Posted by: Shaun | May 15, 2008

Why the U.S. is losing in Iraq and Afghanistan

It’s an all too familiar scenario from the 21st century urban battlefield.  An Iraqi soldier posted at the security barrier in Sadr City, Baghdad, is killed by sniper.  American military advisers are dispatched to rectify the situation.  Their solution: lase the building housing the sniper and blast it with a Hellfire missile.  This is but one example of the intermittent but fierce combat faced by U.S. troops in the city.  Quoth the New York Times:

The formal truce that was announced in the Green Zone with great fanfare on Monday has meant nothing here. Shiite militias have been trying to blast gaps in the wall, firing at the American troops who are completing it and maneuvering to pick off the Iraqi soldiers who have been charged with keeping an eye on the partition.

American forces have answered with tank rounds, helicopter rocket strikes and even satellite-guided bombs to try to silence the militia fire. On some stretches, the urban landscape has been transformed as the Americans have leveled buildings militia fighters have used as perches to mount their attacks.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, an official for the United Nations is speaking out about lethal raids by “foreign intelligence services” that are, in some cases, taking the lives of civilians with no accountability.  The official doesn’t specify details about these foreign agencies, but my guess is he refers to CIA or SOCOM missions targeting al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Afghanistan.

If America’s chief interest in these two conflicts is finding and killing international terrorists who might otherwise strike the United States proper, this is all just fine.  However, if we intend to fulfill John McCain’s rosy scenario of a democratic Iraq and Afghanistan with minimal violence by 2013, we have another thing coming.  Dropping a 2,000 pound JDAM on a building in Baghdad to eliminate a sniper may be tactically expedient, but it won’t win very many “hearts and minds;” certainly not those of the building’s owners when they return, nor their extended family if they happened to be inside the building at the time.

Americans face a difficult decision about the conflicts in which we are now engaged.  If we decide that democratic state-building in Iraq and Afghanistan is truly in our interests, we must realistically assess what accomplishing this will entail.  It will mean a long-term commitment for years to come.  It will mean recruiting more troops for the Army and Marine Corps and putting them in harms way; essentially expanding the “surge” and making it permanent.  It will mean changing tactics by drawing on the successes of those American units that have worked with local officials, successfully blending the military and political, to secure their areas of operation.  It will mean all of this, but it will still will not guarantee victory.

On the other hand, we could scale back our objectives and simply focus on attacking the terrorist threat in both countries without regard for the broader political implications of our actions.  This path, too, has its risks and comes with no assurance of success.  The only thing of which we can be certain is that if we maintain our present compromise approach of using excessive firepower to make up for deficiencies in personnel, we will neither build democracies nor secure America when our wars come to an end.

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