The United States cannot start over in Iraq. But it has one last chance to adjust course and partly correct its previous mistakes. With the Iraqi elections in January, the United States entered what will be the last stage of its engagement there: the transition to withdrawal. No one knows how long this stage will last—perhaps one year, perhaps a few. But its end point is obvious. Either because things are going well enough that U.S. troops can leave or because they are going badly enough that the Americans have to go, sooner or later the heavy U.S. presence will be removed. Political forces in Iraq will demand it; so will politics in the United States. America's chance now is to "shape the exit," as some military planners put it—to determine how it will use its remaining influence in Iraq.
The people who have been most prescient in warning about mistakes over the past three years have suggestions about the final stage. The list of mistakes they tried to avert is familiar, but it bears repeating because of the fresh opportunity to learn from it. The two common themes are a lack of foresight and a lack of insight—that is, a failure to ask "What happens next?" and a failure to wonder "How will this look through Iraqi eyes?" Aside from ensuring that enough soldiers were on hand to seal borders and impose order once Baghdad fell, the United States could have managed the occupation differently. It could have prepared itself better for the inevitable Iraqi resentment of a foreign force. It could have stockpiled spare parts for Iraq's battered electrical system, in order to restore lost power quickly and pre-empt complaints that daily life in Baghdad was less convenient than it had been under Saddam Hussein. It could have viewed the prospect of looting as a dire threat to Iraq's recovery, and told its commanders that they must fill the power vacuum Saddam's overthrow would create. (The American indifference to postwar looting is still, two years later, the biggest unexplained failure of Iraq policy.) It could have found ways to get income to the families of the Iraqi soldiers it made jobless.
To a striking degree, the people who warned in real time about the consequences of these and similar decisions were not academics or antiwar bloggers but military officers, both active and retired. What is the gist of their advice now? That America should act on an idea
that was conventional wisdom after the Vietnam War and still receives pro forma nods of approval whenever it is raised. The idea is that counterinsurgency wars, such as the war to make Iraq stable enough to permit America's departure, are never determined by machines and materiel alone; they have very powerful symbolic and psychological components. Until the United States understands that the "battle for hearts and minds" is more than a slogan, it will lose. To win, it needs to deal with Iraq on far more intimate terms than are possible from fighter bombers dropping munitions or from within armored Humvees. It needs to learn the language, penetrate the culture, recruit spies and sympathizers—to do the slow and messy work of building support for its side.
For instance, H. John Poole, a Marine combat veteran of Vietnam, wrote in Tactics of the Crescent Moon that bombarding cities, as the United States did in its takeover of Fallujah, almost always backfires, because embittered civilians provide more cover to guerrillas and terrorists. The Marine colonel Thomas Hammes argued in his counterinsurgency book The Sling and the Stone that to deal with insurgents the military must radically flatten its own command structure, giving much more authority to small, independent teams and even to individual soldiers. Douglas Macgregor, a recently retired Army colonel, wrote last winter,
Most of the generals and politicians did not think through the consequences of compelling American soldiers with no knowledge of Arabic or Arab culture to implement intrusive measures inside an Islamic society. We arrested people in front of their families, dragging them away in handcuffs with bags over their heads, and then provided no information to the families of those we incarcerated. In the end, our soldiers killed, maimed and incarcerated thousands of Arabs, 90 percent of whom were not the enemy. But they are now.
Three retired officers—G. I. Wilson of the Marines, Chet Richards of the Air Force, and Greg Wilcox of the Army—have published an analysis of how the United States could use a broad combination of "hard" and "soft" measures to weaken the insurgents, reduce their propaganda advantage, and turn the population against them. The report, which is available in full at d-n-i.net, emphasizes that any one approach in isolation is likely to fail. It draws on a concept introduced in 1999 by General Charles Krulak, then the commandant of the Marine Corps, about the need to pursue several different kinds of warfare all-out and all at once. To defeat insurgents, Krulak said, the United States must simultaneously launch ambitious humanitarian and reconstruction efforts; use its advanced weaponry selectively when enemy forces decide to stand and fight; and aggressively deploy small, independent teams of specialized anti-insurgent operators who would constitute a kind of American guerrilla force. The last step would represent the greatest departure from standard hierarchical American practice. Indeed, Krulak called his concept "The Strategic Corporal," with the idea that the war would turn on the skill and cunning of privates and corporals on both sides.