Thursday, February 19, 2009

Define your terms -- and your mission.

A blogger reads Gen. Petraeus's 1987 Ph.D. thesis on "the lessons of Vietnam":
on P.109 he shows a skepticism that has apparently served him well over the course of the Iraq conflict:

Vietnam planted in the minds of many in the military doubts about the ability of US forces to conduct successful large-scale counterinsurgencies. These misgivings do not in all cases spring from doubts about the capabilities of American troops and units per se; even in Vietnam, military leaders recall, US units never lost a battle.

So far, so chest-thumping. But then read footnote 22, and the grain of salt is revealed:

22. Although this phrase is heard frequently, I have never heard anyone define the terms “battle” and “lost”.
Indeed. (The "chest-thumping" is unfair, since Petraeus puts the sentiment into the "recollections" of "military leaders.")

(H/t Sullivan.)

Reading Tom Ricks's book on Petraeus and Iraq, it's clear that Petraeus understands how to win a counterinsurgency, if it can be won. The problem, which Ricks acknowledges, is whether Iraq *can* be won. The book is good for what it is, but Ricks I think is too much on board with the military perspective, while giving shorter shrift to the political goals (especially American) in whose service the military is supposed to be acting.

What you get especially from the parts discussing Petraeus's Congressional appearances is that the Dems lacked a program, Bush was on autopilot, and the military under Gates was free to pursue (and set) its own goals. But war is the pursuit of politics by other means, and we have to think what we are trying to achieve in Iraq, and whether it's doable.

It's entirely possible that there's enough mistrust b/t the Sunnis and Shiites that it's rational for them *not* to reconcile, and to keep their knives sharp for a civil war. The military seems to think it has the duty to play watchdog for however long it takes for Iraqis' attitudes to change. We'll see.

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