The March 14 Los Angeles Times contained that rarissima avis, good news from Ramadi:
"The commander of U.S. troops in Iraq wanted some sweets, and nothing was going to stop him. Not even the fact that he was tramping through a neighborhood that only days ago had been teeming with snipers and al-Qaeda fighters who would love nothing better that to say they had just shot Gen. David H. Petraeus.
"With soldiers casting anxious glances along the desolate dirt road, the four-star Army general made a beeline for a tiny shop and helped himself to a bite-sized, honey-coated pastry proferred by the owner.
“Tell him the next time I come back to Ramadi, we’ll eat his chow,” Petraeus said as he headed into the blistering sun."
As someone who navigates by bakeries, I would like to see this episode as a tale of a great man willing to venture all, even his life, in pursuit of the perfect éclair. The reality is less noble, but perhaps more useful. General Petraeus was showing by personal example that our forces in Iraq should put integration with the people before force protection.
This flicker of light was not alone in the darkness that is Iraq. In Anbar province, home base of the Sunni insurgency, the Marines report some progress. Turning al-Qaeda in Iraq’s excesses against it, they have formed working alliances with some Sunni sheiks, who in turn are going after al-Qaeda. U.S. troops have moved into Sadr City in Baghdad with some care instead of kicking down doors and humiliating the locals.
The official reports undoubtedly overstate the good news, because that is what the U.S. military always does (for an example of the opposite, see Williamson Murray’s superb article on the German response to victory in Poland). But the reason these points of light will not overcome the Iraqi darkness is more profound. All these improvements in American forces’ performance are at the tactical level, and that is not where most wars are decided.
Two points of military theory are important here. First, a higher level dominates a lower. If you win on the tactical level but lose operationally, you lose. If you win on the tactical and operational levels but lose strategically Germany’s fate in both world wars you still lose.
Second, in most wars, including Fourth Generation wars, success on higher levels is not merely additive. That is not to say, you cannot win operationally or strategically just by adding up tactical victories. We tried to do that in Vietnam, and the Second Generation U.S. military still does not understand why it didn’t work. In Second Generation theory, it is supposed to work, which is why we are trying it again in Iraq and Afghanistan, and again not understanding why we are losing.
If we consider the operational and strategic situations in Iraq, we can easily see why no amount of tactical success can save us. Strategically, we are fighting to support a Shiite regime closely aligned with Iran, our most potent local opponent. Every tactical success merely moves us closer to giving Iran a new ally in the form of a restored Iraqi state under Shiite domination. The more tactical successes we win, the worse our strategic situation gets. This flows not from any tactical failure (though there have been plenty of those), but from botching the strategic level from the outset. Saddam’s Iraq was the main regional counterweight to Iran, which means we should not have attacked it.
Operationally, we have been maneuvered by Iraq’s Shiites into fighting their civil war for them, focusing our efforts against the Sunnis. As I have observed before, we are in effect the Shiites unpaid Hessians. That is why Muqtada al-Sadr has ordered his Mahdi Army not to fight us in Sadr City. It is not that he is afraid of us; he is simply making a rational operational decision.
Our only other apparent option is to take a more even hand and fight the Shiite militias as well as the Sunnis, which is what some in Washington want our forces to do. But that would make our operational situation even worse, because the Shiites lie across our lines of communication. If we get into a fight with them, they can cut off our supplies, leaving us effectively encircled the essence of operational defeat.
It should be clear that no accumulation of tactical successes can retrieve either our operational or our strategic situations. Again, most wars are not simply additive.
That is not to say we could not repair our positions on the strategic or operational levels. On the strategic level, we could reach a general settlement with Iran, something the Iranians have proposed, and on very generous terms.
This would be the equivalent of Nixon’s rapprochement with China, which rendered our defeat in Vietnam irrelevant. Unfortunately, the Bush administration, with its usual myopia, has refused even to consider the Iranian offer.
Operationally, we could open negotiations with all our Sunni opponents other than al-Qaeda in Iraq, attempting to reach a settlement that would isolate the latter. General Petraeus has dropped hints he would like to do this. We would have to assure the nationalist opposition that we do plan to leave, and the Ba’athists that they would be re-legalized and given some share of political power. It would require a delicate balancing act, since any arrangement with the Ba’athists would enrage the Shiites, who could threaten our supply lines. It might nonetheless be possible, except that the Bush White House would again almost certainly veto it. As General Petraeus has probably already discovered, there is no position more difficult than that of minister to an idiot king.
In desperation, General Petraeus will probably be driven to seek operational and strategic success by fighting smarter on the tactical level. He will comfort himself that fighting smarter is at least better than fighting dumb, as we largely have to date. But it won’t work, because it can’t. Operational and strategic failures must be dealt with on their own levels and in their own terms. Anything else is lighting candles in a hurricane.