A War We Can’t Win

"An uptick in airstrikes and other military moves points to an imminent showdown between U.S. forces and Sunni Muslim insurgents west of Baghdad – a decisive battle that could determine whether the campaign to bring democracy and stability to Iraq can succeed."

The above quotation is the lead paragraph of an Associated Press dispatch. Note the last part of that sentence: "a decisive battle that could determine whether the campaign to bring democracy and stability to Iraq can succeed."

That’s bull. In counterinsurgency warfare, there is no such thing as a "decisive battle." Of course the heavily armed American forces can win every single stand-up battle they fight in Iraq. Of course they can take Fallujah or any other city they wish to take. Americans won every stand-up battle they fought in Vietnam, but who won the war? The Vietnamese communists.

It would profit us to think about how the Vietnamese communists managed to win the war while losing every battle. In sum, they wore out our will to fight. They were home and had no place to go. We were foreign invaders tethered to a 12,000-mile supply line. The people of Vietnam supported them because they, like most people, resent foreign invaders. The people of America came to the point where they withdrew their support because they discovered that they had been lied to by the U.S. government and because, in the end, they didn’t really care whether Vietnam was communist or corrupt. And that was the choice: communism or a corrupt government that didn’t give a hoot about democracy.

Everything in the above paragraph applies to Iraq, with one exception. In Iraq, we are tethered to a supply line that is only about 8,000 miles long. But we are the foreign invaders, and the insurgents, most of them, are at home and have no place to go. The people support the insurgents, not us. Furthermore, the Iraqis want us out more than we want to stay. Fewer than half of Americans think the war was a good idea, and as American casualties mount, as they inevitably must, eventually Americans will decide that they don’t care whether Iraq is a dictatorship or a democracy.

As I said, we can win the battle of Fallujah. But let me tell you what we can’t do: We can’t win the battle of Fallujah without great destruction and civilian casualties, and that will create more insurgents than we kill. There is not a finite number of insurgents whom we can kill and declare victory. The number of insurgents ebbs and flows depending on events. When we kill an Iraqi, we place upon his family a burden to get revenge. The nature of Iraqi society is large, extended families interconnected with many tribal groups. There is no way we can kill Uncle Mohammed without his sons, brothers, nieces and nephews – and, indeed, his tribe – being obligated to avenge his death.

It is our presence in Iraq that is the source of the insurgency. As with Vietnam, the insurgency will end when we leave, and not before. We are in a war we can’t win.

At first glance, the insurgent might seem to be at a tremendous disadvantage, but he is not. He has no need to attack us in strength. All he needs to do is kill an American now and then; set off a bomb now and then; rain down mortar shells now and then. It is the persistence of these attacks – mere pinpricks, from a conventional military point of view – that gives him victory, for as long as he can keep them up, we can’t claim victory.

Our tactical intelligence in Iraq is a miserable failure for the same reason it was in Vietnam. We can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys. We can’t know if our translator, our Iraqi spy, or our Iraqi clerk is really on our side or on the side of the insurgents. Their country, their language and their culture are alien to us. For 13 years, our spies failed to penetrate it, and they are still failing.

I don’t want to seem a gloomy Gus, but we should face the fact that we are very good at conventional warfare and lousy at counterinsurgency. There is no light at the end of this tunnel, and staying the course is stupid and futile.

Author: Charley Reese

Charley Reese is a journalist.