May 03, 2004

Slogging On

Like any other human activity, war is so varied and complex that it is hard to generalize; so hard that virtually no categorical statement about war will ever be true in every case. Thus this thesis is open to challenge:

I see war as generally dividing into six (not entirely linear) phases: tension, attempt to overthrow, stabilization, pursuit, collapse and aftermath.

Tension builds as two (or more) parties realize that they have conflicting goals. Each side believes it can win (if not, there will be no war, because the side which believes it will lose will cut a deal), and each girds for war - so long as each recognizes the threat posed by the other. The vast majority of people will not recognize this as any different from normal diplomatic wrangling, and will generally tend to dismiss those tensions that would naturally lead to war while playing up those that can be solved. Even diplomats are not immune to this tendency.

The attempt to overthrow is the first initial burst of offensive activity. The goal is to induce the enemy to collapse utterly without a prolonged war. The action here is fast and furious and large-scale - in modern wars it is always at least an attempt at a blitz. The associated emotion is euphoria on the part of the attacker and determination on the part of the defender: the attacking side is convinced they can win without a long war, while the defender is certain he can beat back the attack.

If this fails, a stabilization period sets in, where the sides are relatively well-matched. The goal is to shape the war to provide structural advantages to one's own side, such as ensuring that the enemy is deprived of some critical resource that is used over time so that a long war will favor you. The action here is incremental, unpredictable to those not in on the grand plan, often confusing and generally small-scale. The associated emotion is concern: the attacker is let down by his failure to overthrow, while the defender sees a host of problems besetting him and, though happy at preventing an overthrow, is not yet convinced of his ability to win.

These two stages can go back and forth. The initial attacker, having been repulsed, might renew the offensive in another attempt to overthrow the defender, or the strategic defender could gain an advantage that allows him to make an overthow attempt. More usually, among well-matched powers, the stabilization will be a long, hard slog of incremental gains and incremental losses. The longer and harder this looks, the more despairing both sides will be, especially so in a democratic nation, where the free press naturally amplifies negative news to a hoarse shout, while burying positive news in amongst the comics.

Eventually, one side or the other will have gained a structural advantage large enough to start turning into tactical advantages, and the battles will become increasingly one-sided. As this happens, victory becomes noticably at hand for the side which is now on the offensive. Action begins to look like an attempt at overthrow again, which in fact it is, and the prevailing emotions now are back to euphoria for the attacker, and despair for the defender.

Finally, the defender will collapse (note that this might not be the same party who started the war on the defensive; by 1944 Germany was the defender, even though it had started WWII as the attacker), and be routed, followed by either disengagement or occupation by the attacker. This sets up the aftermath, wherin the costs and benefits of the war are tallied up, the new international order recognized and formalized, and the seeds of the next war usually sown (WWII being a notable and rare counter-example).

I think that this war has followed the pattern, with a small twist. The enemy attempt at overthrowing the US came after a long period of increasing tension characterized by major attacks which, by and large, were seen by most Americans as background noise; a pair of destroyed embassies and the other attacks simply don't excite us much in the post-Viet Nam era. On 9/11, the enemy attempted to overthrow us, causing us to accede completely to their demands. (Much as they did in Spain, more successfully, on 3/11/04.) When this failed to break our will, the balance of forces was such that we immediately seized the initiative (that being the twist - normally this is not possible to do quickly), attempting to overthrow the enemy first in Afghanistan, which shook the enemy deeply but was unsuccessful, then in Iraq, which was only partially an overthrow attempt: mostly Iraq is part of the stabilization phase, where we've realized the enemy won't go easily, so we have set ourselves up with a base of operations in the enemy's back yard, which we now must defend against all comers until we are able to shape the long-term war to our advantage.

The enemy strategy has become pretty clear: 1) divide the US from its allies; 2) demoralize the US via a complicit or at least credulous Western media; 3) make incremental gains in border skirmishes like Nigeria; 4) terrorize non-radicalized Muslims to keep them off the coalition's side.

The US strategy is also clear: 1) hold the coalition together, and broaden it if possible; 2) grind down the enemy resources in the field (which we can replace more easily than they); 3) remove enemy sources of supply and refuge; 4) win the non-radicalized Muslims to our side (or at least make terrorism their problem); 5) prevent additional enemy overthrow attempts within the US or major allies if possible.

The war in Iraq hurts us with item 1 in our strategy, while helping greatly with items 2, 3 and hopefully 4 (if we can create a stable representative government there).

I believe that we can expect the Iraqi occupation to be ongoing - whether directly under our control or just with our assistance to the Iraqi government - for at least another 3-5 years, possibly longer. One way to shorten the war, and to bring the advantage of time and resources more to our side, would be to invade Iran or, with lesser effect, Syria. We cannot do this with the current force structure, however, and I don't see us being able to do so for at least another two years unless we make some major changes in our ground forces, either by enlarging them, or activating the reserve component more fully, or by reorganizing more quickly that appears to be the plan, or by ditching commitments to the Balkans and Korea.

It's unclear where the incremental work now going on will lead, though I suspect that the major attempt will be to attrit enemy personnel and deny them secure bases of operation while we attempt to stabilize Iraq. The war could thus be inconclusive for several years, and I believe that it is incumbent on the President to show us enough of the plan to give us reasons not to give up, while it is up to us to not give up, and to ensure that the President we choose in November will not give up either.

Donald Rumsfeld was right, though, it's going to be a long, hard slog.

Posted by Jeff at May 3, 2004 10:18 AM | Link Cosmos

Syria would be the easier, but less fruitful, next step. Obviously, dealing with Iran is the next big step. It's a more urgent problem, but we can't take it until Iraq is relatively stable, so that we can take most of our forces there and use them in any attack while Iraq itself largely maintains it's own stability with a small American force as basically a garrison.

My hope is that Iran revolt with the US then following on with support, quickly toppling the mullahs. It would just be so much easier for us if the revolution start before we go in; that way we won't be seen by the populace as precipitating it ourselves. If that happens, there would be far less internal resistance to the change in regime.

Second, I would point out that the seeds of the next war were planted at the end of WWII. The dividing of Berlin led nicely into the Cold War. I guess you were alluding to actual combat.

Third, although their own previous experience had led them to believe we were soft, Al-Qaeda would have done well to heed the words of Yamamoto before executing 9/11.

Posted by: Brian on May 5, 2004 05:02 PM

To your second point, I was. We have neither fought with our WWII enemies since, though the Korean War did come out of the post-WWII division of the peninsula. Our involvement in Viet Nam (where Soviets participated) came out of the collapse of the French colonial system, rather than WWII.

Interestingly, to a large degree, the Terror Wars arise out of the aftermath of WWI, and the way the League of Nations divided up the Middle East. In fact, my long-offered plan for getting the Israelis and Palestinians to work together would be to put a large number of British troops and diplomats into the area. Everyone would stop killing each other until the Brits were dead or gone.

Posted by: Jeff on May 5, 2004 05:19 PM
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