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How Spin Loses Wars

'Iraq is another warning that serious counter-insurgency campaigns often take five to 15 years. They don't end conveniently with an assistant secretary or a president's term in office'.

Washington (UPI) Dec 18, 2005
The sharp gap between the evolution of the insurgency and the almost endless U.S. efforts to use the media and politics to spin a long and uncertain counter-insurgency campaign into turning points and instant victory has done America, the Bush Administration, and the American military great harm. Spin and shallow propaganda lose wars rather than win them. They ultimately discredit a war, and the officials and officers who fight it.

Iraq shows that it is critical that an administration honestly prepares the American people, the Congress and its allies for the real nature of the war to be fought. To do so, it must prepare them to sustain the expense and sacrifice through truth, not spin. There is only so much shallow spin that the American people or Congress will take.

It isn't a matter of a cynical media or a people who oppose the war; rubbish is rubbish. If the United States spins each day with overoptimistic statements and half-truths, it embarks on a process that will sooner or later deprive itself of credibility -- both domestically and internationally.

Iraq is another warning that serious counter-insurgency campaigns often take five to 15 years. They don't end conveniently with an assistant secretary or a president's term in office. Again and again we deny the sheer length of serious counter-insurgencies. Planners, executers, and anyone who explains and justifies such wars needs to be far more honest about the timescales involved, just how long we may have to stay, and that even when an insurgency is largely over, there may be years of aid and advisory efforts.

The insurgency raises lessons about warfighting that go beyond the details of military strategy and tactics, and provide broader lessons that have been surprisingly consistent over the more than 40 years from Vietnam to Iraq.

First, warfighters must focus relentlessly on the desired outcome of the war and not simply the battle or overall military situation. In strategic and grand strategic terms, it doesn't matter how well the war went last month; it doesn't matter how the United States is doing tactically. The real question warfighters must ask is whether the United States is actually moving toward a strategic outcome that serves the ultimate interests of the United States. If warfighters don't know, should they spend the lives of American men and women in the first place?

The United States, and any military force engaging in counter-insurgency warfare, should teach at every level that stability operations and conflict termination are the responsibility of every field-grade officer. And, for that matter, of every civilian. Warfighters need to act on the principle that every tactical operation must have a political context and set of goals. The United States needs to tie its overall campaign plan to a detailed plan for the use of economic aid at every level, from simple bribery to actually seeking major changes in the economy of a given country.

Second, warfighters need to understand, as Gen. Rupert Smith has pointed out, that Iraq has shown that enemies will make every effort to try win counter-insurgency conflicts by finding ways to operate below or above the threshold of conventional military superiority.

It is stupid, as some in the U.S. military have done, to call Iraqi insurgents cowards or terrorists because they will not fight on our terms. The same remarkably stupid attitudes appeared in 19th century colonial wars and often cost those foolish enough to have them the battle. The Madhi's victories in the Sudan are a good example.

The United States has to be able to fight in ways that defeat insurgents and terrorists regardless of how they fight. Insurgents are not cowards for fighting us in any way that leads to the highest cost to us and the least cost to them. If they can fight below the U.S. threshold of conventional superiority, then technology is at best a limited supplement to U.S. human skills, military professionalism, and above all, our ability to find ways to strengthen local allies.

It is far more important, for example, to have effective local forces than more technology. Net-centric is not a substitute for human-centric, and for that matter, human-centric isn't a substitute for competent people down at the battalion level. Systems don't win. Technology doesn't win.

Third, warfighters and their political leaders need to acknowledge that enemies can fight above the threshold of U.S. conventional ability, not just beneath it. The character of America's political system, culture, and values are not the answer to winning the political and ideological dimension of many counter-insurgency campaigns.

There is no reason Americans should think it can win an ideological struggle over the future of Islam and/or the Arab world. Our Muslim and Arab allies, in contrast, may well be able to win this struggle, particularly if the United States works with them and not against them.

U.S. public diplomacy and political actions can have a major impact in aiding counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism. But Iraq shows that the local, cultural, ethnic, religious and political issues have to be fought out in such wars, and must be fought out largely by our ally on the ground and other Islamic states.

The United States can help, but cannot win, or dominate, the battle for hearts and minds. Moreover, only regional allies with the right religion, culture, and legitimacy can cope with the growing ability of ideologically driven opponents to find the fault lines that can divide us from local allies by creating increased ethnic and sectarian tensions.

Fourth, the United States does need to improve our counter-insurgency technology, but cannot win with "toys." Technology is a tool and not a solution. Israeli technology failed in Lebanon as U.S. technology did in Vietnam, and some of the same IED systems that helped defeat Israel have now emerged in Iraq: those twin IR sensors, the shaped charges, the radio-controlled devices, the foam painted to look like rocks. Like Israel, the United States can use technical means to defeat many IEDs, but not enough. Moreover, it is possible that the total cost of every insurgent IED to date is still lower than the cost of one AH-1S that went down over Iraq.

Fifth, the best "force multiplier" will be effective allies, and interoperability with a true partner. If it is true that the United States can win most counter-insurgency campaigns if it creates strong allies, the United States must act decisively on this principle. U.S. victories will often only be a means to this end.

The real victories come when the United States has allied troops that can operate against insurgents in the field, and a friendly government to carry out nation building and civil action activities at the same time. The United States really begins to win when it can find ways to match the military, political, economic, and governance dimension.

Creating a real partnership with allies means respect; it doesn't mean creating proxies or tools. It means recognizing that creating the conditions for effective governance and police are as important as the military. So is the creation of effective ministries. Iraq shows all too clearly that if you focus on the ministry of defense and ignore the ministry of the interior -- and even more difficult if you ignore the ministry of finance -- this just doesn't work.

In most places, the actual counter-insurgency battle is local and as dependent on police and effective governance as effective military forces. In hyper-urbanized areas, which represent many of the places where we fight, the city is the key, at least as much as the national government. And, incidentally, Iraq has already shown time after time that it is difficult to sustain any victory without a lasting presence by local police and government offices

Sixth, political legitimacy in counter-insurgency is measured in local terms and not in terms of American ideology. Effective warfighting means the United States must recognize something about regional allies that goes against its present emphasis on "democracy." In most of the world, "legitimacy" has little to do with governments being elected, and a great deal to do with governments being popular.

By all means, hold elections when they do more good than harm. But bringing the people security, the rule of law, human rights and effective governance is far more important. In many cases, elections may be disruptive or bring people to power who are more of a problem than a solution. This is particularly true if elections come without the preconditions of mature political parties, economic stability, a firm rule of law and checks and balances.

In most cases, the United States and its allies will still need to worry about the people who don't win -- people, ethnicities, and sects who will not have human rights protection. If anyone thinks there is a correlation between democracy and human rights, they got through college without ever reading Thucydides. The Melian dialogue is the historical rule, not the exception.

Seventh, the United States needs to have a functional interagency process and partner our military with effective civilian counterparts. Iraq has shown that political leaders and senior military cannot afford to bypass the system, or to lack support from the civilian agencies that must do their part from the outset.

The United States needs to begin by deciding on the team it needs to go to war, and then make that team work. It is one of the oddities historically that Robert McNamara got his largest increase in U.S. troops deployed to Vietnam by bypassing the interagency process. The Bush Administration began by going through an interagency process before the war, but largely chose to ignore it after January 2003.

This is the wrong approach. Counter-insurgency wars are as much political and economic as military. They require political action, aid in governance, economic development and attention to the ideological and political dimension. The United States can only succeed here if the interagency process can work.

At another level, the United States needs civilian risk-takers. It needs a counterpart to the military in the field. There is no point in supporting the staffing of more interagency coordination bodies in Washington unless their primary function is to put serious resources into the field. The United States is not going to win anything by having better interagency coordination, and more meetings, unless the end result is to put the right mix of people and resources out in the countryside and where the fighting takes place.

The United States needs put a firm end to the kind of mentality that overstaffs the State Department and intelligence community in Washington, and doesn't require career civilians to take risks in the field. Foreign Service officers should not be promoted unless they are willing to take risks. The United States can get all the risk-takers we want.

There already is a flood of applications from qualified people. It can also ensure continuity and expertise by drawing on the brave group of people already in Iraq and Afghanistan -- a remarkable number of whom are contract employees -- and giving them career status.

In the process, the United States also needs to "civilianize" some aspects of its military. It needs to improve both their area and language skills, create the added specialized forces it needs for stability and nation building operations, and rethink tour length for military who work in critical positions and with allied forces. Personal relationships are absolutely critical in the countries where the United States is most likely to fight counter-insurgency wars. So is area expertise and continuity in intelligence.

Counter-insurgency needs a core of military and civilians who will accept 18- to 24-month tours in key slots. The problem today is often that the selection system does not focus on the best person but rather on external personnel and career planning considerations. Moreover, it fails to recognize that those who take such additional risks should be paid for it in full, and be given different leave policies and promotion incentives.

Today, a solider who is only a battalion commander is only a battalion commander. The key officers are those with area and counter-insurgency skills that go beyond the combat unit level. Those officers need to have more diverse skills, and deal adequately with the broader dimension of war, and stay long enough to be fully effective.

Finally, humancentric warfare does not mean "super-soldiers" or super-intelligence officers. This is a particular problem for warfighting intelligence, given the limits of today's technical systems and means. It is also a problem because Iraq shows that developing effective U.S.-led and organized HUMINT may often be impossible.

It is true that better intelligence analysis and HUMINT are critical. But, there will be many times in the future where we will also have to go into counter-insurgency campaigns without being able to put qualified Americans in the field quickly enough to recruit effective agents and develop effective HUMINT on our own.

Does that mean HUMINT isn't important? Of course it doesn't; it is a useful tool. But to create effective HUMINT abilities to deal with security issues, the United States will need an effective local partner in most serious cases of both counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism. Having allied countries, allied forces, or allied elements, develop effective HUMINT will be a critical answer to U.S. shortcomings.

Anthony J. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair of Strategy at the center for strategic and International studies in Washington DC. This is taken from his latest CSIS paper "The Iraqi war and its strategic lessons for counter-insurgency."

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

Source: United Press International

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Washington (UPI) Dec 18, 2005
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