A lost year that cost us dearly

Army Gen. David Petraeus’ report on Iraq, having been leaked to the press for days before his appearance on Capitol Hill, contained no surprises. The surge’s several tactical successes in the Sunni regions are disconnected from any strategic progress in either strengthening the central government or stemming the opportunistic meddling by neighbors. Iraq is slowly separating into its three constituent parts (Kurdish, Shia and Sunni), with Baghdad becoming increasingly irrelevant.

America’s military surge plays effective midwife to this Balkans-done-backwards, in which we removed the dictator first and then presided uncomfortably over the ethnic cleansing that killed Iraq as a unitary state. Iraq’s soft partition was preordained by the first Gulf War’s inconclusive outcome: Saddam Hussein survived to mercilessly crush a Shia revolt but was subsequently prevented by American air power from strangling the emergent Kurdish nation.

Now, as a result of our strategic choices, neither Kurds nor Shia accept anything less than a future free of Sunni domination. President Bush and the neocons entered office in 2001 bragging that real superpowers don’t do nation-building, and yet they have unwittingly created the modern era’s first Kurdish nation and first Arab Shia state — two lasting “big bangs” that future presidents will manage for decades.

What wasn’t inevitable in this story line was the amount of casualties we’ve suffered along the way.

The Bush administration is by no means solely to blame. America’s political system and defense-industrial complex were fundamentally incapable of adjusting to this long war against radical extremism absent the sort of undeniable failure represented by our postwar mismanagement of Iraq. Long addicted to the Powell Doctrine’s central tenet of avoiding another Vietnam at all costs, we went into Iraq with “the Army we had” rather than the one we eventually realized we needed. It was the force we’d been building for the previous quarter-century.

That military didn’t do postwars; it didn’t plan for them or equip for them or even have a credible doctrine for them. Led by political masters who openly disdained all of those requirements, it was a match made in hell.

What did that legacy cost us? Arguably as many as 3,000 American lives, or roughly what we lost on 9/11.

Our military conducted a brilliant war in Iraq to topple Saddam’s regime, losing less than 140 troops over two months. From May 2003 through March 2004, our average postwar monthly casualty totals dropped from roughly 70 to just over 40, a decrease of almost 40 percent.

Those 11 months constituted the “lost year” in our postwar response. Since then, we’ve averaged approximately 75 deaths per month — 42 months running. By not mounting a serious post-conflict stabilization-and-reconstruction effort, we essentially let the postwar lapse back into war-level casualty rates.

Now imagine the Army we should have surged the moment Saddam’s statues fell: our troops riding in Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles, trained and operating according to our new counterinsurgency doctrine, and led by officers prepared for a long, hard postwar slog instead of an easy, light-up-your-victory-cigar end state.

If all that force had accomplished were to keep its casualties from rising from that initial postwar average, we would have suffered approximately 1,400 fewer deaths. If we had attracted enough coalition forces to field a peacekeeping force on par with those generated by NATO for Bosnia and Kosovo, or roughly two-dozen troops per 1,000 local citizens, history says we could have reduced our casualty rates far more significantly. Almost 85 percent of America’s cumulative casualties — over 3100 deaths — have come since that “lost year” passed.

It’s little wonder that our Army’s younger officers are demanding systemic change.

The Iraq war did nothing to change our military, but the Iraq postwar has done much. The new Army-Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual, published last December, was the intellectual brainchild of Petraeus and Marine Gen. James Mattis, whom Bush recently nominated to head the Joint Forces Command, the military’s “transformation” leader. If these flag officers have their way, America’s military will enter future battlefields in this long war far more able to meet the formidable postwar tasks.

Does that make Iraq worthwhile?

For our military, the sad answer is yes.

And for the American people?

Since Congress is unlikely to block Petraeus’ tough request to maintain the surge through next spring, that judgment remains in the balance.

(Thomas P.M. Barnett is a visiting scholar at the University of Tennessee’s Howard Baker Center and the senior managing director of Enterra Solutions LLC. Contact him at tom(at)thomaspmbarnett.com.)

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