War Stories

War Declared, Again

We’re not pulling out of Iraq, so it’s logical that we’re pushing in deeper.

And so it’s official: “Postwar Iraq” is just another term for “Iraq War—Phase II.”

In a heavily guarded news conference in Baghdad today, Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, called the state of conflict there a “war.” John Burns, the New York Times correspondent covering the event, quotes Sanchez’s aides noting that the general’s choice of words was deliberate—his way of injecting realism into the debate back in Washington. “We are taking the fight into the safe havens of the enemy in the heartland of the country,” Sanchez stated. That sounds like war, all right.

To reinforce the impression, word also got around today that the White House has called L. Paul Bremer back to Washington for talks. Bremer is the civilian chief of the U.S.-led occupation authority. He left Baghdad quite promptly, deferring a long-scheduled meeting with the Polish prime minister, whose own troops have recently arrived in country for patrol duties. The guess around the Pentagon is that Bremer’s role in postwar reconstruction will probably be scaled back, if not suspended, at least until the war is really over.

Whatever the U.S. armed forces do next—and it’s a safe bet the change in policy will go well beyond semantics—should not come as much of a surprise. The muddling-through of the past couple of months could not have been sustained much longer, on any grounds. Attacks by insurgents have risen from a half-dozen a day to 35; American fatalities have multiplied from an average of one a day to four; meanwhile, Iraqi hearts and minds are more drifting away from than lurching toward the “coalition” cause. Something had to give. We’re not pulling out, so it’s logical that we’re pushing in deeper.

The big question is whether the renewed offensive will truly defeat the insurgents, as Gen. Sanchez guarantees—or whether, in the process of “taking the fight into the safe havens,” it will only swell the insurgents’ ranks. It has widely been speculated that the insurgents have two aims: first, to kill the American occupiers; second, by doing so, to force the Americans to take more aggressive action and thus further alienate Iraqi civilians. It’s a very fine line, and walking it will be Sanchez’s most challenging task as a commander.

Of course, a big question in this whole equation is: Who are the insurgents? Are they Baathist holdouts, foreign terrorists, or ordinary, if well-armed Iraqis who are angry at American soldiers for killing a brother or cousin? If U.S. intelligence knows who they are and where they hang out—just where these “safe havens” are—the war might be finished without having to use a lot of force. If intelligence doesn’t know—and news reports suggest it doesn’t—then force might have to be quite heavy.

Vietnam analogies are still premature. The insurgents have no state power like North Vietnam, no large and dedicated nationalist army like the Viet Cong, no extensive suppliers like the Soviet Union. Still, unless Gen. Sanchez pulls this thing off fairly quickly, Iraq could start looking like a sand-dune version of the big muddy.

Retired Gen. Eric Shinseki, the former Army chief of staff who was upbraided by Donald Rumsfeld for warning Congress that postwar occupation would require a few hundred thousand troops, probably hasn’t had to buy his own lunch for several months now. All he has to do is show up at the Army-Navy Club around mealtime and any number of eager officers are no doubt happy to reward him for speaking military truth to civilian power.

But the military is hardly blameless in this situation. Last year, the Army and Air Force conducted two war games involving scenarios roughly resembling the Gulf War. At the end of them, one of its mock-commanders, a retired Army general named Huba Wass de Czege, wrote a memo to his colleagues, noting that they ended the game too soon.

These games, he wrote, “tend to devote more attention to successful campaign-beginnings than to successful conclusions.” The war games are declared over, he continued, “when victory seems inevitable to us (not necessarily to the enemy), at about the point operational superiority has been achieved and tactical control of strategically significant forces and places appears to be a matter of time.” Yet winning a war doesn’t mean simply winning on the battlefield. “It is just as important,” Wass de Czege wrote, “to know how to follow through to the resolution of such conflicts.” Otherwise, there is a tendency to underestimate “the difficulties of ‘regime change’ and the magnitude of the effort required to achieve strategic objectives.”

The real war recapitulated the war game: swift battlefield victory, followed by a chess-player’s notion of victory—saying, “Checkmate in three moves,” and instead of slogging through the three moves, toppling the king and declaring the game won.

The vanishing of the Iraqi army was interpreted as a vanquishing. Pulling down Saddam’s statue was taken as shorthand for killing the man himself. Baghdad was seen, quite properly, as the central target of the U.S.-led invasion; the fall of the Baghdad regime was extrapolated, prematurely, as the surrender of all Iraq.

The latest lesson of the war might be this: Whatever great improvements are wrought in a military force—in the firepower of the weapons, the maneuverability of the troops, the coordination of the individual services, the accuracy of the missiles and bombs—these factors comprise but the first phase of a war. As many predicted all along, the harder and more enduring part is the second phase. Neglecting this truth a few months ago, at the end of the first phase, means that the second phase will now be much harder than it might have been for all concerned.