The Duck of Minerva

Signs of Trouble


12 April 2007

Two lead articles in today’s news reveal severe trouble for the Administration with respect to Iraq policy. Both are “inside-baseball” type of articles, but they are indicative of real problems with the overall direction of the course of the war.

The first was the Washington Post’s front page story:

The White House wants to appoint a high-powered czar to oversee the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with authority to issue directions to the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies, but it has had trouble finding anyone able and willing to take the job, according to people close to the situation. At least three retired four-star generals approached by the White House in recent weeks have declined to be considered for the position…

One of the former Generals who turned down the position hit the nail on the head:

“The very fundamental issue is, they don’t know where the hell they’re going,” said retired Marine Gen. John J. “Jack” Sheehan, a former top NATO commander who was among those rejecting the job. Sheehan said he believes that Vice President Cheney and his hawkish allies remain more powerful within the administration than pragmatists looking for a way out of Iraq. “So rather than go over there, develop an ulcer and eventually leave, I said, ‘No, thanks,’ ” he said.

To summarize the fundamental problem, the top NSC official now in charge of this is Meghan O’Sullivan, a young, fast-rising national security policy star. Her fundamental problem, though, is twofold. First, she can’t “task” agencies, which is to say, she can’t direct State or DoD to do X or Y. Second, she’s still relatively junior and in no position to win bureaucratic battles with Gates and Rice. The Administration recognizes (about 4 years too late) that interagency cooperation is needed to run an overall war effort by the US Government, where the talents, resources, and capabilities of each agency work together rather than at cross-purposes, and they need someone in place to make sure that happens (though as Crooks and Liars asks, isn’t that Bush’s job?). But, as Sheehan points out, you can only direct a war when there’s somewhere to go, and to repeat his line, “The very fundamental issue is, they don’t know where the hell they’re going.”

Then the report (I first saw it on the NYT) that the Pentagon is extending combat tours for the Army in Iraq to 15 months, up from the 12 months they now (used to) serve. The given rationale is that

Mr. Gates said the change would enable the Central Command, which runs American military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East, to maintain an increased number of American troops in Iraq to stabilize Baghdad for another year if necessary….

Mr. Gates said the impetus for the increase in Army combat tours had come from the service’s leaders, who saw a demand for “more clarity and fairness.”

As strains on the military have increased, some soldiers home from Iraq and Afghanistan have had to go back before a year’s rest. At least now, General Pace said, soldiers will know when they are coming and going. He said they would be able to “sit around a dinner table and know on such-and-such a date,” and plan their lives accordingly.

The new policy will ensure a year at home and that “all share the burden equally,” Mr. Gates said.

The WaPost points out what this 3-month extension says about the overall approach to Iraq:

The announcement makes official what had been an ongoing military strategy of keeping force levels up in Iraq, as commanders had sought extensions for several brigades over the past year to maintain pressure on enemy forces, especially in Baghdad. Gates and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon news conference today that the broad-based extensions will provide a predictable and dependable deployment schedule for troops and their families.

The extended tours are also an indication of how much strain has been placed on the Army as a result of repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan for wars that have lasted far longer than expected.

In essence, the long-time criticism that there just aren’t enough troops in Iraq to secure the country was spot-on, and the difficulty that the Military, the Army in particular, has in meeting those increased troop requirements is now starkly revealed. In the short run, this should help the regional commanders because they have some more troops for a sustained time. Officially, the Army can do this (and any soldier worth his salt will always say, sure we can do it– that can-do attitude lies at the heart of the US military), but these demands are severely straining the military, and will have a profound effect for years to come, as experienced, veteran NCO’s and Officers don’t re-enlist, and instead abandon military service, taking hard-learned lessons and institutional knowledge with them.

Taken together, these two stories reveal the serious, profound, fundamental difficulty and disconnect at the heart of the Administration’s Iraq policy. It can’t find anyone willing to take charge of the situation (begging the question, who’s in charge now), and it can barely sustain enough troops in theater, and does so by running the Army into the ground.