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  Global Viewpoint



Martin van Creveld, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is considered one of the world's most eminent experts on military history and strategy. His books include "The Sword and the Olive: A Critical History of the Israeli Defense Force" (1998) and his widely influential 1991 book, "The Transformation of War."

By Martin van Creveld

JERUSALEM — Just two months after the congressional elections, both Republicans and Democrats are positioning themselves for the next round. With President Bush (still) at their head, Republicans want to win a “victory” in Iraq so as to have the business there done with by the time people go to the polls again. With nobody in particular at their head, the Democrats would like the war to end in such a way, and at such a time, as to reflect the worst possible light on the Republicans.

However, they will almost certainly not follow up on the proposal of Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and a few others that funds for the war be cut and the troops be brought home. In this respect, if in few others, Iraq is not Vietnam. However critical Americans may be of President Bush, unlike 40 years ago they feel duty bound to “support the troops.” To this extent, Bush has his opponents just where he wants them to be.

Paying the price of this tug of war are the U.S Armed Forces. Back in 2003, they took only three weeks to capture Baghdad — no great feat, because all they did was step on a very small opponent who had already been stepped on once before. With 130,000 troops in the country, they quickly became involved in a guerrilla war that they could not win. Given practically all experience in this kind of war from 1945 on, neither is there much of a chance that they may win it in the future.

The causes behind the American failure are, by now, well known. Geographically, Iraq is a not a small country. It has a large population, extensive regions containing very complicated, hard-to-fight-in terrain, and long borders with other countries that cannot be sealed; just the kind of environment that, according to Clausewitz, guerrillas need. Add plentiful weapons and a practically endless supply of men trained in using them — both of them, left over from Saddam's time — and the result is a mixture that simply cannot be beaten. To make things worse, for every American who speaks Arabic, there are a thousand Iraqis who know at least some English. Talk about that all-important factor in war, information!

According to Gen. David Petraeus, whom President Bush has just appointed his new commander in Iraq, to win a counterinsurgency it is necessary to have at least 20 combat soldiers per 1,000 inhabitants. However, Baghdad alone has six million people; Iraq as a whole has four times as many. Sending in another 20,000 men as Bush has called for this week will not even bring the U.S close to that ratio. All it will do is gut the U.S Army, Marine Corps and National Guard even more than has been the case already.

Nor is there any chance, as President Bush seems to hope, that Iraqis will make up the difference. In view of their past performance in war, plenty of bad things have been said, and should be said, of Arab armies and police forces. However, in the art of keeping down their own populations, they are absolutely without peer; witness the long-time stability of dictatorial regimes such as those of Hosni Mubarak, Muammar el-Qaddafi, Bashar Assad, and, until he was toppled, Saddam Hussein. When it comes to counterinsurgency, in comparison with their “students,” Americans are rookies barely weaned off their mothers' milk.

The problem is that the newly constituted Iraqi army and police force are rent by internal divisions. Iraq’s own government is seen as so dominated by the Americans that it hardly counts. Sunni troops cannot be trusted to fight Sunnis. Shiite troops will not fight Shiites. While both Sunni and Shiite troops will gladly massacre people belonging to the other sect, neither are ready to die for the Americans — nor, since most Iraqis want the Americans to leave, is there any reason why they should. In any case, many Iraqi army and police units only exist on paper. Very often their men desert, taking their training and their weapons with them.

Nor, finally, is there any chance of Iraq's neighbors, primarily Syria and Iran, pulling America's chestnuts out of the fire as the Iraq Study Group suggested. Assad in Damascus might like to help — at a price, of course — but the country he leads is too small and weak to have much of an impact on events. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran might be able to help, but in quarrelling with him over nuclear weapons and almost everything else, President Bush gives him absolutely no motive for doing so. All these ideas are just soap bubbles floating in the air. Some have burst already, others assuredly will.

Briefly, in sending more troops to Iraq, President Bush hopes to save the Republican Party while cleverly exploiting the Democrat's hesitancy and weakness. He is, however, also throwing good money — to the extent that, these days, dollars are good money — after bad. Regardless of Gen. Petraeus’ undoubted determination and skill, there can be no question how the war will end: namely, with U.S troops withdrawing from Iraq and re-positioning themselves in Kuwait, in some of the Gulf States, and perhaps in Jordan as well. And the sooner they do so, the fewer casualties they will take.