The American decision to withdraw from Iraq brings to an end a sorry episode of recent world history, where a country was rent apart by a superpower on the basis of delusion, and perhaps deceit. The Americans do not go as victors, and neither can the hapless Iraqis see themselves as such, even though the forcibly altered paradigm has led to the Shia majority coming into their own in what is now a trifurcated polity.
The one clear winner seems to be Iran, which has become the clearly dominant actor in the Persian Gulf, one step away from nuclear weapons, with an exhausted US being unable to do anything about it.
Even now it is difficult for the rest of the world to understand just why the United States invaded Iraq. There was, of course, the new doctrine of pre-emption enunciated by George W Bush in the wake of 9/11. But that, presumably, related to terrorism. The weapons of mass destruction threat that was subsequently trotted out was clearly a figment of someone’s imagination.
What seems more alarming is that the US was sucked into the war by Dick Cheney and his trusted exiled Iraqi contact, Ahmad Chalabi, who has a remarkably close relationship with Iran and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Whatever be the cause, it had the effect of distracting the US from the real war on hand—against the Taliban and assorted radicals under the leadership of the Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The Iraqis and in their own way, the Americans, have paid a huge price for this folly, while the price in terms of opportunity cost in Afghanistan still remains to be computed.
Iraq is important to the military historian as well. It is the war that taught us lessons about the devastating abilities of what are called Revolution in Military Affairs technologies. But it also came with the counter-revolution where armies operating below these technological radar screens landed the American forces into a quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The “shock and awe” that the US promised was inflicted on Saddam Hussein’s army. So devastating were the precision long-range strikes, that in many cases the military formations were destroyed well before they reached the forward edge of battle. Indeed, where the usual norm is that divisions with 10 per cent casualties are considered hors de combat, Saddam’s divisions faced 40-50 per cent attrition. One estimate claimed that of the 2,500 artillery pieces he had started with, he was left with just 34 by the end of the war. Iraqi ineptitude played a significant role in this defeat. The poorly trained Iraqi forces were overwhelmed by the technological superiority of the Americans.
But once the American occupation of Iraq got under way, the nature of the war changed. Bombing, ambushes and assassinations became the norm and Iraq got divided into mutually hostile factions of Shia, Sunni and Kurd forces. Into this mix came the Islamists from across the world, determined to take the opportunity to make the US bleed.
It took a first-rate US general, David Petraeus, to recognise the problem and go about setting it right. The US had to change from a high-tech, shock and awe approach to one that stressed working with the local people and providing them security and then systematically helping them to rebuild the institutions that had collapsed in the wake of the American invasion and the overthrow of the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein.
Simultaneously, another lesson was being learnt in another theatre. In 2006, Israel launched a 34-day campaign against the Hizbollah in Lebanon. Despite intense bombardment and attacks, the Hezbollah were able to maintain their forces and were able to put up a well-equipped, well networked force over which its leadership was capable of maintaining command and control right through the conflict. By operating among the Lebanese people and using dispersal and camouflage tactics, the Hezbollah were able to fight the high-tech Israelis to a standstill, even though, they underestimated the cost Lebanon would have to pay in terms of the destruction wreaked by the Israelis.
The key lesson of the Iraq war is that the armed forces of today need to be equipped and trained for a huge bandwidth, ranging from counter-insurgency (COIN) and counter-terrorism (CT) to conventional conflict and war involving weapons of mass destruction. This requires high quality commanders who have a synergistic relationship with their political leadership. This is because each COIN or CT situation has varying political nuances and dealing with them requires careful politico-military surgery.
It also requires a deep restructuring of the armed forces, in the way they are organised, trained and equipped. At one level it requires a new breed of special forces who are able to effectively engage local populations and assist in capacity building and advise local police and paramilitary forces. At another level it requires highly proficient soldiers and officers who can take advantage of modern technology and exploit it to their ends. As it is, it is apparent that to survive against a well trained force equipped with modern weapons requires great tactical skill and an ability to effectively use the terrain and adapt to circumstances. This is why the Hezbollah were able to survive the Israeli blitz of 2006.
Incidentally, one of the many lessons of these wars has been the limits of air power. Control of the air has little meaning in conflicts where the insurgent hides among the people. A too indiscriminate use, as in the case of the Israelis, only builds up the morale of the people to resist. Precision can only come through altering the existing paradigm where fast heavy fighters are replaced by lighter UAVs.
India’s first problem is modernisation which is decades behind schedule. An army minus any effective self-propelled artillery, as the Indian Army has been for decades, can hardly launch an effective offensive against adversary forces. The second issue is training. The time has come for a sharp upgrading of the skills of the average army officer, not in the usual military skills, but in modern technology and management. This means that officers need to possibly get engineering and management degrees alongside their conventional skills.
These issues, naturally, relate to restructuring. A million plus army of that kind would simply be unaffordable. The army has to carry out a restructuring and see whether it needs to shift its emphasis in different directions. For example, does it need 5,000 tanks which can only be used on the Pakistan border since an armoured thrust of any consequence, could trigger a nuclear war? Are the Special Forces that India has built up, merely super-infantry, or should they be more deeply integrated with intelligence services for special operations? Should India move towards air-mobile divisions which can play a role across mountain regions as well? Should the forces themselves be reorganised into mobile brigades, rather than divisions?
The Indian Air Force which has largely stayed out of the army’s counter-insurgency campaigns, too, needs to restructure itself to meet the newer challenges. It must get a counter-insurgency doctrine and prepare to fight in conditions very different from the Battle of Britain scenarios that they seem to be geared towards today.
There is an old saying that generals usually learn to fight the last war better, but there are also generals who win wars. Most often they are the ones who quickly adapt to circumstances and come up with solutions that work. America’s misadventure has lessons for all the armies in the world and they would be well advised to heed them.
Mail Today October 28, 2011