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Debates

Defining victory in Iraq

5 Feb 2010 11:19

I don't think I have seen the words 'victory' and 'Iraq' used in the same sentence since President Bush declared in 2003 that the 'Battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror...' But having read Sam's link yesterday to a piece by Chris Kenny I was a bit taken aback to find out that the US is going to be victorious a second time:

Even those who opposed the Iraq war should recognise that America leaving the country victorious, with a relatively peaceful and functioning democracy in place, is far preferable to the war having been lost.

I nearly coughed up my falafel when I read this because there is so much to contest about it. I won't go into the meaning of 'victorious' because that's an essay in itself. But when you have lost nearly 4,500 dead and over 30,000 wounded, spent untold billions of dollars, but did not achieve the aim of the invasion (finding WMD, I think — it was so long ago), calling it a victory is 'interesting'.

But leaving aside the notion of a victorious US triumphantly ceasing combat operations seven years later than it thought it had, and only having to leave behind a skeleton force of 50,000, I do take some exception to his view of Iraq as relatively peaceful. Relativity is a funny thing, and if Kenny's intent was to compare Iraq with, say, Afghanistan or Somalia then he may have a point.

But to say that a country in which 253 civilians were killed in December, 118 in January and 80 in the first week of this month is relatively peaceful is drawing a (relatively) long bow. And that's not to mention the Iraqi security forces, or the numbers wounded. Space precludes me from arguing the toss about a 'functioning democracy' (or is that a 'relatively' functioning democracy?).

But the best line from this 'we showed 'em' view of foreign relations comes after the Iraq section:

This leaves Afghanistan. And it is here that there are signs Obama may be learning about the audacity of strength.

Surely after the tragedy of the Iraqi adventure, armchair pundits should be more attuned to the limitations, rather than the audacity, of strength in campaigns in complex environments.

Photo by Flickr user mashroms, used under a Creative Commons license.

COMMENTS

8 Feb 2010 17:20

Chris Kenny writes:

Rodger Shanahan makes clear his revulsion at the 'tragedy of the Iraqi adventure' and the audacity of anyone finding something positive to say about ongoing efforts to stabilise that country's future.

But he dances around the one point I made about Obama's Iraq policy; that is, simply, that the orderly withdrawal of US troops owes more to the success of George W Bush's surge strategy than to any decisions taken by the Obama Administration.

I pointed out that Democrats and our own Labor Party opposed the surge strategy and preferred a humiliating exit for the US. This would have seen the US leave in unambiguous defeat, it would have left Iraq in an even more precarious position and it would have emboldened terrorists everywhere.

Whatever Shanahan thinks of Bush's original decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein, perhaps he would at least concede that the surge strategy has allowed an orderly American drawdown and a more stable platform for the establishment of a democratic Iraq.

On Afghanistan, the criticism from the Left has been that the Taliban flourished because the US was distracted by Iraq. So Obama's commitment to allocate sufficient resources and focus to Afghanistan is welcome. Facing such seemingly insoluble conflicts it may seem trite to talk of victory and defeat, except to note, as George Orwell said, that the quickest way to end a war is to lose it.

COMMENTS

9 Feb 2010 09:57

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

Rodger Shanahan has locked horns on the subject of victory in Iraq, a small aspect of Chris Kenny's article on how tough Barack Obama is. (Ed. note: here's Kenny's reply to Shanahan.)

Of course the stated aim of the war was related to WMD and there were no WMD. Of course there were probably other ways (over the long term) of isolating Iraq, controlling or finding out about WMD, and they were not used. Of course the cost to the participants was high in terms of life and treasure, and there is no point (particularly for the families) in mentioning that by duration, size and intensity, this must be one of the lowest casualty wars in history. Of course you cannot wage war with the aim of regime change and expect ethical endorsement.

But it was reasonable at the time to suspect that Saddam had, or had the capability to produce, WMD, having previously developed and used them. Who can say, even with the wisdom of hindsight, that the errors that the US Administration made in removing the regime resulted in a better or worse world situation than not taking action.

And which Iraq war are we still complaining about – the three weeks of invasion or the eight years of recovery from error? In my view, the invasion was a strategic disaster and the counter insurgency is finally, as wars go, a success. [fold]

There is no real gain in this kind of narrow emotional exchange because we have not addressed the real issue of what people call 'The Iraq War'. To have pulled out of the war after the invasion would have compounded the errors of starting it – yet so many people were incapable of assessing the counterinsurgency separately from the invasion. This caused immense problems in then waging the counterinsurgency.

To have expected perfection in the first year of the war (when so many chances of an early termination were missed by statesmen because once again they refused to commit adequate resources in a coherent strategy) would be to expect something of this war that has never evidenced itself in any other war – no war goes well to begin with. 

And what almost everyone misses is that, if more countries had supported the US and UK in their efforts at containment for the full period, the war may not have occurred. As Michael Walzer points out in a foreword to a new edition of his classic 'Just and Unjust Wars':

The states that opposed war on the grounds that containment was working were not themselves making it work…Had there been many states or even just a few more states, enforcing the embargo, insisting on inspections and flying planes over northern and southern Iraq, the unilateral abrogation of the containment system by the US would not have been possible (or at least it would not have been as easy as it was).

Which brings us back to Chris Kenny. Chris argues that our PM should encourage the President to take a 'stronger, less populist path to maintain US influence and power…' Of course, the PM cannot take Obama on, for the same reasons that we all are a bit to blame for the Iraq war — because we did not support containment when it had a chance of success in containing both Iraq and the US.

If PM Rudd encourages President Obama to toughen up when Obama visits in March, the President might just start by asking Australia to put its money where its mouth is, and provide a meaningful contribution to operations in Afghanistan. And then we would hear more moaning from those who moaned about 'The Iraq War'.

Photo by Flickr user Ammar Abd Rabbo, used under a Creative Commons license.

COMMENTS

9 Feb 2010 14:17

Far from 'dancing around' Chris Kenny's point that the surge set the military conditions for the orderly withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, I agree with him. My post had nothing to do with the merits of the surge, the success of which (along with other tactical and strategic levers that were employed) is self-evident.

Rather, my argument was that Chris' piece spoke in absolutes such as '(US) victory and a functioning (Iraqi) democracy', or in uncontrasted relativities such as 'relatively peaceful'. It spoke of the Iraq war in terms of its impact on the US, and equated victory with an orderly departure of its troops. 

In the same vein, Jim Molan says the counterinsurgency is finally, as wars go, a success. But when hundreds of Iraqis are routinely being killed (and more injured) every month by insurgents, I would argue that the counterinsurgency has been successful in relative but not absolute terms. And the latter is what we should be looking at more closely, because only Iraqi security forces will be able to achieve absolute success. 

My point is that the political measure of success appears to be the ability to withdraw US troops, not the security of the Iraqi population. By adopting this measure, Western commentators tend to conflate withdrawal with success, with little regard for the circumstances for the Iraqis left behind. [fold]

I wrote in October about the willingness of people to draw a line under Iraq because US combat deaths were now rare. But as attention has now irrevocably switched to Afghanistan, there is too little examination of what has been left behind in Iraq because we just want to 'move on'.  

I agree that there is little point in re-fighting the Iraq war, and it will ultimately be up to historians to decide on the long-term national and regional consequences of the decision to invade that country. As far as the Iraq invasion is concerned I strongly disagree with the use of the term 'victory' because I don't believe that the final chapter has been written yet. And until it is, we should be very careful in describing anything in absolute terms.

PS. Since I wrote the initial post four days ago, another 43 civilians have been killed in insurgent attacks in relatively peaceful Iraq, taking the total so far this month to 123. No US soldiers have died in Iraq in February.

Photo by Flickr user MATEUS 27:24&25, used under a Creative Commons license.

COMMENTS

10 Feb 2010 10:35

What strikes me about the Kenny and Molan responses to Rodger Shanahan's piece is that, although both men seem realistic about the challenges of militarised nation-building and sobered by the setbacks suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither will countenance the idea that it is simply too hard to transform these places in the ways we would like.

In fact, the solution both men offer to the Afghanistan problem is 'more'. More troops, more money, more advisers, more political and diplomatic capital.

The disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan seem unable to shake this faith in the restorative capabilities of military force, so how about we go back a little further in history? Here's the American military commentator Andrew Bacevich:

Three times in the last 60 years, U.S. forces have achieved an approximation of unambiguous victory—operational success translating more or less directly into political success. The first such episode, long since forgotten, occurred in 1965 when Lyndon Johnson intervened in the Dominican Republic. The second occurred in 1983, when American troops, making short work of a battalion of Cuban construction workers, liberated Granada. The third occurred in 1989 when G.I.’s stormed the former American protectorate of Panama, toppling the government of long-time CIA asset Manuel Noriega. Apart from those three marks in the win column, U.S. military performance has been at best mixed. The issue here is not one of sacrifice and valor—there’s been plenty of that—but of outcomes.

Granted, this is a partial reading of US military history — Kosovo and Bosnia could be counted as recent successful interventions. But am I right in thinking that advocates for the Afghanistan surge don't even draw on that history very much? The sole justification for doubling down in Afghanistan seems to be that it worked in Iraq. But as Rodger points out, it is still way too early to declare that effort a success for the Iraqi people.

COMMENTS