you get my drift: I am sympathetic to the aim of Tirman's op-ed.
But then Tirman writes this:
In 2006, two separate household surveys, by the Iraqi Ministry of Health and by researchers from Johns Hopkins University, found between 400,000 and 650,000 “excess deaths” in Iraq as a result of the war. At the time, however, the commanding general in Iraq put the number at 50,000 and President Bush had claimed in late 2005 that it was just 30,000.
As Tirman has to know, that Johns Hopkins / Lancet survey was incredibly controversial when it was released and remains controversial today. It relied on cluster sampling, in Iraq, at the height of that country's civil war. I cannot think of a poorer environment in which one could do that kind of survey. Yes, it was peer-reviewed, but an academically sophisticated methodology cannot compensate for poor data. (Garbage in = garbage out.) Both Gen. Casey and Pres. Bush were likely much closer to the mark, as the iCasualties figures from the very height of the war in Iraq -- 2005-2007 -- are way lower than the figures from either of the studies Tirman cites. (And if Tirman thinks the Iraqi Min. of Health had the capacity, in 2006, to accurately measure the cost of the war on the Iraqi civilian populace, he needs to spend more time in peacetime bureaucracies in the Arabic-speaking world. I apologize for painting with such a broad brush, but those with experience dealing with large state bureaucracies in Egypt or Syria know of what I speak.)
Tirman's op-ed is basically a call for the United States to use violence more selectively, and it's a pity he overstates his case (as tends to happen in New York Times op-eds), because I agree with him. As has been demonstrated time and again, the use of indiscriminate violence in civil war environments confuses the population, scrambles incentive structures for behavior, and tends to inflame the population against the force using the violence. Selective violence is much more effective.
That's the strategic argument. The moral argument is that the U.S. public needs to understand the total human costs associated with its wars. That may lead the United States to be more selective as to when it applies U.S. military power abroad and how it does so. On the other hand, it might also lead the United States to think carefully about how it ends its wars as well. There is a fashionable sign in my neighborhood, for example, that reads "End the War in Afghanistan." I assume this sign is meant to read "End U.S. Involvement in the War in Afghanistan," because I myself am unsure as to whether or not the U.S. withdrawal will ameliorate or worsen the conflict there. Progressives like Tirman should keep that in mind: the U.S. military is only one actor in environments like Iraq and Afghanistan, and the U.S. presence is not the only driver of conflict. It is even possible -- whisper it -- that increased U.S. combat presence and operations might actually serve the interests of the civilian population in some cases. That's certainly the case, at least, in most stabilization operations.
Anyway, my congratulations to John Tirman for this important op-ed.
UPDATED: One of the folks in the comments section points out that Tirman directed the funding for the Lancet/JHU study. Well, that explains it! (I wish he would have disclosed this small but significant point in his op-ed.) Tirman apparently believes between 800,000 and 1.3 million Iraqis were killed in the war, which is a simply incredible claim. No one else puts the number that high. The Associated Press (110,600), the Iraq Body Count Project (103,536 — 113,125), and the Wikileaks logs (109,032) all put the number much, much lower. At what point does someone admit that their numbers just might be off and that their own study had deep flaws? I mean, only 87,000 death certificates were issued in the worst years of the war (2005-2008). Tirman might be the only guy left who references the Lancet/JHU study as having been sound.
I want to highlight three op-eds on the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. The first is by Brett McGurk, an early supporter within the Bush Administration for the "Surge" who later helped negotiate the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement. (People in position to know about such things often credit McGurk, along with fellow NSC staffer Elissa Slotkin, as having been the U.S. official most responsible for the successful 2008 negotiations.) McGurk argues forcefully and persuasively against those -- such as Fred and Kim Kagan or Max Boot -- who have argued that an extension of U.S. forces in Iraq was possible or that Iran has won (and Obama has lost) the Iraq War:
[Our] trying to force an agreement through the Iraqi parliament would have been self-destructive. That had nothing to do with Iran and everything to do with Iraqi pride, history and nationalism. Even the most staunchly anti-Iranian Iraqi officials refused to publicly back a residual U.S. force — and in the end, they supported our withdrawal.
McGurk, bear in mind, is an interested party here, so caveat lector. All the same, knowing his reputation and experience, I trust the narrative he advances. Reidar Visser, meanwhile, argues that Chris Hill was the U.S. official most responsible for "losing" Iraq. I loudly voiced my own objections to Hill's appointment in 2009, but I am not sure I completely buy Reidar's arguments. Still, Reidar is an incredibly knowledgeable scholar on Iraq whose opinions are always grounded in fact and careful investigations.
Which brings us to the final op-ed, which I am only including because it highlights what a predictably partisan clown Charles Krauthammer has become in his advanced years. Krauthammer knows Iraq about as well as I know Washoe basketweaving traditions.* That doesn't stop him from weighing in, though, with typically thunderous certainty, about how the president lost the Iraq War. It's enough to have made Steve Metz wonder over Twitter whether or not Krauthammer is a secret Washington Post plot to discredit serious conservative thought.
*To clarify, I know nothing about Washoe basketweaving traditions. I'm sure they are great, though.
I cannot decide whether to join in with all the hyperventilation over our withdrawal from Iraq (Ex. A, Ex. B) and ink a deal with Regnery for A Victory Lost: How Obama Defeated the United States in Iraq, and Murdered Puppies or take the time to defend the administration. The former would probably be a lot more fun, but some lingering sense of responsibility leads me to do the latter. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I have disagreed with the Bush and Obama Administrations pretty regularly on issues related to Iraq and Afghanistan, but I thought the Bush Administration did things pretty well regarding Iraq from 2006 onward and that the Obama Administration was correct to complete the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in compliance with the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by the Bush Administration.
Let me just say a few things in response to some of the criticism of the Obama Administration by its neo-conservative critics (many of whom I respect and largely agree with on other issues).
1. Iran did win the Iraq War -- but in March of 2003, not November of 2011. If we were trying to contain Iran, knocking off that regime's mortal enemy in 2003 probably wasn't the hottest idea. A democratic, Shia-majority Iraq was always going to be friendlier with the regime in Tehran than a Sunni Arab-minority regime. You can still support the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 for any number of reasons, humanitarian or strategic, but you cannot then also complain years later about how Iran is empowered. Of course Iran is empowered. That was an obvious, easily-predictable risk we ran from the beginning.
2. Iraq is a sovereign nation, right? By our design, right? Well, if you are going to bust the Obama Administration's chops for not staying in Iraq, you then have to explain to me how we were supposed to stay in Iraq over the objections of the Iraqis themselves. My stance on staying in Iraq has always been that it was worth discussing -- so long as Iraq's leaders were willing to explain our continued presence in Iraq, in Arabic, to their constituents on live television. Anything else would be perceived as a continued occupation, exposing remaining U.S. troops to continued violent attacks. My college buddy Yochi Dreazen, who served as the Wall Street Journal's bureau chief in Iraq for two years at the height of the war, returned recently and discovered a massive disconnect between the debate in Baghdad over U.S. troops in Iraq and the debate in Washington over U.S. troops in Iraq. While we Americans were arguing over whether or not we should stay, the Iraqi voice was clear: they wanted us to go. I want to hear the administration's critics respond to the united opinion of Iraq's elected leaders and populace: are we to keep military forces in Iraq over the objection of the Iraqis themselves? If so, how is this not a new occupation? And does this Iraqi sovereignty we fought so hard for now not matter because of the threat posed by Iran? Because the one thing that drives me nuts about these criticisms of the Obama Administration is that they never allow space to discuss Iraqi sovereignty -- which matters in 2011 in a way that it did not in 2006.
Now, these are just the ways in which I would respond to the critics of the administration, who otherwise raise good points about U.S. interests, the threat posed by transnational terrorist groups, and Iranian influence in the region. Overall, though, I was convinced by the arguments made by Doug Ollivant, one of the men who worked on the Iraq staff of the Bush Administration's National Security Council. Read his essay -- which I am now posting for the second time -- and tell me why he is wrong.
Having pretty carefully considered the arguments for and against leaving troops in Iraq beyond this year, I ultimately found Doug Ollivant's argument to be the most persuasive. So I support the president's decision to end U.S. military involvement in the war in Iraq. But wars, like history, do not stop when America decides it no longer wants to be involved. This is worth remembering, both in terms of what is taking place in Iraq today as well as what might take place in Afghanistan in 2014. So by all means, say U.S. involvement in the war has ended. But think carefully before saying the war has ended.
1. This nonsense about adding new medals to recognize service in Iraq and Afghanistan is just as ridiculous as people have been saying, and for even more reasons. The way the U.S. military has divided up the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into arbitrary phases is unnecessary and confusing. Ask a soldier if they have served in either country, and they will likely say, "Yes, two deployments to Iraq and three to Afghanistan" or something similar. They do not say, "Well, let's see, I had one deployment as part of the Liberation, one as part of the Transition, one deployment that overlapped between the Surge and Iraqi Sovereignty ... and then I deployed to Afghanistan as part of the Consolidation." That's silly. Just award one medal for service in each combat theater, and if you want to keep score beyond that, well, that's why God invented service stripes and valor awards.
2. I have mixed feelings about the news that the White House will now issue condolence letters to the families of soldiers who have committed suicide. First off, I care a lot less about condolence letters than I do about investing in psychological screening and counseling to reduce the number of suicides in the first place. Second, not all suicides are the result of combat stress. (One study demonstrated that "79 percent of army suicides occurred within the first three years of service, whether soldiers were deployed or not.") I have known soldiers who have died in Afghanistan in helicopter accidents and soldiers who have died in stateside helicopter crashes. Although neither crash was directly caused by enemy action, the families of the former received condolence letters. The families of the latter did not. If you're going to start writing letters to the families of all soldiers who commit suicide (where indirect cause of death cannot be clearly determined), should you not also start writing condolence letters to the families of all servicemen who die while serving on active duty? And what about the soldier who returns home from war, horrified by what he has seen, gets really drunk and dies (and maybe kills a few others) while driving under the influence? Does that guy's family get a letter? I mean, where do you draw the line between those who receive condolence letters and those who do not? My man Yochi Dreazen gets deeper into these questions in this National Journal article.
3. Speaking of PTSD, if a U.S. soldier wrote a difficult, painful-to-read, searingly honest essay on his or her struggle with PTSD, no one would tell that soldier that he or she does not have the right to write such an essay because they failed to also consider the effect of the war on innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. People would just accept that everyone has the right to share his or her own personal narrative, and that when people are brave enough to open up about their personal experiences, we should all give them the space to do so. Which is just one of the reasons why the outrage over Mac McLelland's essay annoys me.