Stark Lessons From Iraq

By Jim Hoagland (THE WASHINGTON POST, 22/10/06):

The bloody chaos of Iraq under U.S. occupation is shaking Western governments into sobering reassessments of that conflict and of war itself. More urgently, some of these governments have launched tightly held contingency planning for the consequences of a possible American failure in Iraq.

"There will be no papers or staff meetings on that subject in our main ministries," one European senior official told me recently. "It would leak, and that would be disastrous. But our intelligence agencies have begun to work on where the terrorists would go post-Iraq. That is a threat we cannot ignore now."

The deepening doubts about America's commitment and strategy in Iraq that dominate polling for U.S. midterm elections have spread across the Atlantic in recent months as insurgency has metastasized into sectarian warfare between Sunnis and Shiites.

Those doubts have reached even into the office of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who needed to be reassured by a telephone call from President Bush last week that Maliki's faltering "national unity" government still has U.S. support. The commitment had been called into question by on-the-record and anonymous comments by members of the Iraq Study Group headed by former secretary of state Jim Baker.

But Bush's reassurances to the beleaguered Maliki do not dispel the gathering sense at home and abroad that the administration is belatedly engaged in a search for a political-economic exit strategy. Such a strategy would quickly reduce the role of U.S. combat troops in Iraq and gradually increase the economic involvement of other countries, including Iraq's neighbors.

The Baker group's political recommendations in late autumn will roughly coincide with the rollout of a U.N.-sponsored International Compact for Iraq that would offer new reconstruction aid and debt relief if Maliki undertakes substantial economic reforms. In the view of international officials, new laws on oil exploration, production and revenue sharing are urgent and central to the reforms and to national reconciliation efforts.

But military leaders and diplomats in Western capitals are not waiting for the Baker and U.N.-sponsored efforts to conclude before they assess the mistakes, poor strategy and changing conditions of warfare that have brought U.S. forces face to face with the bitter prospect of having to withdraw, mission unaccomplished.

The glaring contrast between the lightning victory over Iraq's conventional army in 2003 and the failure of U.S. forces to stabilize postwar Iraq is Topic A in these circles. It has become the subject of official planning exercises, classified Pentagon briefings, and public calls for retraining and reequipping Western forces to fight new forms of insurgency and terrorism fueled by extremist Islamic ideology.

The need for changes in practice and doctrine was reinforced by Israel's inconclusive July-August war in Lebanon against Hezbollah, a classic guerrilla force that also possesses a strategic missile arsenal capable of damaging and shutting down entire Israeli cities.

"Insurgency is here to stay," Jeb Nadaner, deputy assistant defense secretary for stability operations, said at a recent U.S.-British conference in Washington on reorganizing governments to fight irregular warfare.

Other speakers -- including conference organizer John Hillen, the State Department's top political-military expert -- spoke bluntly to the group about the continuing failure of the U.S. military and civilian bureaucracies to adapt to an era in which armor and infantry battles occupy only a small space on the overall battlefield and are in any event too costly to be carried on for very long.

Across the Atlantic, similar thinking is underway in defense ministries and force headquarters. "Classical warfare is probably dead. It is no longer a cost-effective tool to achieve political or economic goals," Gen. Vincent Desportes, the head of France's Doctrine Center for Forces Employment, wrote in a recent study of conflict in a post-Iraq-invasion world.

Instead, conventional wars "mutate very quickly into asymmetrical clashes, which do last," Desportes continued. "The decisive phase is no longer the initial short phase of intervention, but clearly the phase of long stabilization which follows it."

Mao Zedong made famous the idea that civilian populations are the sea in which guerrillas swim. But today's insurgencies use civilian populations as their most important weapon. Britain's Gen. Rupert Smith made the point in a recent book that military forces must be prepared to fight within and for populations, which previously have been seen by generals as little more than impediments to battle.

The extent to which U.S. forces were unprepared for insurgency and sectarian warfare in Iraq has become painfully apparent. The lessons they are learning -- which have become prohibitively costly for Americans and Iraqis -- must never again be forgotten.