Saturday, November 19, 2005

How Do We Know When We've Won?

A commenter on a post at the Fourth Rail asked some interesting questions about something I said which I thought I would post here.

His question was:

In all seriousness, what is YOUR definition of winning? When will you think we've won, what is your metric for victory in Iraq?

He was suggesting that by his own definition, we've already won and should leave. I think that would be a mistake at this point and here is why:

I don't know for sure when we will have "won", but with around 100 attacks per day I'm pretty sure we're not there yet. That's not a good enough security situation yet. If we leave now, will it get better or worse? I'm not sure, which is why I'm uncomfortable saying "we've won" yet and leaving.

I'd say, at the point we're pretty confident that the security will continue to improve until Iraqis can basically get on with their every-day lives and reconstruction can proceed without too many problems then we can stop worrying and the Iraqis can probably handle themselves. The situation does seem to be heading in that direction but I think it will be a while yet. I suspect over the next 6-18 months Anbar will get a lot better. That will leave Baghdad and one other province which are serious problems... so, I think, there are still offensives required yet. (I read an interview where a Marine office said he thinks Fallujah will be much better in 6 months too).

Regardless of when is the right time to leave, which nobody really knows, I'm pretty sure it's not yet. What's the point of getting out, if within the next few years a new Saddam might come along and have us back in the same situation? It would just be exchanging the old problem for a new one, with all the loss of life for nothing.

I could be wrong... maybe if we left now they would be OK.. but considering about half the desired forces aren't up to scratch yet, and considering that every time we even talk about getting out or backing down it emboldens the terrorists, I don't think so.

I think asking "how do we know when we've won?" is a much more important question than "how quickly can we get out?"

The former is a question which needs to be asked in order to properly strategise. The latter is only relevant if you consider surrender to be a viable option. Since, if you ask the latter without asking the former, you're acknowledging that you're willing to leave without knowing whether you've achieved your goals yet - which is basically just giving up and going home.

In a related point, asking "what exactly are we trying to achieve" is useful too. Given the "Global War on Terror" label, I think the goal would be "do whatever is necessary to defeat terrorists and remove the causes for terrorism", but how to achieve that is extremely complex and also not very clear-cut. I DO believe that if we can make Iraq into a country that any of us would be proud to live in, we've created some of the pre-conditions which could be very useful for satisfying those goals.

Quantifying success requires some metrics. This is a very basic analysis and likely not accurate, but I think it's a worthwhile thought experiment.

Let's say for the sake of argument that due to experience, training and equipment the average coalition soldier is about twice as effective as the average trained Iraqi soldier at the moment. (This may change over time, but let's suppose it's true for now, I don't think it's too far off). Of course the Iraqis have big advantages too because they're locals...

There are currently ~160k coalition troops in Iraq and 211k Iraqi police/soldiers. (I see that only about 32k are supposed to be level 1/2 but I seem to remember thinking there were more than that). Anyway, other reports suggest that about 1/3 to 1/2 the Iraqi troops are level 1 or level 2. So, that gives us 160k*2 + 211k/2 = a 425k equivalent soldier force.

The stated goal for total ISF is 270-350k. So right now effectively there is an overall more capable forces there right now than there will be when we leave, even with fully trained Iraqi forces. As it is, operations are being successful right now (if Bill and others are correct), but there isn't much extra troop capacity (there is a bit for the elections).

So, until the security situation is improving (or stable and adequately good) WHILE the troop level can be brought down to the equivalent of 270-350k level, including the mix of coalition and Iraqi forces, the coalition presence will be necessary. When all the current Iraqi forces reach level 1 or level 2 readiness, that will mean that under the equivalent of the current security situation, (425-270)/2 = 77.5k coalition troops will be required. If the security situation improves, probably less. This is the number of troops I think we'll be seeing about 18 months from now.

The other commenter, "Desert Rat", then asked me:

Whom are the 100 attacks aimed at each day?
If at our troops, the attacks are not worthy of the name, we lose so few troops to them. If they are against Iraqis, that is something else, not a military threat, but a Police one.

They're aimed mostly at US troops I think (based upon interviews I have read with soldiers). I agree, they're pathetically ineffective, but apparently still effective enough to upset a large portion of the American populace. Compared to other wars, the casualties are low, but every soldier killed or maimed is sad and I wish it could be avoided.

Not many attacks are aimed at Iraqis but those which are tend to be more effective since they have less armour (and the ones at civilians even worse).

Then he states:

President Talabani believes that the conflict is an Iraqi Civil War. Baathists vs Federalists. Perhaps the Jordanian, Mr Z, sees it differently, as a Mohammedan Civil War, Sunni vs Shia.
For US our Goals are pronounced in the Authorization. The Goals are quite secular and Security related. They have been achieved. Iraq, as a Nation State, no longer poses a threat to US.

Since most of the attacks seem only to be aimed at creating carnage and/or headlines I would have trouble tagging it as a civil war. Typically engagements in a civil war would be towards some kind of goal of victory, and I don't believe "chaos" would be a valid goal. But perhaps some people think it would, and out of the chaos they could assert themselves. They know better than I do, I guess.

Regardless of how we call it, I don't believe that Iraq as it is now "poses no threat to the US". I've already touched on why, but I'll elaborate.

Number one, if we leave now and it does break out into a full civil war, Iraq will probably end up under a dictator again. That may not be an immediate threat but I promise you if that happens, not only will terrorism globally end up worse than it otherwise would, but this new dictator would probably be a direct threat to the US in the medium turn (~20 years). I don't think any of us want that, so we should be sure before anyone leaves that's not going to happen.

Number two, I believe a large part of the reason why terrorism is on the rise is the dysfunction of the Middle East. It is a cultural, not racial or religious problem (although I don't think the religious aspects help one bit). Great Arab leaders are far and few between, and Great Arab Countries are practically non-existent. You can blame this on the British Colonial Rule of the past but I don't think it's the true cause. However, the colonial rule left a bunch of countries which didn't really understand how to govern themselves.

Helping the Iraqis create a well-governed and prosperous nation in the middle-east should prove a moderating influence in several aspects. It should help restore Arab pride and show them that there's nothing about their situation which means they can't have what we have if only they try to achieve it. I believe it will do a lot to heal the rifts which are responsible for the level of terrorism today. I'm sure it won't stop it altogether but it's a step along the way. I certainly don't see us stopping terrorists without doing something about the malaise which infects the middle east, and I don't see that going away with Iraq in turmoil, even with Saddam gone.

I could go on for a while, but Den Beste has already written a much more in-depth analysis than myself, which I think is excellent, so if you're interested I suggest that you read it. Tigerhawk posted an updated version, but I prefer Den Beste's because of its terseness (making it easier to read).

In short, I think Iraq's stability is more closely tied in the long term to America's safety than Desert Rat suggests. He COULD be right - if we leave now maybe they'll be OK. But I don't like to take risks. I'd rather stay and make sure.

"Desert Rat" argues that "staying the course" is a poor strategy. "Staying the course" does not necessarily imply "... and keep doing things exactly the way we have been so far". In fact I would argue the strategy in Iraq has been evolving significantly over the last few years. To claim there's a single rigid strategy at work seems odd to me. You certainly can argue that some changes to the current evolution of the strategy would be a good idea. However, it seems to me right now significant progress is being made so at least for the next few months, I wouldn't make any significant military changes. I WOULD make some pretty dramatic changes to speed up the reconstruction efforts.


At 10:49 PM, Blogger hamidreza said...


Nicholas, we had a brief discussion about this before. Can I ask you what is your opinion about western leftists taking the side of such repressive and unsavior folks like Zarqawi and Baathists and Sadr in Iraq. What makes them identify with these unsavory characters?

At 2:53 PM, Blogger Nicholas said...

Sorry I haven't responded to this yet. I'm fairly busy with work. I will reply with a new post, which I will start on now, but almost certainly not finish for a day or two.


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