Thursday, May 31, 2007

Sunk in the Sand

It’s been a mighty long time since I’ve reviewed a book in this space. That might be because it’s been a mighty long time since I’ve finished a book. I finally finished one that had been a Christmas present, Fiasco by Thomas Ricks. It’s about the Iraq invasion and occupation, especially from the point of view of the uniformed military. As the title suggests, Ricks catalogs the lapses of planning and execution that got us to where we are.

I give it a B. Ricks is a solid conventional reporter, and the book is a product of the Bob Woodward school of Instant History, which of course has shortcomings. Ricks uses some anonymous sources, and it’s generally easy to guess who the helpful sources were, because they come off better in the narrative. The book didn’t change my mind about many things, and it didn’t have much in the way of structure. It tends to alternate between a good operation and a bad one, a smart commander and a clueless one. But the overall tone rings true, it collects a lot of information in one place, and the book has a few haunting quotes and scenes that will stay with me. Our military officers naturally are a mixed bag of humanity, and only some of them had a full understanding of the challenge they faced in Iraq: in a word, counterinsurgency. The ones with a full understanding ran into systematic obstacles to enacting their vision. The stubborn, blinkered ones often were given their head. Even though Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld are mostly absent from these pages, the fact that the Iraq War couldn’t sift the ingredients correctly, couldn’t make these lemons into even barely-palatable lemonade, is an implied indictment of the leadership. (Ricks does editorialize, mildly, that the strategic confusion at the top may have led U.S. soldiers to treat ordinary Iraqis as terrorists, an attitude which poisoned the well.)

Matt Yglesias has a post today, prompted by a David Ignatius WaPo column which states that the Bush Administration has finally adopted the Iraq Study Group’s findings – only about six months after Bush’s initial reaction, which was to call the ISG report a "flaming turd" and treat it accordingly. Rather than call this a case of "better late than never," as Ignatius does, Yglesias deems this typical of the Bush M.O. in Iraq, to adopt a policy 6 to 12 months after it was proposed, at a time when a new set of facts on the ground make the policy useless.

Fiasco bears out Yglesias’s view. There are numerous examples of opportunities lost, and Ricks calls 2004 "a Sisyphean year" for the U.S. in Iraq, a year when we had to re-fight many battles and re-take many landmarks (most notably Fallujah). Our apparent strengths in technology and firepower sometimes led us down the wrong path. U.S. military intelligence became focused on foreign fighters in Iraq, because foreign fighters were detectable by means of signal intelligence. Unfortunately, sectarian violence was the much bigger problem, but recognizing the burgeoning insurgency would have required human intelligence capabilities, which the U.S. lacked.

Here are a few of the haunting parts:

The insurgency was created in 2003, largely by the American practice of raiding households in the middle of the night without good intelligence guiding the raids. (The Abu Ghraib scandal is attributable to the prison being swelled with men swept up in haphazard raids who weren’t guilty of anti-U.S. activities.) The 4th Infantry Division operated in the northern Sunni Triangle and in the book they come in for particular criticism for these tactics ("The 4th ID—what they did is a crime"). Iraqi men’s tribal sense of honor was insulted. One military historian believes that in the summer and fall of 2003, many of the episodes of Iraqi ambushes firing on US troops, were "honor shots" aimed over troops’ heads, intended not to kill Americans but to restore Iraqi honor. The U.S troops concluded that Iraqis were lousy marksmen.

A Special Forces officer spoke of the fiasco of the Fallujah Brigade, a real case of our not being able to tell our friends from our enemies, where the U.S. handed control of Fallujah to an officer who entered the city wearing the uniform of Saddam’s Republican Guard:

I looked Iraqis in the eye and they were thinking, ‘We can get rid of these
guys’… That was the day we lost the initiative. The Iraqis realized that they
could kick our ass—they had the option to bring the fight to us. (p. 349)

Special Forces, who train in counterinsurgency tactics, experienced a lot of attrition to private contractors, who paid much better and gave individual soldiers more autonomy and respect. Ricks discusses the deleterious influence of these contractors. Marine Colonel Thomas Hammes recounts a story of driving in Baghdad one day while wearing civilian clothes, and being detained by a group of private security troops, one of whom stuck his automatic rifle in Hammes’s face:

I was trying to see if his finger was on the trigger guard, because then you’re
four pounds of pressure from being gone…

These shooters, you’d see them in the gym. Steroids, tension, and guns are not a good mix. […]

The contractor was hired to protect the principal [the person being bodyguarded]. He had no stake in pacifying the country… [The U.S. has] loosed an unaccountable, deadly force into [Iraqi] society, and [Iraqis] have no recourse. (p. 370-371)

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