Sunday, December 04, 2005

Stay the course

Bowing to political pressure to regularly report on the progress of the war in Iraq to the Senate, the president released a 35-page document detailing his National Strategy for Victory in Iraq. Replete with the same rhetoric we've heard from the president for more than two years, his strategy can be summed up in three words: stay the course.

In all fairness to the president, the document elaborates on that summary, painting a beguiling picture of what the neo-conservative principles say will come to pass in Iraq. In fact, this Utopian society is something most Americans, including opponents of the president, would love to see in the Middle East. No one would deny how nice it would be to have this strategy bear out. However, this begs the question: How likely is it to play out as planned?

Even in retrospect, that'll be difficult to determine. Therein lies one of the problems with the president's strategy: it specifies no quantitative benchmarks against which success can be measured. Beyond that, it has precious few objective criteria of any kind that Americans can use to tell if we're making any progress with the plan. That leaves only the president himself to notify Americans of how well his strategy is playing out according to his own subjective determination.

For example, he defines victory in Iraq in three stages: short, medium, and longer term. However, he uses terms like "Iraq is making steady progress in fighting terrorists ... and standing up security forces" to define short term victory. Midterm, Iraq is "on its way to achieving its economic potential." Longer term, "Iraq is peaceful, united, stable, and secure." What does any of that mean? How can Americans tell if any of these milestones have been achieved unless the president makes the call?

The president goes on to lay out a three track strategy for victory. One of those tracks is The Security Track. That track has a three-part campaign:
  1. Clear areas of enemy control by remaining on the offensive, killing and capturing enemy fighters and denying them safe-haven;
  2. Hold areas freed from enemy influence by ensuring that they remain under the control of the Iraqi government with an adequate Iraqi security force presence; and
  3. Build Iraqi Security Forces and the capacity of local institutions to deliver services, advance the rule of law, and nurture civil society.
Unfortunately, we've already failed on the first two parts. For example, immediately after being reelected, the president approved the destruction of Fallujah and the razing of its mosques to clear it of enemy control. In the process, 1200 "insurgents" and 800 civilians were killed, with the rest of the enemy being driven out of the city. However, after troops left the city to clear other areas, insurgents flowed right back into the city. Just last Thursday, the enemy killed ten Marines in Fallujah and injured many of the others in their attack on the patrol of more than twenty Marines.

The president's document concedes that "victory will take time." However, it refuses to tell Americans how much time. Instead, it says their "strategy is working." This is the same administration that told us, "I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency." Since then, almost 500 more American troops have been killed by the insurgency. Considering that they have been wrong about every prognostication they have made about the war, is there any reason to believe their strategy is working?

Instead of a timetable, the strategy is conditions-based. It identifies three metrics as the most important for tracking the conditions:
  1. Political ... the number of Iraqis from all areas willing to participate in the political process as evidenced by voter registration and turnout.
  2. Security: The quantity and quality of Iraqi units; the number of actionable intelligence tips received from Iraqis...
  3. Economic ... electricity generated and delivered; barrels of oil produced and exported...
While the Shiite, with a 60% majority of the Iraqi population, are likely to participate in the political process, they're unlikely to get cooperation from the other major ethnic groups in Iraq. Hard-line Sunni clerics refuse to join the political process, denouncing the constitution, and Shiite militiamen battle the Sunni militants. Meanwhile, sitting on the oil-rich part of Iraq, the Kurds fly their own flag, speak their own language, and their militia wear a different uniform than the rest of the country, being "100% for independence."

Measured against the Security metric, conditions are getting worse as time passes. Last year there were three Iraqi battalions at what is called Level One readiness. However, the top American commander in Iraq, General George Casey, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in September. He told congress that the number of Iraqi battalions capable of combat without U.S. support had dropped to just one.

The Economic metrics fared little better, with electricity and oil production falling well below the pre-war levels for years after the invasion. It wasn't until this past summer that electricity production was finally restored to the levels maintained while Hussein was in power and it's still hampered by frequent outages caused by insurgents sabotaging the grid. As of May, Iraqi oil production was less than three-quarters what it was before the invasion.

The president's strategy is far superior to any plan he had in place for Iraq before last week. However, it's still preliminary at best. More than a year and a half ago, this blogger recommended that the president put a plan in place that meets four basic criteria:
  1. He provides an unambiguous plan for winning the peace in Iraq.
  2. He provides milestones and objective metrics of success with each milestone.
  3. He provides an exit strategy from the war with a projected timeline for achieving it.
  4. He provides unambiguous criteria as to what constitutes the completion of the mission in Iraq.
As a fellow MBA, the president should recognize these as the most basic components of a plan to manage a project as complex as a war. Nonetheless, his latest strategy does not even meet one criterion. It's just 35 pages of flowery language saying stay the course (see This Modern World: America, a brief parable).

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