From the day the Iraqi insurgency began until today’s “surge” strategy, the U.S.-led war in Iraq has followed an entirely predictable course. Absent making Iraq the 51st state, it has been pretty clear that to give its newly democratic government any chance of survival, the Iraqi security forces, and particularly the army, would have to be rebuilt.
Why the rebuilding lagged, and how the various opposition groups gained the upper hand in Baghdad and throughout Iraq, is a story for another day. But by the time the president announced his surge strategy, the various insurgent groups in Baghdad and elsewhere had clearly gained momentum over government forces. Now, American troops and their Iraqi allies are back in the neighborhoods, contesting for the upper hand.
What next? Clearly, with the U.S. Army and Marine Corps at maximum stretch, this level of troop deployments cannot be maintained and the president’s September announcement authorizing a force reduction in Iraq of 5,700 troops by Christmas and of 30,000 troops by July will do little to ease the strain or frustration. The administration and Congress are fighting over comparative molehills of time. When we consider the stakes, this is shortsighted in the extreme, especially when the way ahead is obvious and still offers a good chance of suc¬cess. The U.S. must accelerate the training and equipping of the Iraqi army and other security forces, make it clear that the surge will draw down, and begin to reorganize the Army and Marine Corps for a long-term, intense advisory campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan, to be followed by similar commitments in other countries.
For many, the prospect of deploying “advisers” sounds like war on the cheap. That is not the case. Done correctly, well-equipped teams of advisers deployed throughout the Iraqi forces, and backed up by U.S. intelligence, logistics and fire¬power, can add greatly to the increasing strength of the Iraqi Army. Coupled with increased security assistance — unbeliev¬ably, at this late date, security assistance is still encumbered — a shift to an advisory strategy by the end of 2008 will not only stiffen the Iraqis’ own security forces, but will also de-escalate the impending political meltdown in this country while reas¬suring our friends throughout the Persian Gulf region, all of whom are watching the showdown in Washington with increasing concern. A recently published study by the Democratic-leaning Center for a New American Security esti¬mates responsibly that an adviser-centered strategy would be necessary, and sustainable, through about 2012. A shift over six to eight months to an adviser-centered strategy would also preserve the options of an incoming administration in 2009, on which official Washington is increasingly focused.
We should not underestimate the challenge such a shift would present to the Army and the Marine Corps. A rough estimate is that up to 10,000 first-rate advisers, virtually all regular officers and senior noncommissioned officers, would be required. This would cut deeply into the leadership available to reform and retrain combat units recovering in the U.S. or deploying to Afghanistan. The Army is already short several thousand soldiers in the requisite grades. Most of these soldiers and Marines would be on their third or fourth tour. A large number of combat sup¬port units, from medical hospitals to attack helicopter units, would remain to support adviser teams, further straining the force. But new leaders can be promoted more rapidly from our high-quality rank and file, and logistics units can be tailored. Against the collapse of the war effort at home, and to have a chance of prevailing in Iraq, these hardships are more than justified.
Beyond the surge, we have learned — or relearned — a num¬ber of important lessons for our long fight against jihadist extremism. The most important are these:
First, the practice of pre-emptive war, of swift invasions launched from the U.S., is bankrupt when it comes to the strug¬gle against religious anarchists. U.S. aggression plays into their hands. Rather, the U.S. and its allies must commit to the slow and patient support of emerging states whose institutions and social networks must eventually stand on their own against jihadist theology. Although military support and security assistance will play important roles in aiding our friends, other forms of aid are also important and in fact may be more important in the long term — economic aid, technology trans¬fers, agricultural and medical assistance — the list goes on. And that aid must be delivered or directed by the State Department.
Second, we must end the pernicious infighting between the State and Defense departments, and come to unified action against jihadist aggression in the border areas of the world. More to the point, current U.S. policy virtually guarantees divided command between the U.S. ambassador and military commanders in a threatened country or region, despite the military’s hallowed principles of war and the advice of every recognized authority on irregular warfare. One only has to look back at the poisonous relationship between U.S. envoy Paul Bremer and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez in the critical early days of the Iraq operation to see how disastrous such a policy can be. In the early stages of resistance to jihadist influence, when irregular war may be averted entirely, the ambassador unques¬tionably must be in charge. If U.S. troop levels rise, and in par¬ticular, if regular U.S. forces take the field, other arrangements may be made. But the principle of “one team, one fight” must rule all. This simple rule, so often flouted through bureaucratic paralysis in Washington, must be followed if we are to have a reasonable chance of success in the field.
Third, the State Department’s ability to operate in the unde¬veloped world must be restored as a matter of national impor¬tance, and as rapidly as possible. In State today, an entire gen¬eration of diplomats and foreign service officers has grown up without the memory of State as a power in foreign affairs, able to operate vigorously in support of host countries with aid programs, advice, consulates, American libraries, scholarships and hosts of other programs that put muscle into American foreign policy. Today, our undermanned embassies have with¬drawn into fortresses, and our outreach is dominated by the military. The U.S. Agency for International Development is a shadow of its former self. The U.S. Information Agency (USIA) is gone, at the very time when the U.S. has a vital interest in explaining itself and its beliefs to an interconnected world. Congress, which eviscerated State in the post-Vietnam era and in the years after the Cold War, bears a major responsibility for the department’s condition today and should take a forward role in leading it back into its rightful — and absolutely essen¬tial — place in fighting for American interests.
In rebuilding State capabilities — in fact, in any strategy shift of this magnitude — Congress has the key role. First, legisla¬tion pertaining to foreign aid and security assistance has, over time, become unwieldy for the kinds of targeted aid that the policy described here would require. New legislation is needed to streamline the administration of foreign aid and security assistance to preserve vital oversight while empowering U.S. missions forward. Some initiative will be required on the part of Congress; a generation of senior executive branch policy¬makers and administrators has grown up under the current rules, with little knowledge that things could be better — that government funding of different colors can be mixed together for mutual support at the Country Team level, as was done in the pre-Vietnam era. Resistance may be expected from the very agencies to which assistance is most important. The leg¬islative program must have two goals: to preserve Congress’ vital oversight of federal funding, and to empower to the maxi¬mum extent possible the U.S. mission forward, headed by the U.S. ambassador. To enable all parties to come together, the State Department, in cooperation with Defense, should take the lead in proposing to the new administration, when it takes office in 2009, a legislative agenda vetted by congressional staff that accomplishes oversight and empowerment. In that legis¬lation must be embedded increases in the Foreign Service, authority and capability for the Chief of the U.S. Mission to account for funding of the agencies in his mission, and other measures necessary to empower U.S. missions along the lines of the Lugar report of December 2006.
Second, the Congress must support the re-establishment of a global U.S. information capability along the lines of the late USIA, abolished in 1999. The inability of the U.S. to engage in the global infosphere is no longer a minor embarrassment, solved by sending presidential friends on regional listening tours. It is a serious strategic and operational shortfall. Information is no longer simply an adjunct to operations or strategy; it has come to occupy a predominant role in a world increasingly connected by cell phones, BlackBerries and the Web. In the American hierar¬chy of strategy, information — perhaps better described as the “national narrative” — now dominates the operational level of war, connecting the tactical operations of troops to our nation¬al, strategic goals. In some cases, “the story” is the strategy. The absence of a sophisticated national capability to operate at that level is a serious, perhaps in some cases fatal, deficiency. Congress should restore a USIA-like capability, updated for the information environment in which conflict now occurs.
Finally, America’s armed forces must be adapted to play their role in a new national strategy that emphasizes support and assistance rather than pre-emption and invasion. Certainly, strong conventional forces must be maintained — but only committed to war when other forms of persuasion or defense have failed. Military advisory teams, drawn from experts in regular units, tailored to the needs of the host coun¬try and under the direction of the U.S. ambassador, should be stationed permanently in countries under threat of jihadist aggression. Their functions may range from logistic advice to, in extreme cases, accompanying allied forces into combat and directing U.S. support. The U.S. military has done this before. During the 1970s, for example, the Army and Marine Corps built a series of long-term programs to rotate accomplished soldiers from regular units to military assistance groups around the world. All were dismantled in the wake of the U.S. defeat in Southeast Asia and the force drawdowns that fol¬lowed. We have not resurrected those programs because the United States’ present military strategy is still focused on high-tech short wars and the conventional forces to fight them.
New “forces,” though, are not needed. What is required is a modest surplus of officers and noncommissioned officers sufficient to man the assistance groups, and the schools to train them — pocket change among the services’ higher-cost pro¬grams. History and recent experience show that by advising and supporting local security forces as part of a larger U.S. effort, this kind of low-level American influence offers the best chance to support our allies, protect our equities, and cut off or defeat insurgencies at the lowest levels, before they rise to the point of threatening U.S. political consensus at home — as the strategy that led to Iraq has done.
ROBERT KILLEBREW served more than 30 years in the Army and is a former Army War College instructor.