March 8, 2007

Learning The Right Lessons

Perhaps it is too early to grant General David Petraeus rock-star status, but he has garnered some good press of late. USA Today reports on Petraeus' philosophy of war and its application in Baghdad, as well as early indications of success:

Twenty years ago, David Petraeus, then a young Army officer, wrote a Ph.D. dissertation for Princeton University, saying many of the lessons U.S. military leaders learned from the Vietnam War were wrong.

Generals had become hesitant to commit forces except when they could win conventional battles with superior American firepower. "The senior military have universally been more cautious since Vietnam," Petraeus wrote.

That hesitancy posed a problem in Petraeus' view. The U.S. military was turning away from the very fight — insurgencies — that it would likely confront. The United States' enemies had also learned from Vietnam and would not want to confront U.S. military might head-on.

Now the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Petraeus is following his own advice. Since he arrived in Baghdad last month, U.S. troops are moving off large bases and into combat outposts in the city's turbulent neighborhoods. Aides insist the new strategy is beginning to show positive results, particularly in the capital ...

USA Today provides some interesting stats to source its argument for the early success of Petraeus. Sectarian fighting between Sunni and Shi'ites has decreased by as much as 80% in some of the tougher areas of Baghdad. Between 600 and 1,000 families have returned to the Iraqi capital, halting a flow of refugees from the violence-wracked streets of Baghdad; 20 families a day had been going the other direction before that.

More significantly, the Sunni insurgents have returned to the bargaining table. Now that they understand the Americans are all that stand between them and a Halabja-style ethnic cleansing, they have decided to engage in the political process, at least for now. The new push against both sides of the sectarian conflict has apparently bolstered our credibility, as bloody noses often do.

Petraeus wants more out of this assignment than just a pacification in Baghdad, although that is his primary goal. He has argued for a better counterinsurgency regime within the American military, arguing that the proven domination of the US on the battlefield will mean that almost all future threats will be asymmetrical. If the US expects to maintain its military superiority and therefore protect its national security, it will have to learn to defeat insurgencies. We will not learn that by running away, and a retreat in the face of such terrorists will only encourage more of them -- as the only way to defeat the United States, and by extension, the West.

It's unfortunate that Petraeus did not get this opportunity earlier. His vision could save Iraq, if given the time, but Petraeus has little of that. If in six months he cannot make substantial and enduring progress, a hostile Congress will almost certainly pull the plug. However, if he can expand on his early success and help give the Iraqi government enough room to negotiate a settlement between its sects, then Congress will likely act as though Iraq doesn't exist, and allow for even further gains.

Petraeus has six months to undo thirty years of faulty analysis and three years of ineffective strategy. Hopefully, the Pentagon's new rock star will start churning out the hits.


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