On a previous post I asserted that we had suffered two strategic surprises since 9/11, the first one being the attack itself. O-Skippy asks a good question:
9-11 was the first suprise. What was the second?
That the alliance of Islamist fighters, Iranian and Syrian agitators, and Ba’athist insurgent holdouts had planned a countering action of melting away and then fighting a dedicated terror and information warfare campaign dedicated to destroying the American and coalition center of gravity of public support for the war while shifting the center of operations to a new regional base if necessary.
A few weeks after the invasion I visited Massachusetts to visit my latest alma mater. One of my classmates, whom I had enjoyed vigorously discussing the issues of the day, came up to me and asked me about the WMDs–which surprised the heck out of me. WMDs didn’t register on the radar among the subjects we had been arguing about during the World’s Longest Rush To War, and as a group our class had been arguing long and loudly about everything possible related to it.
I mention this story, not to endlessly reargue the decision to go to war, but to recall the sheer surprise I felt when my friend went with this narrative. We’d discussed this subject ad infinitum and WMDs weren’t the key issue–or so I thought, looking at the whole litany prior to the invasion. Turns out there were more surprises to come, and those other surprises are linked to a pretty effective strategy against American power. These guys had read the literature, and learned from other asymmetric wars how to fight when the other side has JDAMS and you have fodder and money.
I’ve attached my published notes in the links below. I was a staffer with “cheap seats” access to lots of C and B grade high up mucketymucks in D.C. between 2001 and the invasion of Iraq; I also had carte blanche to visit think tanks and symposia in pursuit of tasking goals, and I did so as often as I could get away from the desk. I was also in a school program that required nonstop vigorous discussion between several dozen folks from as many countries, and they all came with their own country’s or organization’s viewpoints. So I think I have a pretty good basis in saying that I know of nobody who was saying “the fighters will disappear in front of you and then you’ll be fighting a counterinsurgency funded by Iran, its proxies, and the Sunni umma combined with the Ba’athists, with dedicated information warfare the primary component and terror the secondary component”. Some said we needed “more troops”, but the closest anyone came to explaining what those troops would be for was Michael O’Hanlon and he wasn’t 100% in his prescience either. (Turns out Shinseki had lost credibility when he put the marker down for hundreds of thousands of troops for Afghanistan, although I didn’t know this until recently.)
One brilliant part, although just a part, of the enemy strategy that surprised us was leveraging the weaknesses inside the American open system to get disproportionate effects. Some of those weaknesses were not fixed from the last time, and sometimes the same players. Abu Ghraib? Seymour Hersh, the same guy who “broke” My Lai. International A.N.S.W.E.R., organizer of all those protests? Worker’s World Party. C.A.I.R.? Looks a lot to me like the German-American Bund. “Baghdad Jim” McDermott, and this month’s junketfest of congressmen and senators going to countries forgetting that domestic politics ends at the water’s edge? Looks familiar, too. Similar reporters and organizations and politicians–and previous times our country erred on the side of freedom by not prosecuting clear acts of sedition and treason, making it harder in mindset and precedent to do so now–especially when the line is being very carefully walked. (Example: Code Pink gave tens of thousands of dollars to Saddam–why aren’t they in jail instead of protesting at Walter Reed?) Disagree with me if you wish, but I’ve seen some wars turn on such things.
The above paragraph, if my assertions are true, requires time to take effect. Public support for war wanes as time goes on, particularly without clear victories. This made it essential to prohibit those victories, and so the focus shifted: “wedding party bombings”, paid fake stringers, using the Geneva Conventions as an advantage, leveraging every possible information warfare tactic (I still remember the wailing of the Iraq museum curator on French TV after the “looting”, and how hard it was to find out that the museum didn’t actually lose what it said it did), the GI Joe “prisoner”, all-Abu all the time, a constant drumbeat of killed soldiers and “grim milestones”. One key component of a counterinsurgency is that realizing you’re in a COIN situation takes longer than desired. Another one is the Algerian one of “any reason will do”, and that rule has been used frequently by our enemy.
I welcome discussion about how my assertions may be wrong. With the exception that I will not re-argue the decision to invade, which seems to be the stable point of the blogosphere’s chaotic system.
Here are my own published notes and one link about 2002-era thinking in D.C. about what it was going to be like after any invasion of Iraq. There are other meetings I have not blogged, some out of laziness and some because this isn’t the circuit for that transmission. One meeting was with a group of Turkish senior folks who felt similarly to the below links (with the noted exception of their palpable happiness about the idea of a secular democracy to their southeast–must have been different people than the guys who blocked 4ID); another series of meetings had me pretty sure that we had a good shot at losing about 40,000 Americans in the invasion without a lot of luck–a calculation that colors my thinking now about the losses we sustain.
- A U.S. Institute of Peace symposium that included people who I was going to read about later, such as Khalilzad, Pillar, Bremer, Berger, Armitage, et cetera.
- A meeting of NGOs and government types, including O’Hanlon and the Garner Group and USIP officials, explaining what they thought would happen after an invasion. Note that the closest outlier was O’Hanlon, and he was still pretty far off.
- A comment about General (ret.) Jay Garner, who left the first part of the occupation. I have some additional information now than I did before, but not on this circuit.
- A lessons learned compendium that shows the progress of our learning early on.