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September 4, 2005 - The Blindingly Obvious Strategy of the Day - The Oil Patch

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Late last week my copy of Foreign Affairs arrived here in Hollywood, light blue and wrapped in cellophane - one of the two things that arrive here in hard copy.  The other is the Los Angeles Times, but I often review that on the net as they have quality control issues with their presses and it really is a bother to find something heavy to stretch out the pages that arrive creased and folded into themselves.  It's easier to find out what was in that middle column by calling it up on the computer screen.  So Harriet-the-Cat sleeps on the fresh copy of the Times each morning.  She likes how it feels.

The Times is fresh bedding for the spoiled cat, but Foreign Affairs is slick - all the pages readable, all nicely bound - very professional.  Of course it's for policy wonks, and pricey, but Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, was offered a free year for a friend, and he thought of me.  Three doors down, the new guy, the former New Orleans television news anchor and former lawyer, has Daily Variety dropped at his door each day.  He's one of those people who chucked it all to come to Hollywood and become a screenwriter.  Coming back from the mailboxes with my new issue of Foreign Affairs and a few bills in hand I glance at his Daily Variety on his doorstep.  I'm just not doing this Hollywood thing right.  Ah well, to each his own.

The new issue of Foreign Affairs has the word "China" in big bold letters on the cover, in red of course.  That's the focus.  But wouldn't you know, in the world of policy wonks and the fourteen or fifteen people in the country who are thinking about what to do next about the war in Iraq - the rest either just trust the president and figure we go on as we have because he says we should, or just don't trust him after all the oops-wrong-reason-for the-war-here's-another and this-really-is-a-turning-point-this-time-really moments and want out now, or just don't think about the war at all - well, the article in the September-October 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs that everyone is talking about isn't about China at all.  It's by Andrew Krepinevich and titled How to Win in Iraq.

We can do that?

Krepinevich says we can. We simply use the "oil spot strategy." We stop focusing all our resources on killing insurgents, and instead pick particular areas, clean them up and provide security for the local population, and then slowly expand outward. It's like an oil spot on your garage floor, or some such thing. The Foreign Affairs summary: "Because they lack a coherent strategy, U.S. forces in Iraq have failed to defeat the insurgency or improve security. Winning will require a new approach to counterinsurgency, one that focuses on providing security to Iraqis rather than hunting down insurgents. And it will take at least a decade."



Each offensive... sweeping through the target area and clearing it of any major insurgent forces..... smaller formations... providing local security. National police would then arrive.... Iraqi army units would switch to intensive patrolling along the oil spot's periphery.... Iraqi and U.S. intelligence operatives... infiltrating local insurgent cells.

Sustained security.... facilitate social reform.... help to convince the local population that the government is serious about protecting them. The overall objective, of course, would be winning their active support, whereupon they would presumably begin providing the government with intelligence on those insurgents who have "gone to ground" in the secured area.


Well, Krepinevich, a retired lieutenant colonel, is Executive Director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University, and, when a major with the Strategic Plans and Policy Division of the Army, wrote The Army and Vietnam. Maybe he knows something. Counterinsurgency is his thing.

And he received a major endorsement from "the house conservative" at the New York Times, David Brooks, in an op-ed piece on Sunday the 28th - Winning in Iraq - and Brooks notes a minor bandwagon effect:


The article is already a phenomenon among the people running this war, generating discussion in the Pentagon, the C.I.A., the American Embassy in Baghdad and the office of the vice president.

Krepinevich's proposal is hardly new. He's merely describing a classic counterinsurgency strategy, which was used, among other places, in Malaya by the British in the 1950's. The same approach was pushed by Tom Donnelly and Gary Schmitt in a Washington Post essay back on Oct. 26, 2003; by Kenneth Pollack in Senate testimony this July 18; and by dozens of midlevel Army and Marine Corps officers in Iraq.

... 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.


Yeah, but you show them who's boss, and let them know no one messes with us. (Of course that doesn't get you very far - but it feels good, and polls well.) So now instead of trying to kill insurgents it's more important to protect civilians? We set up safe havens where we can establish good security and because we don't have enough manpower to do this everywhere all at once, we select a few key cities and take control there? Not very sexy.

It sounds so simple. Why aren't we doing this? Brooks notes this:


If you ask U.S. officials why they haven't adopted this strategy, they say they have. But if that were true the road to the airport in Baghdad wouldn't be a death trap. It would be within the primary oil spot.

The fact is, the U.S. didn't adopt this blindingly obvious strategy because it violates some of the key Rumsfeldian notions about how the U.S. military should operate in the 21st century.

First, it requires a heavy troop presence, not a light, lean force. Second, it doesn't play to our strengths, which are technological superiority, mobility and firepower. It acknowledges that while we go with our strengths, the insurgents exploit our weakness: the lack of usable intelligence.

Third, it means we have to think in the long term. For fear of straining the armed forces, the military brass have conducted this campaign with one eye looking longingly at the exits. A lot of the military planning has extended only as far as the next supposed tipping point: the transfer of sovereignty, the election, and so on. We've been rotating successful commanders back to Washington after short stints, which is like pulling Grant back home before the battle of Vicksburg. The oil-spot strategy would force us to acknowledge that this will be a long, gradual war.


So it's not going to happen. Seems so. Don't have the troops, it isn't high-tech, and it works really, really, really slowly. Other than that, it's a cool idea.

Kevin Drum over at the Washington Monthly finds what Krepinevich proposes deeply depressing for a number of reasons:


First and foremost is the fact that Krepinevich had to write it at all. He acknowledges that even now, more than two years after the occupation began, the Army is still not committed to a counterinsurgency strategy. Whether or not his oil spot approach is correct, this can only leave you shaking your head. If we're still not committed to counterinsurgency as our overwhelmingly primary mission in Iraq, it seems unlikely that anything is going to change that.

Second, there's a lot of wishful thinking in Krepinevich's essay. It depends heavily on figuring out how to navigate the internal politics of Iraq's 150 tribes; gaining the trust of local leaders; mounting successful, large scale reconstruction projects; and improving our intelligence operations by an order of magnitude. Any strategy that depends on doing all these things successfully is walking on a very thin tightrope.

Third, Krepinevich suggests that our first target for oil spot operations should be Baghdad and Mosul. I almost choked when I read that. Baghdad? There's certainly no question that securing Baghdad would be good news indeed, but that's not a "spot," it's a city of 5 million people. I'd sure like to see his approach proven on a more modest scale before tackling Baghdad.


The fourth issue is what Drum calls "some serious waffling in his essay: he's anti-withdrawal but he's also pro-withdrawal." The numbers don't add up, or match any real timeline.

Brad Plummer says the whole thing is Purely Hypothetical


Krepinevich thinks we can do this with 120,000 troops in Iraq, and significant reductions thereafter. How does he figure? The British had about 20 security personnel for every 1,000 persons in Malaysia, which he cites as a model of counterinsurgency. Baghdad alone has 6,000,000 people, so that would take 120,000 troops right there. Does the US really want to rely on the increasingly out-of-control militias in Iraq? Wouldn't that create as many problems as it solved? (Iraq would resemble El Salvador in the 1980s, which was not successful at all.) Also, presumably the US would need different types of soldiers: fewer heavy vehicles, more police types, more translators, a different type of force structure. Is that feasible?

More crucially, though, consider the political problems with this approach here at home. First, Bush would have to admit that the occupation is going poorly, to say the least, and that the military will now have to completely readjust its strategy and stay in Iraq for, oh, another decade. Second, a counterinsurgency strategy, presumably, works best when the contractors responsible for aid and reconstruction aren't looting and pillaging the country. Just saying... Third, in the short term, many more soldiers are likely to get killed if the US switches to a "traditional" counterinsurgency strategy. It's just the nature of the thing - the troops have to mingle with the locals, walk around in small units, integrate with trained Iraqi units, rely on translators of dubious loyalty. No more zooming by in armored Humvees. This may prove more effective in the long run, but in the short run, people are getting blown up. See how this strategy holds up after a few nights of that on the evening news.


Other than that, it's a cool idea.

So that's the news of the buzz among policy wonks. All moot, really, given our current leadership, but under discussion.

Why is it moot?

You might want to read what Peter Daou has to say in The Ethics of Iraq: Moral Strength vs. Material Strength.

This is about the core disagreement over the value of moral and material strength, "with the left placing a premium on the former and the right on the latter." –


The right (broadly speaking) can't fathom why the left is driven into fits of rage over every Abu Ghraib, every Gitmo, every secret rendition, every breach of civil liberties, every shifting rationale for war, every soldier and civilian killed in that war, every Bush platitude in support of it, every attempt to squelch dissent. They see the left's protestations as appeasement of a ruthless enemy. For the left (broadly speaking), America's moral strength is of paramount importance; without it, all the brute force in the world won't keep us safe, defeat our enemies, and preserve our role as the world's moral leader...

War hawks squeal about America-haters and traitors, heaping scorn on the so-called "blame America first" crowd, but they fail to comprehend that the left reserves the deepest disdain for those who squander our moral authority. The scars of a terrorist attack heal and we are sadder but stronger for having lived through it. When our moral leadership is compromised by people draped in the American flag, America is weakened. The loss of our moral compass leaves us rudderless, open to attacks on our character and our basic decency. And nothing makes our enemies prouder. They can't kill us all, but if they permanently stain our dignity, they've done irreparable harm to America.

The antiwar critique of Iraq is that it is an immoral war and every resulting death is a wrongful one. Opponents of the war view the invasion and occupation as a dangerous and shameful violation of international law. Iraq saps our moral strength and the sooner we leave the better. Opposing the invasion on the grounds that the administration lied its way into it, they see every subsequent death, American or foreign, as an ethical travesty and a stain on America's good name.


There may be no bridging that gap.

They will have none of this "oil patch strategy" –


... to many of Bush's supporters, anything short of 'victory' is a weakening of America in the eyes of its enemies. They believe we are "taking the fight to the enemy," with the word 'enemy' defined so over-broadly as to conflate Iraq and the attacks of September 11th. It's the "kicking ass and taking names" mentality, moral justifications be damned. Revenge for being attacked is rationale enough. Material strength trumps moral strength.

Bush plays to the basest instincts of this crowd, but he and his handlers know it's not enough. If the left values moral strength over material strength and the right values material strength over moral strength, the common ground between the two, and the place where Bush would find his widest base of support, is a case where material strength is put to use for a moral cause. Bush et al want desperately to prove that Iraq satisfies both conditions. That's why the Sheehan-Bush battle revolves around the words "noble cause."

Faced with the disintegration of the original rationale for war, Bush and his supporters are scrambling to find the elusive moral ground to undergird America's presence in Iraq. But when you're on the record invading a country because it was a grave threat and the threat never materializes, you're left with little but a means-ends argument to justify it. In the eyes of the war's opponents, Bush and his apologists are mired in an ethical swamp trying to justify the mess they created.


Read the rest. It's interesting, arguing we need to adhere strictly to the rule of law, to basic moral precepts, and to established principles of international relations, "something that this administration has failed to do, and that the administration's supporters can dance around but can't justify." Daou doesn't care much for "retroactive ethical justifications for the invasion and occupation of Iraq are flimsy at best."

But of course, the Bush apologists would call him an appeaser, and Ann Coulter would call him a traitor.

I wonder what they're saying about this Krepinevich and this "oil spot" idea? Doesn't matter - it's just policy wonk stuff.


A comment from Digby at Hullabaloo on the Daou item above:


People are naturally suspicious of power and, because of that, it behooves us to ensure that others can trust us and rely upon us behave morally and ethically. Breaking treaties, throwing off old friends and partners, ignoring our own constitution and the rule of law creates an impression that the United States is unreliable, immoral and aggressive. It makes us less safe. Only shallow people think that our country can fight off the whole world. Only delusional people would want us to try. Our moral authority is not an impediment that we can or should toss off when it is inconvenient. It is an absolutely necessary component of our national security.

We are in the middle of a great culture war in this country in which liberals are continually accused of being immoral and indecent by people who profess to hold strong religious beliefs. These morals, however, are almost exclusively confined to personal sexual matters and seem only to apply to the conduct of individuals in their private lives. They seem to have nothing to say about our government conducting itself without regard to morality whenever it is convenient. (Indeed, we have just witnessed one of the most prominent religious moralists in the country calling for our government to assassinate the leader of an oil rich country because it would save money.)

After the last election I read many pieces in which religious people advised that Democrats had to begin speaking in religious terms and appeal to voters on a moral basis. It was immediately assumed that this should be done in exactly the same way that the Republicans do, using their definition of morality. But I would suggest that we should make our own case for moral values - as a government and a nation. It is there that we will find common ground among truly religious people and non-religious people of all stripes. And it is there that politics and morality are appropriately and necessarily linked in a free and democratic society.

If I had been polled after the last election I might very well have said that moral values were a primary reason for my vote. I found the conduct of this war deeply immoral. And I also believe that this immorality makes us less safe. If Democratic politicians want to run on restoring moral values in government they can count me in. I'm a proud member of that moral values crowd and I'll happily hold hands with any religious person who wants to join me.


But as he points out, that is now how they - the Pat Robertson crowd - define moral values.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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