Why is the U.S. losing in Iraq?

There is no answer to this question, but there are answers. The situation today is not simply the product of the Bush Administration’s black comedy of incompetence–though that has contributed–but has roots in decades past. Understanding that historical context makes clear the enormous difficulties the United States faces in Iraq, difficulties that both the government and military still do not understand fully.

These roots go back to the 19th century. By then, Western military power was ascendant throughout the world. There were exceptions, such as the catastrophic defeat suffered by the British at Isandhlwana in 1879, but for the most party Western armies triumphed over their non-Western rivals. The population and wealth created by the industrial and agricultural revolutions, underpinned by a fiercely-martial nationalism, enabled Western armies to build larger and more effective militaries and withstand higher casualties than non-industrialized nations. The only answer seemed to be a crash program of industrialization, such as the one Japan undertook in the decades after being “opened” to the West in 1854. But the Japanese method was limited to those countries large enough and unified enough for the forced march of industrialization.

There was another answer, however, that had existed all along, but only found its prophet in the mid-20th century. That answer was the strategy of “protracted war,” first theorized by the Chinese Communist leader Mao Tse-Tung, as a way of resisting industrialized armies. “War itself is a political action,” Mao said, and he outlined a strategy that deemphasized the defense of territory, and reemphasized the control of populations. Protracted war, in Mao’s view, was not about conquering land, but about convincing people, through means both political and military. In essence, the first aim of protracted war was to convince the enemy that the war will continue on indefinitely, demanding resources and lives for the forseeable future. The second aim was to convince the civilian population to support (or at least not actively oppose) the protracted war effort.

Protracted war has been remarkably successful in the post-1945 era. Mao’s Communists took over China, native insurgents evicted the French from both Indochina and Algeria, and the United States lost a protracted war in Vietnam, to name only a few examples. There were exceptions to this: the British defeated an insurgency in Malaya, though it took them a decade and cost a lot in both money and lives. But as a system of defense against an invading conventional (read nationalist industrialized) army, protracted war is much the only method that has succeeded regularly.

The militaries of Western powers have responded, though not particularly effectively. In the United States, the development of Special Forces under the Kennedy administration is one example of such a response. But there has also been a cultural resistance to acknowledging the effectiveness or even fairness of protracted war. The tactics of avoidance that marked protracted war seemed cowardly to soldiers socialized to “real” war. The result, most particularly in the American case, has been a tendency to avoid the issue as much as possible, and sometimes more than possible. So, emerging from Vietnam in the 1970s having lost a terribly fractious war, the United States military carefully avoided putting the lessons of that conflict into practice. They did not prepare to fight another protracted war. Instead, the Army built a doctrine, purchased equipment, and trained its soldiers in ways that prepared them to fight against a potential Soviet invasion of Western Europe, the very epitome of a conventional war.

This doctrine, called AirLand Battle, the equipment (the so-called Big Five: the M1 main battle tank, the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, the Patriot anti-aircraft missile, the Blackhawk utility helicopter, and the Apache attack helicopter), and the training (the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California) created a massively effective conventional force. It was that conventional force that fought and overwhelmingly won the first Gulf War in 1991. It was that conventional force that stormed to Baghdad in March-April 2003, perhaps the fastest armored assault ever. But it was also that conventional force that had grievous difficulties in Somalia in 1993, and Kosovo in 1998. The situation in the Balkans illustrated the cultural blind spot of the American military most clearly in that military’s oft-expressed contempt for “nation-building,” a concept that Mao would have rightly seen as integral to any counter-insurgency strategy (as would have Douglas MacArthur, especially in his years as head of occupation and rebuilding effort in Japan, post-World War II).

And so, Iraq. The initial invasion in March 2003 was wildly successful, but there was no planning nor real thought to what would happen after conventional success. The”death by Powerpoint” that substituted for actual preparation included a briefing by General Tommy Franks that represented tribal, ethnic, and religious differences as three disconnected circles which would be miraculously squished together by the arrows of American pressure. The insurgency that came after the conventional war ended was both predictable and familiar. The groups resisting American assaults have focused on building political support for themselves within the Iraqi population, demonstrating that neither the United States nor the nascent Iraqi government could provide security, and inflicting casualties on coalition forces in ways that do not play to the advantage of the occupiers.

The United States has found it enormously hard–as it did in Vietnam–to fight back effectively. Their equipment, doctrine, and training has prepared them for a different kind of war, one with an clear enemy who can be overwhelmed with massive firepower. Protracted war does not offer such a war or such an enemy. Protracted war, in fact, aims to avoid either of those things. The classic example of this is the improvised explosive device (or I.E.D.), a weapon that is enormously effective against a heavily-mechanized military and yet does not normally expose its users to attack. American strategy and tactics are changing as the military adapts to the new situation. But adaption comes with its own price: the recent dispersal of American forces throughout Baghdad, an attempt to demonstrate to Iraqi civilians that the United States can guarantee their security has led to a ramp up in casualties because the soldiers are more vulnerable in small groups.

To thus circle back around to the larger question, then: the United States is losing the war in Iraq because our enemies there are using a particular set of tactics and strategy specifically designed to defend against invasion and occupation by industrialized nation-states, a set that the United States military and government was–despite the object lesson of Vietnam–not prepared to fight. Understanding that does not improve the situation in Iraq, nor does it necessarily give the United States the key to the conflict. But there never will be answer without first understanding the question.