Not that I agree with this assessment in its entirety, but it's worth reading.
THE STRATFOR WEEKLY: www.stratfor.com
11 May 2004
The Edge of the Razor
The strategy of the United States in its war with radical Islam is in a state
of crisis. The global strategic framework is in much better shape than the
tactical situation in the Iraq theater of operations -- but this is of only
limited comfort to Washington because massive tactical failure in Iraq could
lead to strategic collapse. The situation is balanced on the razor's edge.
The United States could recover from its tactical failures, or suffer a
massive defeat if it fails to do so. One thing is certain: The United States
cannot remain balanced on the razor's edge indefinitely.
Most wars reach a moment of crisis, when the outcome hangs in the balance and
in which weakness and errors, military or political, can shape victory or put
it permanently out of reach. Sometimes these moments of crisis come suddenly
and are purely military, such as the Battle of Midway. Sometimes they are a
long time brewing and are primarily political in nature, like the Tet
Offensive in Vietnam. These are moments when planning, judgment and luck can
decide victors -- and when bad planning, lack of judgment and bad luck can
undermine the best and brightest. It is the moment when history balances on
the razor's edge. The U.S.-Islamist war is now, it seems to us, balanced on
There are some who argue that it is not reasonable to speak of the
confrontation between the United States and al Qaeda as a war. It certainly
does not, in any way, resemble World War II. It is nevertheless very much a
war. It consists of two sides that are each making plans, using violence and
attempting to shape the political future of a major region of the globe --
the Muslim world. One side masses large forces, the other side disperses much
smaller forces throughout the globe. But the goals are the goals of any war:
to shape the political future. And the means are the same as in any war: to
kill sufficient numbers of the enemy in order to break his will to fight and
resist. It might not look like wars the United States has fought in the past,
but it is most certainly a war -- and it is a war whose outcome is in doubt.
On a strategic level, the United States has been the victor since the Sept.
11 attacks. Yet strategic victories can be undermined by massive tactical
failures, and this is what the United States is facing now. Iraq is a single
campaign in a much broader war. However, as frequently occurs in wars,
unintended consequences dominate the battlefield. The United States intended
to occupy Iraq and move on to other campaigns -- but failures in planning,
underestimation of the enemy and command failures have turned strategic
victory into a tactical nightmare. That tactical nightmare is now threatening
to undermine not only the Iraqi theater of operations, but also the entire
American war effort. It is threatening to reverse a series of al Qaeda
defeats. If the current trend continues, the tactical situation will
undermine U.S. strategy in Iraq, and the collapse of U.S. strategy in Iraq
could unravel the entire U.S. strategy against al Qaeda and the Islamists.
The question is whether the United States has the honesty to face the fact
that it is a crisis, the imagination to craft a solution to the problems in
Iraq and the luck that the enemy will give it the time it needs to regroup.
That is what war looks like on the razor's edge.
The Strategic Situation
In the midst of the noise over Iraq, it is essential to grasp the strategic
balance and to understand that on that level, the United States has done
relatively well. To be more precise, al Qaeda has done quite poorly. It is
one of the paradoxes of American war-fighting that, having failed to
articulate coherent goals, the Bush administration is incapable of pointing
to its real successes. But this is an excruciatingly great failure on the
part of the administration. It was Napoleon who said, "The moral is to the
physical as 3-1," by which he meant that how a nation or army views its
successes is more important than what its capabilities are. The failure to
tend to the morale of the nation, to articulate a strategy and demonstrate
progress, is not a marginal failure. It is the greatest possible failure of
political leadership in wartime.
Nevertheless al Qaeda has failed in its most fundamental goal. There has been
no mass rising in the Islamic world, nor has a single Muslim government
fallen. Nor, for that matter, has a single Islamic government shifted its
position in support of al Qaeda. To the contrary, a series of Muslim
governments -- the most important of which is Saudi Arabia -- have shifted
their positions toward active and effective opposition to al Qaeda. The
current attacks by al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia are a reflection of the shift in
Saudi policy that has occurred since just before the invasion of Iraq.
Saudi Arabia is far from the only country to have shifted its strategy. Iran
-- for all of its bombast -- has, through complex back-channel negotiations
with the United States as well as a complex re-evaluation of its strategic
position, changed its behavior since January 2002. Syria, while still not
fully in control, has certainly become more circumspect in its behavior.
Prior to the Iraq war, these governments ranged from hostile to
uncooperative; they since have shifted to a spectrum ranging from minimally
cooperative to fully cooperative.
Since the United States could not hunt down al Qaeda, cell by cell and
individual by individual, it devised an alternative strategy that is less
effective in the short run but more effective in the long run -- and the only
strategy available. Washington sought to change the behavior of enabling
countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, by making the potential threat from the
United States greater than the potential threat from al Qaeda. By occupying
Iraq and surrounding Saudi Arabia with military forces, the United States
compelled a reluctant and truculent Riyadh to comply with American wishes.
In the long run, changes in the behavior of these governments -- and of other
Muslim governments, from Islamabad to Tripoli -- represent the only way to
defeat al Qaeda. To the simplistic American question of, "Are we safer today
than we were a year ago?" the answer is, "Probably not." To the question of
whether the United States is on a path that might make it safer in five
years, the answer is "Probably yes," assuming the U.S. effort doesn't
collapse under the weight of its pyramiding mistakes in Iraq.
We would argue that the political shifts in the Muslim world that have helped
the United States were aided significantly by the invasion of Iraq. We would
certainly agree that Islamic opposition to the United States solidified -- we
doubt that there was much room for intensification -- but we would also argue
that opinion is significant to the extent to which it turns into war-fighting
capability. The Poles despised the Germans and the Japanese were not fond of
the Americans, but neither could expel the occupier simply on the strength of
public opinion. It is the shifts in government policy that contained radical
Islamist tendencies that should be the focal point, and the invasion of Iraq
served that purpose.
It is at that point that things started to go wrong -- not with the grand
strategy of the United States, but with the Iraq strategy itself. A string of
intelligence failures, errors in judgment and command failures have conspired
to undermine the U.S. position in Iraq and reverse the strategic benefits.
These failures included:
* A failure to detect that preparations were under way
for a guerrilla war in the event that Baghdad fell.
* A failure to quickly recognize that a guerrilla war was under way in Iraq,
and a delay of months before the reality was recognized and a strategy
developed for dealing with it.
* A failure to understand that the United States did not have the resources
to govern Iraq if all Baathist personnel were excluded.
* A failure to understand the nature of the people the United States was
installing in the Iraqi Governing Council -- and in particular, the complex
loyalties of Ahmed Chalabi and his relationship to Iraq's Shia and the
Iranian government. The United States became highly dependent on individuals
about whom it lacked sufficient intelligence.
* A failure to recognize that the Sunni guerrillas were regrouping in
February and March 2004, after their defeat in the Ramadan offensive.
* Completely underestimating the number of forces needed for the occupation
of Iraq, and cavalierly dismissing accurate Army estimates in favor of lower
estimates that rapidly became unsupportable.
* Failing to step up military recruiting in order to increase the total
number of U.S. ground forces available on a worldwide basis. Failing to
understand that the difference between defeating an army and occupying a
country had to be made up with ground forces.
These are the particular failures. The general failures are a compendium of
every imaginable military failing:
* Failing to focus on the objective. Rather than remembering why U.S. forces
were in Iraq and focusing on that, the Bush administration wandered off into
irrelevancies and impossibilities, such as building democracy and eliminating
Baath party members. The administration forgot its mission.
* Underestimating the enemy and overestimating U.S. power. The enemy was
intelligent, dedicated and brave. He was defending his country and his home.
The United States was enormously powerful but not omnipotent. The casual
dismissal of the Iraqi guerrillas led directly to the failure to anticipate
and counter enemy action.
* Failure to rapidly identify errors and rectify them through changes of
plans, strategies and personnel. Error is common in war. The measure of a
military force is how honestly errors are addressed and rectified. When a
command structure begins denying that self- evident problems are facing them,
all is lost. The administration's insistence over the past year that no
fundamental errors were committed in Iraq has been a cancer eating through
all layers of the command structure -- from the squad to the office of the
* Failing to understand the political dimension of the war and permitting
political support for the war in the United States to erode by failing to
express a clear, coherent war plan on the broadest level. Because of this
failure, other major failures -- ranging from the failure to find weapons of
mass destruction to the treatment of Iraqi prisoners -- have filled the space
that strategy should have occupied. The persistent failure of the president
to explain the linkage between Iraq and the broader war has been symptomatic
of this systemic failure.
Remember the objective; respect the enemy; be your own worst critic; exercise
leadership at all levels -- these are fundamental principles of warfare. They
have all been violated during the Iraq campaign.
The strategic situation, as of March 2004, was rapidly improving for the
United States. There was serious, reasonable discussion of a final push into
Pakistan to liquidate al Qaeda's leadership. Al Qaeda began a global
counterattack -- as in Spain -- that was neither unexpected nor as effective
as it might have been. However, the counterattack in Iraq was both unexpected
and destabilizing -- causing military and political processes in Iraq to
separate out, and forcing the United States into negotiations with the Sunni
guerrillas while simultaneously trying to manage a crisis in the Shiite
areas. At the same time that the United States was struggling to stabilize
its position in Iraq, the prison abuse issue emerged. It was devastating not
only in its own right, but also because of the timing. It generated a sense
that U.S. operations in Iraq were out of control. From Al Fallujah to An
Najaf to Abu Ghraib, the question was whether anyone had the slightest idea
what they were trying to achieve in Iraq.
Which brings us back to the razor's edge. If the United States rapidly
adjusts its Iraq operations to take realities in that country into account,
rather than engaging on ongoing wishful thinking, the situation in Iraq can
be saved and with it the gains made in the war on al Qaeda. On the other
hand, if the United States continues its unbalanced and ineffective
prosecution of the war against the guerrillas and continues to allow its
relations with the Shia to deteriorate, the United States will find itself in
an untenable position. If it is forced to withdraw from Iraq, or to so limit
its operations there as to be effectively withdrawn, the entire dynamic that
the United States has worked to create since the Sept. 11 attacks will
reverse itself, and the U.S. position in the Muslim world -- which was fairly
strong in January 2004 -- will deteriorate, and al Qaeda's influence will
The Political Crisis
It is not clear that the Bush administration understands the crisis it is
facing. The prison abuse pictures are symptomatic -- not only of persistent
command failure, but also of the administration's loss of credibility with
the public. Since no one really knows what the administration is doing, it is
not unreasonable to fill in the blanks with the least generous assumptions.
The issue is this: Iraq has not gone as planned by any stretch of the
imagination. If the failures of Iraq are not rectified quickly, the entire
U.S. strategic position could unravel. Speed is of the essence. There is no
longer time left.
The issue is one of responsibility. Who is responsible for the failures in
Iraq? The president appears to have assumed that if anyone were fired, it
would be admitting that something went wrong. At this point, there is no one
who doesn't know that many things have gone wrong. If the president insists
on retaining all of his senior staff, Cabinet members and field commanders,
no one is going to draw the conclusion that everything is under control;
rather they will conclude that it is the president himself who is responsible
for the failures, and they will act accordingly.
The issue facing Bush is not merely the prison pictures. It is the series of
failures in the Iraq campaign that have revealed serious errors of judgment
and temperament among senior Cabinet-level officials. We suspect that Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is finished, and with him Deputy Secretary Paul
Wolfowitz. Vice President Dick Cheney said over the weekend that everyone
should get off of Rumsfeld's case. What Cheney doesn't seem to grasp is that
there is a war on and that at this moment, it isn't going very well. If the
secretary of defense doesn't bear the burden of failures and misjudgments,
who does? Or does the vice president suggest a no-fault policy when it comes
to war? Or does he think that things are going well?
This is not asked polemically. It is our job to identify emerging trends, and
we have, frequently, been accused of everything from being owned by the
Republicans to being Iraq campaign apologists. In fact, we are making a non-
partisan point: The administration is painting itself into a corner that will
cost Bush the presidency if it does not deal with the fact that there is no
one who doesn't know that Iraq has been mismanaged. The administration's only
option for survival is to start managing it effectively, if that can be done
at this point.