In yesterday's Column, The Insurgent Advantage, David Brooks reviewed a book, John Robb's Brave New War, in a manner which I hope doesn't reflect the actual conclusions of that book. The points he actually attributes to Robb make a lot of sense:
Robb observes that today’s extremist organizations are not like the P.L.O. under Yasir Arafat. They’re not liberation armies. Instead, modern terror groups are open-source, decentralized conglomerations of small, quasi-independent groups.By engaging in "system disruption", such as by bombing oil pipelines, the insurgents get a significant return with a modest financial or "miliitary" investment. Robb argues that these groups do not seek to overthrow states, but to weaken them and cause the collapse of law and order, while maintaining a level of conflict below what their target states might deem an existential threat. This supposedly inspires target nations to "try to fight wars on the cheap, and end up in a feckless semibelligerent state somewhere between real war and nonwar." (Is that what Brooks sees in Iraq? The U.S. military fighting a war "on the cheap"?)
There are between 70 and 100 groups that make up the Iraqi insurgency, and they are organized, Robb says, like a bazaar. It’s pointless to decapitate the head of the insurgency or disrupt its command structure, because the insurgency doesn’t have these things. Instead, it is a swarm of disparate companies that share information, learn from each other’s experiments and respond quickly to environmental signals.
For example, the U.S. has spent billions trying to disrupt attacks from improvised explosive devices, but the I.E.D. manufacturing stream has transmogrified and now includes sophisticated metallurgy, outsourcing and fast innovation cycles. The number of I.E.D. attacks has remained pretty constant throughout the war.
If the Iraqi insurgents defeat the U.S. then every bad guy on earth will study and learn their techniques. The people now running for president will find themselves in bigger heaps of trouble than the current one now is — trouble that this presidential campaign hasn’t even dealt with.As Israel's recent experiences in Lebanon indicate, you don't have to be in a shooting war with your enemy, nor do you have to be defeated on any battleground, for "extremist organizations" to learn from your tactics, devise strategies against you, and implement those strategies in the field. Brooks himself seems to acknowledge that the learning and adaptation is a constant process, and has occurred throughout the time U.S. forces have been in Iraq. If Brooks truly believes that the danger is in teaching the insurgents how to implement effective strategies against U.S. forces and interests, staying in Iraq may be the worst option. They stop learning from us the day we go home.
If Brooks' earlier comment about fighting wars on the cheap is meant to be applied within the context of Iraq, take an objective look at the manpower invested in the battle. Take a look at the commitment of armament. If that commitment is not sufficient to crush an insurgency led by these loosely knit "extremist organizations", how many nation states can be reasonably said to have sufficient resources to do so? (At about $100,000,000,000 per year, the annual cost of the war exceeds the GDP of more than 100 nations.) I suspect that if you look at the nations which have successfully put down similar "extremist organizations" or grassroots resistance to occupation, you will find that it in most cases it was not the investment of overwhelming military might which led to their successes, but instead that it was brutal, ruthless tactics. Things that even post-911 America would quickly recognize as atrocities and "war crimes".
It may be that a more expensive invasion and occupation force would have been able to suppress the insurgency and maintain public order, while an effective government was constructed for post-war Iraq. Fundamentally that would not have been a "military victory" over these groups - it would have been the manifestation of sufficient military force that they choose not to act, while a political state was constructed which had sufficiently broad support that at the end of the day they could not maintain a sufficient body of fighters to engage in a meaningful "insurgency." Given the realities of Iraq, I'm not sure that would be possible while maintaining a unified state. But the necessary investment would have made the current effort appear to have been conducted "on the cheap".