Friday, November 07, 2003

The Hinge of Fate

President Bush has set the out the major strategic goals of the war in a policy address before the National Endowment for Democracy. They are to bring democracy to the Middle East and Northwest Asia, and by implication, overthrow or seriously reform every government in the region, including Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and Iran. That implication was not lost on the regimes, who immediately told Washington to mind its own business.

Both the political and military fronts continued to flicker with fire. The MEMRI newsticker is reporting that the Iraqi officials are accusing Syria of being the source of 'volunteers' on their way to help the Ba'athists in the Sunni triangle. A Kuwaiti newspaper has suggested that the survival of the regime in Damascus is no longer in anyone's interest -- meaning what? The Palestinian Authority has called on the Sunni Ba'athists to redouble their attacks on Americans. The United States has closed its embassy in Saudi Arabia, ostensibly in response to a terrorist threat. But no withdrawal of the actual mission has been announced. On the ground, a Blackhawk helicopter with six 101st Airborne soldiers went down in Tikrit for reasons yet undetermined. Although most news reporters have focused on US casualties, operations against terrorists remain blacked out and are reported only when allied casualties are involved. The pre-blackout rate of operation resulted in from 70-100 enemy detainees per day and must still be at that rate or greater.

Yet the US announced it would cut down troop numbers in Iraq a quarter by spring, from 135,000 to 100,000 as units are rotated in and out. The obvious implication is that the America is preparing to fight a protracted campaign, as players are swapped from the its bench. Phil Carter says this will place immense strains on the reserve force, from whom a large percentage of the replacement troops would come, but the US military is being rebuilt anyway, or must be, and the division of roles between the reserves and active duty troops change to reflect the end of the short war mission to one designed for prolonged combat. It is also a reflection of the growing role of Iraqi police and security forces in the day to day operations, whose significance will become evident later.

One of the unrecognized aspects of Iraqi operations is the role that it plays in the long term reshaping of both American and Islamic forces. Ed Weathers wrote that Jihadis probably consider Iraq a replacement for Afghanistan as a source of combat trained fighters. But the sword cuts both ways and more sharply against the Islamists. The American policy in World War 2 was to return fighter aces to the United States and employ them as instructors while the Japanese made their best pilots fight to extinction, taking their skills to the grave. The corresponding American learning curve will be immensely amplified in Iraq for several reasons. The first is the large size of American deployment. More than 130,000 Americans (not counting civilian contractors) are soaking up in-country knowledge, gaining key language skills, cultural context and operational skill in a way that cannot be duplicated by the enemy unless the Jihadis could somehow send a similar number to America to learn the strengths and weaknesses of US society. Second, the very light American operational losses mean that most of these experienced people, especially noncoms and officers, will retain this experience within the national defense community and amplify it as they rise in rank and influence. Thirdly, the leadership of the Department of Defense is committed to transforming the military. Neither should it be forgotten that a similar and proportional learning effect is being experienced by Coalition contingents ranging from the Poles to the Japanese. What can be said with near certainty is that the future commanders of the national forces of these countries is now serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. By comparison, the Jihadis do not have a single leadership, simply a network of alliances between rival terrorist groups, with no institutional way to diffuse lessons learned upward. Their heavy losses, especially among their elite, means that their hard-won experience is either rapidly encapsulated in a coffin or a Guantanamo Bay cell. Lastly, the Jihadis are compelled to adopt a split deployment, in which unit leadership must be split between sanctuaries in Syria, Saudi Arabia or Iran and operators in the field. Returning Jihadis from Iraq (if they return) may therefore be regarded as rivals to their sanctuary-based counterparts, instead of part of a single seasoned continuum as would be the case of a returning battalion from the 101st Airborne. Iraq is more likely to be the birthplace of Islamic factions which will turn upon each other rather than the graveyard of Americans.

These factors suggest that the Jihadis are very poorly positioned to fight a protracted war. But the coup de grace will emerge from two disparate directions. The first is the growing number of Iraqi security forces fighting under US command, a force that is presently defensive, but which will inevitably become offensive. The second is the burgeoning US economy and the hardening commitment of the American people to the war, as reflected by President George Bush's poll numbers and the recent election victories of the Republican Party. Together with an immensely expanded experience base, these two factors will have an effect as decisive as the American mass-production advantage in World War 2.