Softly, Softly Silver Bullet

Richard Fernandez has a post at Pajamas Media about the apparent failure of the British ‘softly softly’ approach in Southern Iraq. It wasn’t long ago the wise and the good where holding up the British example as the right way and the American way as plainly and obviously wrong. I’m not criticizing Fernandez here. What I am objecting to is the tendency we all have to look for a single ‘right approach.’ Looking for the key that will unlock the situation. Like seeing democracy as a universal solution to terrorism for example. Not only is the lock constantly changing – the key is too. There are special moments of opportunity in war and there are significant end points like that approaching for the British Army when they withdraw. It makes sense to evaluate such a critical transition but in the larger picture it is not even an end point – it is a way point. Here is Richard Fernandez’s summary:

The Surge from the very start was a political and military offensive. Both elements had to be present in order for each to be effective. Without a political process a military effort would be a nothing but coercion. But without a military effort providing security no political solution could possibly take root. While it is often said that “there is no purely military solution to the problems in Iraq” it is less frequently realized that there can be no purely political solution either. One of the first articles to warn against the British “softly-softly” approach appeared in the Spectator in 2005. It warned that “softly-softly” might lead to an exclusive reliance on political solutions which could not withstand the first determined military challenge from the insurgents, unless the British were prepared to respond in kind. But they were not.

The outcome of the American approach is far from clear either, although it it does look to me that the force protection approach of staying in large bases and not showing the flag (a British expression) has not worked well for either the US or the British in Iraq. As a student of the media I see ‘force protection’ as an unsuccessful attempt by both governments to counter the media’s body count meme (it can only get constantly worse) on the home front in the information war. Currently the Iraqi and US forces are steadily rolling up al Qaeda and Shiite militia forces. Today Bill Roggio reports:

A notable example of ISF capability was the IA’s quick rescue of eight sheiks kidnapped by Shia extremists on the way to a reconciliation meeting in Diyala Province on October 29. In addition to recovering the sheiks unharmed within 48 hours, the IA killed four kidnappers and detained six others. Other recent successes include the kill or capture of 244 insurgents by ISF in Tikrit, Baghdad, Kirkuk, Hillah, and Baqubah in just the last week.

As good as it is to see Iraqi forces aggressively and successfully defending their own, it is the steady daily reports of insurgents killed and captured that tells me that right now ‘the key is turning in the lock’. But that too is a way point. Here is Roggio later in the same report:

Officials see an eventually finite but not-yet-closing window of opportunity for the Shia-controlled national government to compromise with tribal leaders before local and regional gains can stall or eventually be lost. Reconciliation is considered key to maintaining the drop in violence before groups consider a return to insurgency or other, unknown courses of action.

So we have a lot of momentum right now, but the bigger picture is still problematic. Zoom back even further for a moment and it becomes obvious that while al Qaeda in Iraq is on the run, it is on the offensive in Pakistan. It has forced Musharraf’s hand and, for now, effectively countered his attempt at reconciliation with Bhutto.

Zooming back on the information war, I think the biggest false ‘key’ has been the notion that this war is inevitably like the Vietnam war. Even bigger than the overreliance on democracy. It is normally the military that makes the mistake of ‘fighting the last war’ instead of realistically engaging the present one. Since 9/11, it has been the press and the opponents of the war that have mistakenly seen the current conflicts through the lens of Vietnam.

When Congress sent General Petraeus off to Iraq, the 20th Century information war appeared over. Even Donald Rumsfeld admitted he was losing it. It was simply a matter of General Petraeus writing a sad footnote to history. The well informed – readers of the NY Times and the Washington Post – had overwhelming evidence. Even the less well informed were constantly reminded by TV despite a futile rear guard action by Fox News. Senator Warner was on PBS coming out against the war – positioning himself as an acceptable Republican for the post Bush era when Democrats would control the White House and both houses of Congress.

But those of us fighting the 21st century war knew what General Petraeus knew. There was a golden window of opportunity to apply counterinsurgency doctrine in Iraq. The Anbar Awakening had already happened six months before. The Sunnis were finished with al Qaeda. All of this information was available on the Internet from independent journalist and bloggers. It was not a secret for anyone who lived outside the bubble created by the 20th century media.

Defeating the Vietnam meme is a critical battle in the information war and it too is far from over. The turning point may have come when when those inside the bubble got a heads up from Michael E. O’Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack of the Liberal Brookings Institution. They published A War We Might Just Win in the NY Times on July 30th once it became clear that Petraeus was not following Congress’s script. When he came back to report in September the second turning point was the General Betrayus Ad in the NY Times. Even as Hillary was trying to make General Petraeus look like the overoptimistic General Westmorland of the Vietnam era the left of her party cut the ground from beneath her. Suddenly Hillary and Obama were talking 2013 for leaving Iraq. Sounds like a silver bullet to me.


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