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16 Jan 2007

History repeats itself with US surge plan

Our army has won every battle, yet the enemy’s unconventional tactics have put us on the defensive.

By Keith Brown for Watson Institute for International Studies

Our global enemies are channeling resources into the current conflict, while our own allies are slipping away. Our military equipment is wearing down, and we lack the resources to fix it. Critics at home and abroad dispute our claims to moral leadership. It is time to choose: either recall our forces or else send substantial reinforcements, commit major financial resources and appoint a new commander.

This, in essence, was the message sent back to Athens in 413 BC by the commander of its expeditionary force in Sicily, around 18 months into the deployment that some had criticized, from the start, as a misguided adventure, launched on faulty assumptions of quick and easy victory.

In 2003, several commentators noted potential parallels between the US invasion of Iraq and Thucydides’ account of the Athenian expedition to Sicily. Now, wittingly or no, Bush and his advisers seem to be reading from Thucydides’ script. The Athenians refused to countenance withdrawal and instead voted to send out new forces, under the command of an imaginative and energetic general.

They took the path of escalation - confident that conventional military strength would convert into victory. But their strategic and operational thinking remained unchanged, while the enemy exploited the new deployment as a propaganda tool in recruitment. After initial success, the Athenian reinforcements were sucked into the same stalemate as before. When their creative Sicilian foes then found a way to neutralize the Athenians’ edge on sea as well as land, the expeditionary force was trapped and doomed.

Easy analogies can mislead. Yet Bush’s support for a limited “surge” in combat troop numbers in order to retry an existing, military approach to the conflict by kicking down doors in Baghdad seems right out of the Athenians’ playbook. While signaling a determination to stay the course, it reveals reluctance or inability to come to terms with the lessons preached by Thucydides, and repeatedly relearned since, that simply sending more troops to pursue the wrong course of action is a fools’ errand.

That is the case even when the force is doubled, as it was in Sicily by the Athenians. When the reinforcements, for political or economic reasons, are limited in number, the message is one of hollow bluster. Some 20,000 more troops will bring the total force up to one-third of the number that General Eric Shinsekii told US Congress would be necessary just to maintain order in the immediate post-Saddam context - before the disbandment of the Iraqi army, the large-scale insurgency and the widespread killing and ethnic cleansing of the past three years. The promise of a fresh offensive by GIs on Baghdad’s streets is grist to our enemies’ propaganda mill, and a virtual guarantee of continuing US casualties, to add to the 25,000 already killed or wounded - besides the uncounted Iraqi civilian victims.

Is withdrawal, then, the only option? Not if Bush and his critics alike pay attention to the creative thinking in civilian and military circles. The Iraq Study Group has proposed diplomatic initiatives rather than fighting an enemy on ground of their choosing, and a new generation of warrior-scholars share the sentiment. Battle-tested leaders like colonels H R McMaster, John Nagl and Alan King, and Generals Dana Pittard, James Mattis, David Petraeus and Peter Chiarelli have worked to reframe the current conflict.

Mixing the lessons of academic theory and hard-earned experience in prior approaches to insurgency, they have called for recognition that the civilian population represents the center of gravity; that direct violence unites the enemy, but negotiation and incentives may divide them; and that resources must be plowed into political efforts rather than military action. Ironically, these warfighters have spearheaded efforts to find paths toward demilitarization and de-escalation - by recruiting former adversaries as partners in reconstruction, for example, or harnessing the initiative of America’s troops to out-think, rather than outgun, an ever-adapting foe.

The existence of alternatives makes the current US administration’s apparent determination to replay the mistakes of Athens all the more tragic. Back in 413 BC, Thucydides reported that after the decision to escalate their effort, the Athenians soon “wished all the more that the expedition had never been made.” Even if the president is right to resist withdrawal, he is wrong to think that turning Baghdad 2007 into Fallujah 2004 is the only alternative.


Dr Keith Brown is a sociocultural anthropologist specializing in the study of twentieth-century Macedonia at The Watson Institute at Brown University.

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