The New Iraq War Strategy

Seymour Hersh’s latest article in the New Yorker is over a month old by now, and therefore would seem a little like old news. But like so much of his reporting, Hersh’s article contains at least a few nuggets that ripen with time and take on more importance as events play out in Iraq. Two of his key points – one central to the article, the other almost an afterthought – are of particular importance, and worth reviewing as the Iraqis endure yet another chapter in the American effort to crush the resistance.

The first of these key themes is the one that was most prominently commented upon. Hersh broke the story – which is now all over the mainstream press – that the U.S. is going to try a new military strategy in Iraq: more intensive air power and less intensive foot patrols. This will involve fewer U.S. offensive operations (like those in western Anbar that involved evacuating whole cities), increased use of Iraqi armed forces in high-resistance areas, and a massive increase in the use of aerial attacks. In the short time since Hersh wrote the article, this new policy has been aggressively enacted. The Washington Post, quoting U.S. military sources, reported that the number of U.S. air strikes increased from an average of 25 per month during the summer to 62 in September, 122 in October, and 120 in November.

There are several aspects to this new strategy that we need to keep in mind.

First, this is an attempt to lessen the strain on U.S. troops – the U.S. military in Iraq is in grave danger of collapsing, as it did in Vietnam. So the new strategy seeks to reduce the number of patrols (which are the most grueling and dangerous missions American soldiers undertake) and compensate with more air raids. The hope is that this switch in emphasis will make it possible for U.S. troops to endure more tours of duty in Iraq. But this probably won’t work. Here is what one military officer told Hersh:

"[I]f the president decides to stay the present course in Iraq, some troops would be compelled to serve fourth and fifth tours of combat by 2007 and 2008, which could have serious consequences for morale and competency levels."

We should not lose track of the importance of this comment. The U.S. military cannot sustain the war at its current level of intensity. As Rep. John Murtha commented in his press conference calling for U.S. withdrawal, "Our military is suffering. The future of our country is at risk. We cannot continue on the present course." In a very real sense, then, this change in strategy is an act of desperation.

Second, this change in strategy is an attempt to find a better way to fight the resistance, since the search-and-destroy operations have failed miserably, even as they have inflicted incredible destruction and carnage in the cities under attack. But it also means a more explicit use of state terror. The U.S. cannot occupy a city with air power. As a military officer told Hersh: “Can you put a lid on the insurgency with bombing? No. You can concentrate in one area, but the guys will spring up in another town." The logic of air power (since Guernica in the Spanish Civil War) has always involved a predominant element of "bombing the population into submission." The U.S. military leadership hopes to so injure the population that it cries "uncle," delivers resistance fighters to the occupation, and begins cooperating with the occupation – all in order to stop the punishment. With 500- and 2,000-pound bombs that destroy everything – buildings and people – within a 700-ft. diameter, air power does have a powerful terrorizing effect, and it is altogether plausible that such a strategy could work. Even U.S. military reports of recent air attacks give a sense of the brutality involved, as independent reporter Dahr Jamail recently documented. And Washington Post reporter Ellen Knickmeyer recounted chilling accusations from medical personnel and local civilians as a result of the American offensive in early November, including 97 civilians killed in Husaybah, 40 in Qaimone, 18 children in Ramadi, with uncounted others in numerous other cities and towns in western Anbar province.

Whether or not the targets were insurgents, the disregard for the lives of civilians trapped inside the buildings demolished by air attacks is part of a larger pattern articulated by an American officer to NY Times reporter Dexter Filkins early in the war: "The new strategy must punish not only the guerrillas, but also make clear to ordinary Iraqis the cost of not cooperating."

This is terrorism by definition – attacking the civilian population to get it to withdraw support from the enemy. The change in strategy, therefore, represents the embrace of terrorism as the principle tactic for subduing the Iraqi resistance.

Third, Hersh mentions that American officials and other observers are concerned that this new air strategy will give Iraqi troops responsibility for calling in U.S. bombers, and therefore could result in the use of U.S. air power for revenge against rivals and/or for ruthless and wanton attacks on civilians. However, these fears are misplaced, for two reasons. First, all Iraqi units are under the ultimate command of the U.S. forces (they are integrated into the larger occupation military structure) and are not allowed to act autonomously. The U.S. places American officers with each Iraqi military unit (even platoons), and these officers have ultimate control of any actions taken. No air strikes could be ordered without Americans approving them. Second – and far more important – the American policy is already maximally ruthless, as the quote above makes clear. The rules of engagement are that any resistance at all from any location (house, commercial shop, mosque, school) should be met by overwhelming force, air power if tanks or artillery are not available. Nothing the Iraqis could do would be worse, even if they select different targets. They might, in fact, be less vicious (if they could actually control the air strikes), since they might avoid schools and mosques.

As if this new policy would not add enough mayhem to the already brutal mix in Iraq, Hersh gestures at another negative dynamic that the U.S. presence is animating. Speaking of the accusations that U.S. withdrawal would facilitate or unleash a civil war, Hersh writes:

"In many areas, that[civil] war has, in a sense, already begun, and the United States military is being drawn into the sectarian violence. An American Army officer who took part in the assault on Tal Afar, in the north of Iraq, earlier this fall, said that an American infantry brigade was placed in the position of providing a cordon of security around the besieged city for Iraqi forces, most of them Shi’ites, who were ’rounding up any Sunnis on the basis of whatever a Shi’ite said to them.’ The officer went on, ‘They [the U.S. troops] were killing Sunnis on behalf of the Shi’ites,’ with the active participation of a militia unit led by a retired American Special Forces soldier. ‘People like me have gotten so downhearted,’ the officer added."

Hersh is understating American culpability. It is the Americans who recruited, trained, and then stationed the Shi’ites in these Sunni areas, and – as this quote indicates – the Iraqi units are part of an American sweep, and the bulk of the killing was done by Americans "on behalf of the Shi’ites."

This is not an Iraqi policy – it is an American one. This very policy – of using Shi’ites and Kurds against Sunnis – has been the trigger for the long wave of car bombings by Sunnis against Shia targets. Moreover, the U.S. is running the parts of the Ministry of the Interior that command the Wolf Brigade and other special forces that commit terrorist attacks against Sunni clerics who support the resistance, as well as other Sunni leaders. The use of Shia and Kurdish forces in Sunni areas has become a linchpin of U.S. military policy, and it is the key provocation that has redirected Sunni anger toward Shia and Kurds. That sectarian violence is the chief dynamic leading to civil war.

So what do we conclude? As U.S. military strategy in Iraq has begun to unravel, our military has adopted progressively more vicious methods to attempt to maintain its control of the country. In the current iteration, this involves escalated bombing attacks against densely populated urban areas in an attempt to bomb the Sunnis into submission, and the development of anti-Sunni brigades of Shia and Kurdish troops to inflict punishment on resisting cities. The American role in Iraq continues to get uglier.