Sunday, March 19, 2006

Happy Anniversary

A David Low cartoon published in 1935 commenting on the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia) undertaken to "stabilize" the horn of Africa. (Amateurish scan from the book Britain & Europe 1848-1980 by Martin Roberts, stolen from Wymondham College by Weasel in 1991).

Three years on from the invasion of Iraq and the airwaves were hot with talking heads strategizing away for all they were worth this morning. Far be for me to add my own ill-informed voice to the cacophony but I did want to comment on one story that aired on NPR this morning about the evolving role of the US Air Force in Iraq.

The piece focused on how the traditional strike role of the USAF fighter/bomber- in, munitions away, out- was being replaced by an emphasis on ground support/interdiction missions backing up both American and Iraqi infantry forces. In layman's terms (and correct me if I'm making a total hash of this, Dad) this means the USAF is partially moving out of the role of bombing as dictated by a pre-decided mission and target set and is concentrating more on "bombing-on-demand"; throwing iron at the request and direction of troops on the ground.

The unspoken secondary story line in the report was that as the Iraqi armed forces scaled up and the US army and marines the brunt of American military force projection would be bourne by the USAF. The obvious advantage here is that a fast moving fighter jet is a lot harder to hurt than an infantryman, humvee, or even attack helicopter. Through the gee-whizz technology of smart weapons fired safely from an altitude no roadside bomb can reach the US will be able to kill insurgents while preventing American casualties, perhaps with the added bonus of providing enough cover to convince the Iraqi army to fully engage in the fight.

Here's the problem with this approach, in my opinion. It won't work. Air power alone has yet to win a war (and no, Kosovo was not an air victory; Kosovo was a political victory. Russia pulled the rug from under Milosevic; he would have allowed any number of his citizens to die under NATO's bombs). No matter how accurate the weaponry, it won't work. Furthermore, this tactic has been tried in Iraq before, with negative consequences. Putting aside ideas I'd love to explore about the Iraqi Army (I think they might be keeping their powder dry should the civil war escalate; they are mostly Shia following Bremer's disasterous De-Baathification of the army officer corps and so have no reason to demur from fighting Sunni insurgents) and the understandable need for US air support given that Saddam sent half his air force to be interned in Iran in the first Gulf War (and never got it back) and buried the other half in the desert (not so good for avionics) I'd like to look at Iraqi history for hints why this tactical shift is breathtaking in it's shortsighted stupidity.

Simply put, back when Britain occupied Iraq in the aftermath of the First World War she faced a nationalist insurgency determined to drive the occupiers out. Mindful of the need to draw down the size of Britain's occupation army the Secretary of State for both War and Air Wintston Churchill created a plan that saw the fledgling Royal Air Force take on most of the policing and counter-insurgency work. Using the latest technology (including the use of chemical weapons), the RAF set out to bomb the Iraqis into submission. The bombing only succeeded in escalating the insurgency, culminating in the combined shia and sunni revolt of 1920 (known as the Ath Thawra al Iraqiyya al Kubra, or Great Iraqi Revolution, this was the first time all of Mesopotamia/Iraq's disperate factions, clans, and tribes united to attack a common enemy).

The Ath Thawra al Iraqiyya al Kubra is refered to often by contempary insurgents (I know of at least one group that calls itself something along the line of "The 1920 Brigade") and the folk and community memories of the last attempt to break an Iraqi rebellion from the air run deep.

Good luck making it work this time around. Who knows? Perhaps every bomb dropped on Iraq's closely packed urban centers will hit its intended target and not one civillian will die, and maybe despite the lessons of the Ho Chi Min Trail air power will be able to disrupt guerilla supply lines this time around. For me though, when an occupying force displays such a lack of understanding of local legend and history (not to mention the symbolism of air attacks on insurgent groups- a favorite tactic of the Israelis and thus unlikely to be seen as a positive by the Iraqis) this far into an intense and unrelenting conflict I really have to scratch my head and wonder what they are teaching our military leaders.


Sean said...

one of the big problems over here (in my mind) is the "zero defects" policy. death is unacceptable. i've seen units basically stop doing their mission with a month or more left in country out of fear of losing more people. don't get me wrong, i'd rather not lose more american lives over here, but we're either committed or we aren't. if you're in a leadership, have the instestinal fortitude to do your job. and that job includes sending men and women into harm's way. if you can't stomach the job, quit. it's an awful job. and it's something no one should be asked to do. but you volunteered for it, you accepted it when you accepted your commmission. do it. but by NOT doing it, by not committing our forces and really fighting this as a war, we're prolonging the agony, strengthening the opposition and just generally making a mess of this. and it's not all the leadership's fault. alot of the blame lies with the press and the "he's not my president" public back in the states.

it's kinda like eating a burger and then being outraged when you find out that a cow had to die for your meal.

weasel said...

Hey Sean, thanks for taking some of your valuable and scant free time to comment. How's the weather over there? Is it a choice between "hot" and "damn hot"?

You may have gathered that I thought that the descision to invade Iraq was a strategic error- the enemy was (and is) in the Afghan/Pakistan border area. But that is by the by. You and your compadres are there now, and any ruminations on my part aren't going to get you home.

You talk about a shooting war as "it's kinda like eating a burger and then being outraged when you find out that a cow had to die for your meal." I agree with you; if only chickenhawks like GWB (who sat on the sidelines in Vietnam keeping Texas safe from communism while your predecessors fought in his place) understood that the American people can live with that awful weight if the cause is just. Trouble is, this war was a result of extrapolation back from a desired outcome as opposed to a real reading of the strategic situation; somehow Iraq would be the first one down in a reverse domino strategy that looked great written out by a think tank but as you can probably testify looks different on the ground. Somehow I think Bush has always known he was on shaky ground with the Iraq war, that if the bald reasons for fighting were given he wouldn't have carried the country- hence why no photos of caskets are allowed and why layer upon layer of spurious reasoning was slathered on top of this war to get folks behind it. I don't absolve the Democrats either. If I with my basic college degree and amateur's interest in the middle east was able to say "bullshit" when I heard all the chat about WMD and links to Al Qadea in March of 03 I'm petty certain someone as well advised as John Kerry would have been able to reach the same conclusion.

And no, I wouldn't rather that Saddam had stayed in power. But ultimately that's a trope, not an argument. Strategy and diplomacy are not zero sum games. Besides Gaddaffi saw the light due to the application of British soft power (years of negotiations by the Foreign Office: do you think Gaddaffi was really scared we'd invade and depose him? From where? With what forces? On what grounds?) Perhaps though we had gone too far down the road of Saddam=Hitler to back out without shooting up the joint.

You say that "a lot of the blame lies with the press and the "he's not my president" public". I think I'll have to disagree with you here. I don't think the majority (and it is now a majority) who see no future in the war as it stands today can be lumped in with both the far-sighted who saw this unfolding as it is, nor the knee-jerk looney left. The Economist recently published an interesting vignette: ABC News, stung by criticism that their war coverage was overly negative, arranged earlier this month to interview the leading man from Iraq's favorite soap opera- only to have to cancel when the actor was assassinated in a sectarian hit. I know you guys are working hard- trying to provide security, restore infrastructure, and improve the quality of life for Iraqis- but isn't that the bare minimum responsibility of an occupying power? Its not your fault; you guys didn't make the call or issue the orders, but someone in your chain of command holds the can for not having all the power back on or potable water for most Iraqis or for the many disasterous cultural misunderstandings that have lead to a swelling in the insurgency. In the mindset of personal responsibility as espoused by so many of the president's partisans, doesn't Mr. Bush as the origniator of the policy bear ultimate responsibilty for its failings? Or is "The Buck Stops Here" as verbalized by Harry Truman a uniquely Democrat philosophy?

Disagreements aside, I'm hoping that the expensive lessons of this war filer through into tactics on the ground that enable you and your colleagues to turn things around and get home soon in one piece. Until then, keep your head down and hope to god that you don't have to brush up on your farsi.