"Let me sum up once more the last two principles. Their combination gives us a maxim which should take first place among all causes of victory in the modern art of war: 'Pursue one great decisive aim with force and determination.'"- Carl von Clausewitz, in Principles of War.
von Clausewitz was a Prussian General and perhaps the greatest military thinker in history, and analyzing our action and progress in Iraq, I've come to the conclusion that the major flaw in the current US approach to stabilizing Iraq is that we've ignored this basic principle. Instead of pursuing "one great decisive aim" (more on that further down), we have our forces spread across Iraq, pursuing 101 different ojectives. As of May 2005, the 100,000+ U.S. soldiers in Iraq were spread across over 100 bases.
Another famous maxim of war comes from another Prussian (they were good at war), Frederick the Great: "He who defends everything, defends nothing." Attempting to defend all possible targets equally leads to nothing being defended adequately. That aptly defines what is happening to the U.S. forces in Iraq; in attempting to stabilize the entirety of the country they have become ineffective at stabilizing any of it. John McCain called it "whack-a-mole": troops are moved from one pocket of resistance to another, temporarily quelling the insurgency in one area before being called to stamp it out in another - and allowing the insurgency to flare back up in the region they vacated.
All of which leads me to two conclusions. First, that the U.S. forces can't stabilize the entire country. And second, because of that, that they shouldn't be trying to.
One of the most successful anti-insurgency tactics in the history of warfare is the "ink spot" (or "oil spot") strategy - create a zone of security and opportunity within which the insurgents cannot operate and the benefits of peace are open and obvious, and the native support for the insurgents will begin to melt away, as areas outside the "ink spot" see the benefits and look to join in. I'm not the first person to argue that this is the method that should be applied to Iraq - Alex Krepinevich wrote a comprehensive article in Foreign Affairs nearly a year ago arguing just that. Where I break from the strategies I've seen is in the scope of the original ink spots. There really should be only two. The way forward in Iraq, I think lies in securing Baghdad and Kirkuk.
Back to von Clausewitz, for a second. He said something else (and something that may surprise the sizable group in the U.S. that derides the talk of "winning hearts and minds" as harming the U.S.' interests):
- von Clausewitz, Principles of War. von Clausewitz explains how public opinion can be won:
I. Warfare has three main objects:
(a) To conquer and destroy the armed power of the enemy;
(b) To take possession of his material and other sources of strength, and
(c) To gain public opinion.
von Clausewitz' emphasis on the capital is no accident. It is the emotional center of the country, the city that captures the imagination and loyalty of its citizens. The insurgents' ability to create instability in Baghdad - and the sectarian violence and retribution that has magnified that instability - is a tremendous morale boost for the insurgents, and a terrible blow to the U.S. and the fledgling Iraqi government. By contrast, the complete pacification of Baghdad would be a hammerblow to the insurgency. And von Clausewitz' first and second rules, which the U.S. has been ignoring, provide the map to accomplishing that goal.
4. Public opinion is won through great victories and the occupation of the enemy's capital.
5. The first and most important rule to observe in order to accomplish these purposes, is to use our entire forces with the utmost energy. Any moderation shown would leave us short of our aim. Even with everything in our favor, we should be unwise not to make the greatest effort in order to make the result perfectly certain. For such effort can never produce negative results. Suppose the country suffers greatly from this, no lasting dis- advantage will arise; for the greater the effort, the sooner the suffering will cease.
The moral impression created by these actions is of infinite importance. They make everyone confident of success, which is the best means for suddenly raising the nation's morale.
6. The second rule is to concentrate our power as much as possible against that section where the chief blows are to be delivered and to incur disadvantages elsewhere, so that our chances of success may increase at the decisive point. This will compensate for all other disadvantages.
7. The third rule is never to waste time. Unless important advantages are to be gained from hesitation, it is necessary to set to work at once. By this speed a hundred enemy measures are nipped in the bud, and public opinion is won most rapidly.
First, the U.S. forces in Iraq have to focus on the goal of wiping out the insurgency in Baghdad. That means both clearing the city of arms and explosives and preventing the import of arms and explosives into the city, as well as finding and containing the insurgents themselves. And to do that, the U.S. forces will need to use their "utmost energy" - putting aside missions external to securing Baghdad, even to the point of taking several steps back in the rest of Iraq. We need to be willing "to incur disadvantages elsewhere, so that our chances of success may increase at the decisive point." Intelligence assets in the rest of Iraq will need to be maintained, but if the insurgents want Fallujah, let them have it; if they want Ramadi and Tikrit, let them have it. They won't be able to keep it, but taking it back will need to be secondary to securing Baghdad.
And that brings us to the second of von Clausewitz' rules - we must "concentrate our power as much as possible against that section where the chief blows are to be delivered." Having 100,000+ troops spread out across Iraq is not working. We need to concentrate that force on Baghdad and its environs. A force that size would have the manpower to safely patrol the city, to pacify large areas, to guard marketplaces and mosques, to root out the weaponry in Baghdad and prevent more weapons from being brought in. Security in Baghdad would be accompanied by increased reconstruction and prosperity, which would make securing Baghdad a double blow to the insurgents: first, by imposing on the insurgency the humilliation of being unable to effectively strike in Iraq's most important city, and second by winning the support of the general Baghdad populace and demonstrating that Iraq without the insurgents would be a peaceful, stable and prosperous Iraq.
Importantly, a large and effective force in Baghdad could protect the Iraqi army and police recruits as they trained. And, eventually, those Iraqi troops could replace U.S. troops in holding Baghdad on a rolling basis, and those U.S. troops could move on to the next ink spot - Basra, Mosul or Najaf, most likely.
The one exception I would suggest to the "Baghdad First" strategy is Kirkuk. Kirkuk is defended by the Kurdish Peshmerga - an effective native force - has been spared much of the violence that has convulsed the rest of the country, and is a major source of oil (important if the Iraqi nation is to survive). Given its relatively secure status today, a small but potent U.S. force should remain in Kirkuk to ensure that it maintains its current level of security.
Let's be clear about something. I have no military background at all. None. I've never been in the armed forces, never so much as ran or even participated in a boyscout unit or a paintball game. So I don't think I'm qualified to plan military tactics; I can't even begin to suggest the hows by which the plan I've outlined would be put into motion. But what I do have some basic grasp of is military strategy. And three years into an Iraq war that I believed from the beginning would likely take close to a decade to truly win, it seems obvious to me that there needs to be a dramatic change in the overall strategy by which this war is being fought.