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Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Conversations with History - Stephen D. Biddle

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Welcome to aConversation With History.” Im Harry Kreisler of the Institute of

International Studies. Our guest today is Stephen Biddle who is the Military Fellow at the Council

of Foreign Relations and an advisor to General Petraeus in Iraq. Steve, welcome back to the


Thanks for having me.

Lets look at the initial strategy of the Iraq war, the first phase of the war. What was bad about

that strategy and why didnt it work?

Well, I think the strategy certainly that we had under General Casey was a serious mistake

because it was built on a mistake and assumption about what the nature of the underlying conflict

was. Iraq is clearly a guerilla war, car bombings, assassinations. Most Americans, I think

understandably, when they look at something that seems superficially guerilla-ish tend to think of it

in terms of our most prominent guerilla involvement ourselves, which was Vietnam. Unfortunately

guerilla tactics get used in the service of many very, very different strategic ends, and the strategic

ends being served by our opponents in Vietnam were dramatically different than the strategic ends

being pursued in Iraq. That in turn means that the nature of the war is different, in ways that would

make the things that might have made sense in Vietnam seriously problematic in Iraq. And I think

what you had happening early in the Iraq conflict is because of this largely implicit assumption that

if its a guerilla war, the way you ought to wage it is to go back and fix the mistakes we made in

Vietnam, was a strategy and a policy that represented, mostly implicitly but nonetheless powerfully,

an attempt to undo the mistakes of the 1960s and get it right this time. And the result of that was a

series of policies that actively made things worse in Iraq rather than better.

Now lets be more specific about the differences between Vietnam and Iraq, because this is an

analogy that comes up again and again.

Oh, it is. The critical difference between Vietnam and Iraq is that Vietnam underneath it all

was a classical ideological insurgency whereas Iraq is not. Iraq is what I would call communal civil

war. A classical ideological insurgency is at the end of the day a war of ideas. You have an insurgent

group thats making a claim to represent the interests of everyone in the country against a

government that they see as narrow, particularist, often class based, and a puppet of foreign interests,

in Vietnam a puppet of the United States, and you have a government thats attempting, by contrast,

to reach out to a relatively undecided majority of the population and saying, no, no, no, our ideas for

how to govern this country are better than those, better for you than those of this insurgent group

thats claiming that were a narrow particularist defender of foreign interests. And these two groups,

the insurgency and the government, through a combination of persuasion and really brutal negative

coercion, compete for loyalty of the population at large. Iraq, by contrast, is not a war of ideas. Iraq

is primarily a war of identity in which Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds are all desperately afraid of one

another and for perfectly understandable reasons fear that if one of their internal rivals captures the

coercive instruments of a modern state, the result would be genocide visited against them, but theres

nobody in Iraq floating manifestos for what form of government would best serve the interests of all

Iraqis because no one is trying to persuade anybody else. The groups are hardened, mutually

exclusive, and the conflict is essentially zero sum. What this means, however, is that in a classical

ideological insurgency, because at the end of the day its a war of ideas, you can in principle change

peoples ideas, persuade people to side with you rather than the other side and win by drying up the

opponents support base and causing the opposing effort to just wither on the vine and blow away.

You cant change peoples identity the way you can change their ideas. Strategies designed to win

hearts and minds in a classical insurgency, a la Vietnam, make no sense in a communal civil war of

identity in which peoples ideas, and their hearts and minds, if you like, arent really up for grabs.

And when you look in particular at the kinds of strategies that we tried to adopt by the early 1970s,

late 1960s, in Vietnam to win hearts and minds, the standard kind of three-part ideological

counterinsurgency cookbook is either irrelevant or actively harmful, if you then misapply it in a

context of communal civil war as opposed to classical ideological counterinsurgency.

So, what sorts of things was Casey and the previous command trying to do in Iraq because of

this mistaken perception of what the situation was on the ground?

Well, I think if you look at the big three elements of U.S. strategy under Casey, what youll find

is something that would have made a terrific deala great deal of sense in Vietnam but was poorly

suited to Iraq. So, for example, the three pillars of U.S. strategy under Casey were first of all,

political reform, central in the form of democratization, early elections

And at the central level.

Well, at the central level but with aspirations to extend it down to the local level as quickly as

possible. And its a great idea if its a classical ideological counterinsurgency. It takes the wind out

of the insurgent sails, defeats their argument that the government is illegitimate and

unrepresentative. You put that same policy though into a communal civil war of identity, especially

early on when sub-national sectarian and ethnic identities are just beginning to take shapeand

what you do is you dramatically accelerate the process of breaking the society down into its

component factional parts. Overwhelmingly the easiest way for me to get votes as perhaps a Shiite

politician in Iraq in, lets say, 2004 is to demonize some group that my natural constituency is

already somewhat afraid of, so I campaign on the basis of elect me or these demon Sunnis are going

to take over the government and visit genocide on you. Sunnis, if they had participated, had the

same incentives, Kurds had the same incentivesthe electoral process accelerates the breakdown and

the centrifugal crackup of Iraqi society. So, the first key element of our strategy, rapid

democratization, would have been helpful in Vietnam, actively made things worse in Iraq. Second

key element was economic reform, development aid to try and facilitate economic growth in Iraq.

Again, its a great idea in a classical ideological insurgency, it gives everyone a stake in the success of

the government, it tends to take the wind out of the sails of the insurgentsargument that the

government is out to impoverish the average member of the public. In a situation of communal civil

war its still a good thing to do for a variety of reasons, most of them normative actually, I just think

morally its the right thing for us to try and repair as much of this economy and society as we can,

but its very unlikely to get you much traction in terms of actually resolving the conflict. I mean, at

the end of the day the primary underlying driver of conflict in Iraq is extraordinary levels of fear.

These communities are desperately scared of mass violence at the hands of the other. Given that,

lets look at how things look from the standpoint of an 18-year-old Shiite in Sauder City, for

example. The Americans are coming to me and saying, “We want you to make nice with these

Sunnis and engage in some sort of power sharing political compromise deal, and in exchange for that

we will repair the local clinic, or well clean up the garbage, or well reduce the sewage problem, well

keep the electricity on for a little longer.” If I do these things that the Americans want and I let these

Sunnis into the government, the odds are very good, I think, that in a year or two when they capture

the rest of it, theyre going to take me and everyone else I know, line me up in front of a brick wall

and shoot me. In exchange for that, the Americans will build a clinic and keep the electricity on

longer? I mean, the scale, the scope, the gravity, of the stakes here are just wildly incommensurate.

When people are worried about mass violence, promises of economic redevelopment are just going

to pale into insignificance. So, with respect to the economic leg of this three-legged strategic stool,

its probably a good idea, its just not likely to get you very far. The real problem is the third leg of

the three-legged strategic stool of the Casey years and before, which is the security dimension. The

primary goal of U.S. security policy in Iraq under Casey and before was to rapidly build up an

indigenous Iraqi security force to whom we could hand off the fighting and allow us to go home.

Once again, in a classical ideological insurgency its a great idea. The locals are the ones who have

the biggest stake in the fight, after all, theyre willing to put out levels of effort that would keep a

large military force in the field for a long period of time in ways that we probably would not be, it

puts savvy locals on the street as opposed to clueless foreigners who dont speak the language and

cant communicate with the people on the street corner. Great idea if its a classical ideological

insurgency. In the context of a communal civil war over identity its like throwing gasoline on the

fire. We think when we build up the Iraqi government security forces that were building up a

disinterested nationalist institution that can defend all Iraqis alike. What Iraqi Sunnis have thought,

when we built up the Iraqi security force, is that were building up a Shiite sectarian militia on

steroids. Sunnis, especially through the Casey years, believed that the government had been

captured by their Shiite sectarian rivals, and they believed that the security instruments of that

captured government were therefore tools of their Shiite rivals. In a war that they thought was

literally over life, death, genocide and survival, the stronger we built up their sectarian internal rivals

in their eyes, the more they dug in their heels and the harder they fought back. Because how could

they do otherwise? I mean, they cant very well say, “Okay, do with us as you will.” They think that

means genocide. So, by trying to build up an indigenous Iraqi security force to whom we could

hand off the fighting, we ended up making the fighting worse, not better, and making the stakes for

the Sunni side in particular higher, not lower. So, all of this taken together, I think, actively tended

to make things worse.

We have a new commander now, General Petraeus, who seems to be turning around some

aspects of the set of problems we have there. Im curiousI want to talk a little about him and what

hes trying to do there. Before we do that, how would you compare him with Casey as a military

leader? What are theis it a generational difference, or what, that has allowed for a change in the


Well, I think theres a collection of things taken together. In part, Petraeusadvantage of

coming later, so by the time Petraeus took command it had been pretty well understood by

everyone, including Casey, that the strategy we had in place was failing. So, Petraeus knew he was

thats clearly a bad idea, whatever else you do, dont try that. So, he had the advantage of hindsight

in that sense. I think Petraeus is also an unusually thoughtful, tweedy, intellectual style of general

officer. I mean, hes not typical of the general officer corps in any of the American military services,

and I think in a situation where getting the war right conceptually, understanding the nature of the

conflict, is an absolutely important first step for developing a sound strategy, having an unusually

thoughtful, unusually intellectual officer in charge, I think, is a good thing.

Now you are an advisor to Petraeus and youre one of a group that he has drawn on to rethink

our strategy there. Talk a little about that process, how it came about and how you think its

contributing to a change in thinking.

Well, I was a member of a roughly twenty-person team of Ph.D.s and senior military officers

who General Petraeus convened in Baghdad last spring, March and April of 2007, to assess the

current joint campaign plan for the waging of the war, assess the situation, figure out what was going

well, what was going badly, what should change, what should stay the same. The group was brought

together for about five weeks. We spent some time initially traveling around the country, doing fact

finding, and then we were essentially locked into a couple of rooms in the embassy annex and told to

come up with an analysis. So, you took twenty very strong willed, veryfairly senior people, and

told them to butt heads and come up with some understanding of the situation, which would then

inform General Petraeusdevelopment of the new joint campaign plan, which was then formalized

in mid-summer. I had not actually expected to be asked to do this. I had been told by friends on

General Petraeusstaff that my name had been forwarded for his consideration as a potential

member of this advisory group but I knew that Petraeus had read my foreign affairs article on Iraq

and didnt like it.

Which raised this communal argument, basically, about the nature of the conflict.

Thats right. It essentially made the argument I just made about the problems of prior strategy

and the kinds of direction the strategy should take as a result. And my experience of Army general

officers has been that by and large you dont increase your odds of being asked to give them advice

by being known as having disagreed with them in the past. So, I thought it was nice that my name

had been forwarded but I didnt cancel any meetings, I didnt get any shots, I didnt check any life

insurance policies. I thought the odds of being asked to do this were very, very low. I was quite

astonished then when, in fact, I get an email from him asking me to serve on this group.

And so, what is the new strategy? What does this conceptual insight lead to in terms of, well,

how do we implement it, what do we do?

Well, the new strategy is all about trying to get a compromise political reconciliation deal

between Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis. Originally when the surge began, before the new strategy was

formally articulated, interestingly we didnt have a new campaign plan, a new set of orders for

waging the war until mid-summer. The idea set that differed so much from the Casey plan when

Petraeus took over was beginning to be implemented on a tentative basis as early as January and

February. Originally that idea set focused on the problem of getting a safe negotiating environment

in which you could imagine national level leaders of these three internal factions coming to a power

sharing deal, that the idea was the background violence level, especially in the national capital, is so

high that we cant possibly get the kind of power sharing compromise that normally makes sense for

terminating a communal civil war. We recognize that this is essentially a communal civil war, we

recognize that in order to get a resolution you have to have a power sharing deal yielding a cease fire.

The reason we cant get it, so the logic went, is with a car bombing every thirty seconds no one feels

safe for making compromises that involve inherently a substantial degree of risk. The first thing

weve got to do, therefore, so went the argument, is increase the U.S. troop count to the point where

we can pacify the national capital, get the violence level down and create a safe space within which

national leaders could negotiate and reach a deal. The increase in troops that started in January and

didnt actually reach fruition until early summer did, in fact, depress the background level of

violence. The original logic for the surge, however, that if you build it they will come, if you create

the safe space they will then reach a deal, hasnt come to fruition. The violence is down, the political

deal hasnt happened. Interestingly though, although the original idea for the surge was very much

oriented at a national level grand compromise bargain, as we were starting to implement this a

largely unplanned, largely unanticipated second route through which you might get something like

compromises yielding a national cease fire dropped into our lap more or less accidentally. And the

group that I was part of in the spring saw the beginnings of this and put a great deal of emphasis on

furthering and accelerating it. The result was what has now sometimes been referred to as the

bottom up, as opposed to the original top down, approach to reconciliation.

And here were talking about, for example, the arming of the Sunni tribes which has helped

create security in those areas where theyre implementing self-governance in a way.

Well, intuitively thats right. We havent actually had to arm any of them yet. Interestingly

enough, in Iraq there are so many arms around thats not something they need from us, but the basic

idea is to build on the Anbar awakening, as its sometimes called, this changing of sides by a series of

Sunni tribal sheiks in Anbar province, beginning actually before Petraeus took over but accelerating

dramatically through the course of the winter in 2007, in which they agreed to stop shooting at us

and the government of Iraq and turn their arms instead on al-Qaeda in Iraq, their erstwhile Sunni

allies. And in exchange for an agreement to do that we would recognize them as the primary local

security providers in their neighborhoods, we would give them uniforms, other equipment,

instruction as necessary, and we would provide the firepower to back them up in their fight against

al-Qaeda in Iraq.

When one looks at the big picture here, over time and even into the present period, there

seems to be a disjunction between what we might call the military components of strategy and the

political components of strategy, and here I have in mind that our grand strategy in Iraq was

democratization, and youve just indicated why it wouldnt work. On the military side, especially

under Secretary Rumsfeld, was an emphasis on what technology can do, what a few troops could do

in defeating the enemy. Now your scholarship has actually, in your book on military victory, has

pointed the way in helping us understand why the technology fix doesnt really work and its not

actually happening. Talk a little about that because this disjunction between political and military

occurs, it seems to me, at the strategic level and at the tactical level.

One of the various features of the technology oriented revolution in military affairs argument

that was so popular for the last generation and that the Rumsfeld Defense Department was so fixated

on is that if we somehow developed new technologies that would allow us to find any target

anywhere and kill any target anywhere, that would translate in a simple, unproblematic way to

securing American interests in the world. And in the 2003 campaign to topple Saddam, for

example, implicit in the campaign plan was this idea that if we destroy all of Saddams tanks,

armored personnel carriers, artillery, and weapons of mass destruction delivery systems, the rest will

be fairly straightforward. I mean, the man will have no ability to defend himself anymore, his

government will fall, and then well be able to create the society that we want to in Iraq. This

tremendous interest in, and emphasis on, the potential of new technology had a tendency then to

focus attention on the things that technology can do, which at the end of the day, in terms of the

hierarchy of military objectives, are primarily tactical in nature, destroying things, breaking military

organizations, maybe even taking and holding ground under the right circumstances. So, theres

very, very little though about how do you go about getting a new form of political organization in

Iraq that serves American and Iraqi interests as opposed to Bathist particularist interests. We did a

good job of removing the Iraq military from the field in 2003. The technology was helpful in doing

that. It said very little about what happens next, and what happens next involves a variety of things

that technology has very little ability to influence. And in particular, theres very little that American

technology could do that could, for instance, reassure non-Bathist Sunnis that a Shiite government

wasnt going to result in mass violence against them, or reassure Iraqi Kurds that a government

dominated by Shiites, at the end of the day, would respect their desire for autonomy and self-

government in the north. These kinds of conflicting political interests were not the sorts of things

that a putative revolution in sensing and precision strike technology would help you very much with.

Because we were so focused on what technology was doing to warfare, it contributed to an

inattentiveness to the ultimate political goal of the campaign in the first place, which was to create a

different Iraqi society than existed before.

So, this problem - namely okay, you knock the dictator off, you win the first phaserequires

for its ultimate success, in a way, to address the second phase, which is really stabilization and

making sure that the political future that you envision is possible. Now a key element seems to be

having enough troops to do that, to at least make that transition before you actually move in to

reconstruction. In your book, as I recall, you argued that there tended to be on the part of those

who embrace technology a realization of, on the one hand, the need for personnel on the side with

the technology, but also the need to respond to the other side as it confronts the technology that the

adversary has.

One of the great challenges for advocates of this kind of technological revolution is youve only

got so much money to spend and people, troop strength, infantry strength on the ground, is

tremendously expensive. Not only do salaries cost a lot but equipping them costs a lot, housing

them costs a lot, training them costs a lot, exercising them costs a lot, and boy, their retirement and

healthcare is tremendously expensive. So, if you really believe that technology has radically changed

the nature of warfare, the last thing you want is a huge investment in all this sunset legacy, labor

intensive ground force strength because it just eats up the resources you need to transform the nature

of our sensing and precision strike technology. So, the Rumsfeld Defense Department was actively

trying to shrink the Army and the Marine Corps in ways that sure enough, would enable them to

buy more of the technology but would create big problems in terms of the larger objective of the war

effort in the first place. Military force is an instrument to political ends. I mean, the goal in Iraq

was to create a different political structure there, it wasnt to destroy X number of T-72s and BMP

armored personnel carriers. Not having enough ground force troop strength made it very, very

difficult, once we had done the easy job of destroying Saddams military, to reassure all of Iraqs

internal communities that they werent going to be the subject of mass violence at the hands of their

internal rivals, because what we did was to create a security vacuum and not fill it with anything

because we simply didnt have the troop strength in country to provide that alternative source of

local street level security that would lead people to say, “Yeah, I dont trust those Sunnis but Im not

desperately afraid of them because theres an American platoon that I see coming through the

neighborhood every day, and I trust that theyre not going to line me up in front of a brick wall and

shoot me. Therefore I can be tolerant of Sunni involvement, for example, in the government. I can

be tolerant of the construction of a non-sectarian society because theres somebody here whos going

to protect me against people I dont trust.” Thats labor intensive. That kind of security provision

requires visible presence by people walking on the street, and we just didnt have enough of that in

2003 to establish that kind of confidence.

What does a military look like that prepares for a future situation like weve just encountered

for Iraq? We have to defeat the leader, the despot, the tyrant, whoever, we have to transition. But

then what are the kinds of functions that are then required, if weve ensured security, and is the

military the best organization to do that?

Well, let me present what I think is the emerging conventional wisdom on that view, and then I

may challenge it a bit. The emerging conventional wisdom on that is destroying the opponents

military has become so easy for a high-tech force like ours that it can be subcontracted out to the Air

Force. So, that job can be handled by a relatively small number of very high technology standoff

precision wielders, typically from the air. The bit problem, so this argument goes, is what happens

next, providing this kind of local security thats required to enable a society to rebuild, and thats

inherently manpower intensive. Therefore what we ought to do is take the majority of the U.S.

military, the Army and the Marine Corps, shrink the Air Force and the Navy, because you dont

need a lot of standoff precision to do that job anyway, swing those resources into the ground forces,

reduce the capital intensity of the ground forces themselves, get rid of the tanks, and the heavy

artillery, and the combat engineering, and the air defense, and all those things, not to worry, those

jobs are easily performed by the Air Force from standoff precision, and instead lets increase infantry

strength, lets increase military police strengthI mean, who better to provide the policing work to

make people feel secure in their neighborhoods than police. If its going to be U.S. deployment into

a foreign land itll probably be military police but ideally youd want police to do that, so youd want

more infantry, more military police, more civil affairs officers, Army officers who know how to keep

an electrical power grid running, who know how to run a municipal government, who know how to

make sure that the garbage gets collected and the streets stay clean, so we want lots of civil affairs

capability. You want lots of special forces who have intensive training in local culture, local

language, local social organization in forums of the world where we may have to do this, and connect

as go-betweens to communicate with local leaders in ways that will enable this large infantry,

military police and civil affairs force to function effectively. And last but not least, you would want

to have equipment for these kinds of large troop count, generally speaking labor and not capital

intensive, forces that will at least enable them to travel around at relatively modest risk to the kinds

of unsophisticated, low-tech insurgent opposition that theyre likely to encounter in these kinds of

missions. So, instead of these Abrams tanks and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles that were going

to cash in because theyre too expensive and suited only to a form of warfare that were handing off

to the Air Force, we instead want some form of wheeled, lightly armored vehicle thats oriented

towards protecting its occupants against mines, improvised explosive devices, the kinds of leave-

behind, stay-behind, safe but unsophisticated military capabilities that you would expect insurgents

and criminals to wield against this kind of force. So, theres a lot of interest in re-equipping the

Army and the Marine Corps with, for example, things like the MRAP or the mine resistant armor

protected vehicle thats now coming into service in Iraq. If you do all those things though, you end

up with a very, very different military than todays.

And a very expensive military? Is it more expensive?

Yes, tremendously expensive, because not just do you have more people, and people are

expensive, but youre going to re-equip all those people. I mean, the bill for buying new fighting

vehicles for this larger ground force is staggeringly large, so theres a huge cost associated with the

kind of transformation that would be involved in carrying out this agenda.

So, would the two arms of the military be able to live together as one force transitioned to the

other one?

Well, therere a whole collection of institutional and organizational challenges in doing this.

Nobody in the military wants to be considered a second class citizen or to be in a unit thats

considered old-fashioned and out of date, because its not considered career enhancing to be a

brigade commander of a sunset brigade that no one would ever actually use because its old-

fashioned. So, as you go through this transformation, if you pursue it, you need to make sure that

you dont create the military equivalent of ghettos. You dont want to retain a couple of old-

fashioned brigades or divisions to handle unfashionable missions while the rest of the Army

transitions into this counterinsurgency force because everyones afraid that all the talented officers

will gravitate to the counterinsurgency force, no one will be left to put talented leadership in the

other units, and youll end up with this caste system developing in the military. So, therere a variety

of challenges associated with transforming in a way that keeps everyone moving forward and keeps

the talent uniformly spread across the organization. Therere also difficulties in keeping the kind of

tight inter-service relationships that weve developed recently in the American military in which the

Air Force supports the Army in a seamless, efficient, responsive way as you change the nature of the

organizations thatre being supported, and you change their mission and emphasis and focus away

from the kind of war that the Air Force focuses on and toward the kind of counterinsurgency and

nation building effort to which the Air Force has a harder time contributing. You dont want to

create services whose view of the world, and mission orientation, and value structure becomes so

different that they cant interact very effectively when they do find themselves fighting state

militaries. I think theres also, in some ways, a bigger problem on the horizon in that this entire new

transformation agenda really involves taking a military that was pretty good at a variety of things but

in a sense was a jack of all trades and perhaps a master of none. It was probably a master of high

intensity major warfare against other states, but as a secondary accident [?] it was okay, tolerable,

than other things, and restructuring it around one particular mission in ways that could very well

make it even worse at the other secondary missions than the U.S. Army was in 2001-2002, when its

focus was on major combat and counterinsurgency was secondary. This kind of transformation

agenda creates a very specialized military instrument and we need to think carefully about whether

thats a good trade.

So, in a way, what youre saying is that we might be preparing to fight the last war which were

still in to the detriment of broader strategic issues such as the rising of China in Asia.

The rising of China in Asia, or for that matter, a change in the nature of the kind of non-state

opponent that everybody right now is so focused on. Right now, the conventional wisdom is the

future of warfare isnt fighting states. Yeah, yeah, theres China off on the horizon, well let the

Navy and the Air Force worry about that, maybe in ten or fifteen years theyll become a great power,

who knows. The future of war, so goes the popular argument today, lies in things like the Iraqi

insurgency, these sub-state guerilla, militia, irregular military organizations, and the argument that

we should transform the military around this low-tech, high manpower conception designed to do a

better job of waging counterinsurgency in Iraq is built on this notion that the future of non-state

warfare looks a lot like Iraq. I mean, among the various ironies of this is that the way to be seen as

being an out-of-the-box, futuristic, forward looking thinker at the moment is to re-orient the

military around fighting the most immediately previous war in Iraq. I think there are a variety of

reasons to suppose though that this conception of the nature of future warfare against non-state

enemies may be very narrow and particularist, and we could very well, I think, end up in situations

where, in fact, the nature of non-state military opposition could very well change in ways that could

make this very specialized military that were creating on the basis of our experience in Iraq from

2003 to 2007 much less capable than we think.

Does the Lebanon war of 2006 auger well for a decision to repeat the Iraq war?

I think the 2006 Lebanon campaign is quite fascinating in this context. I mean, Israel, a

westernized state military, fights Hezbollah, this transnational, non-state, irregular guerilla

organization. Most people would have imagined that it would look kind of like Iraq. The Israelis,

interestingly, prior to 2006, had essentially bought both of these American revolution and warfare

arguments, that for state opponents like Syria they bought the high-tech revolution argument, the

Israeli air force will deal with that through standoff precision strike. The ground forces, they

thought, are dealing with the future of non-state opposition in irregular methods, and so they were

in the process of transforming the Israeli ground force to deal with the Intifada by making it lighter

or more personnel intensive, and by focusing it not on conventional warfare against a sophisticated

enemy but on policing, and counterinsurgency, and pacification, and population security for

controlling a Palestinian population in the occupied territories. And especially they had already

changed the training syllabus of the Israeli ground forces to emphasize skills necessary to the

Intifada, de-emphasize traditional war fighting, combined arms techniques. Then they invade

Lebanon south of the Litani River and they discover that Hezbollah has actually developed a

surprisingly traditional, surprisingly conventional style of military operations. If you look at least

whats been published about Hezbollahs behavior in 2006, their defensive doctrine in the south of

Lebanon looked an awful lot like the Wehrmachts defensive doctrine on the eastern front in World

War II, very sophisticated use of local cover and concealment, a hedgehog defense and depth system

oriented around control of fortified villages at critical road junctions, and a substantial ability to

reduce the ability of Israeli standoff precision to find and destroy targets in advance. The result of a

non-state enemy which had nonetheless developed the skill set required to fight in a surprisingly

conventional way was when a state military like Israel that had stopped training for conventional

warfare and had started to restructure itself in the way were now talking about doing, crossed the

border and entered Lebanon, is that it absolutely had its hands full, and they had a tremendous

amount of difficulty trying to recover these kinds of traditional, classical combat skills for fighting a

non-state enemy who had adopted a way of fighting that looked a lot less like the Iraqi insurgency

and a lot more like better trained state opponents. And the result, I think, was very near defeat for a

state military at a huge numerical advantage against a supposedly unsophisticated non-state


What youre saying, I think, if I can try to sum up, is that warfare changes but not as much as

we think when we embrace the new formats, the new technologies, and so on, and that what really is

required here is a kind of flexibility, a nuanced perception of whats going on. But then my question

is if a small state like Israel fails in this regard, what happens to a large empire like the United States

with such a large global military force?

Well, the kind of preparation thats necessary for this sort of future is very, very challenging for

the United States, especially given the point, as you suggest, that we Americans are so fascinated by

change and novelty that we tend to overlook long trends of continuity in the nature of war, and in

this particular context I dont think we can safely assume that warfare has now been transformed to

the point where opposition will be exclusively unskilled, irregular, unsophisticated guerilla armies of

the kind that we have often faced in Iraq, nor can we assume, however, that the opponent is

exclusively sophisticated, traditional, conventional military organizations, whether they be in the

hands of people like Hamas, or someone else. Were going to face a future in which, I think, were

going to see both, and the difficulty here is that that means that we then cant optimize the U.S.

military around any of them. Now this is a problem for structure and design to some degree, I

mean, how many infantry brigades do we own as opposed to how many tank brigades, and so on.

The biggest problem, however, is our training syllabus and the way we prepare our troops. The U.S.

military is accustomed to being exceptionally good at what it does. What it would like to do, if you

let it, is to say the future is X, the future is insurgency and counterinsurgency, or the future is major

warfare against other states, so that it can focus on that and get extremely proficient at it. If the

reality though is that we cant rule out sophisticated opponents or unsophisticated opponents, and

the demands of those kinds of warfare are different, the military is going to have to split its attention

among very different activities in ways thats going to make it impossible for them to be as proficient

at any of them as they remember having been in major warfare prior to 2003. And the culture of the

institution is going to resist that. In a sense what Im arguing is that to meet the demands of the

future is going to require mediocrity at everything. To become extremely proficient at one thing is

to become unacceptably incapable at something else. We cant tolerate that in a future in which

were going to encounter both of these kinds of challenge, and thats going to mean that the military

is going to have to deliberately accept not being as good at major combat as they were before 2003

and not being as good at counterinsurgency as they are right now. Theyre going to have to tolerate

being okay but not as good as the officers know that they could be at everything all at once, and

thats going to be a very, very hard thing culturally and institutionally for the U.S. military.

If you were advising a presidential candidate or a future president, what is the nature of the

political problem that what youve just said poses? Because therere going to be real challenges in

following through on your insight and making it happen.

There are. I think for a presidential candidate the first order of business in this is to repair the

nature of civil/military relations in the United States. Were at a very problematic moment in the

relationship between political authorities and the military as an institution as a result of the frictions

of first, the Clinton years in which the military was so distrustful of the values and directions and

goals of the civilian government that it fought back in ways that bordered on the insubordinate.

Then you got a 180-degree change in the Bush administration in which a very assertive civilian

regime dominated the officer corps and suppressed dissent from the officer corps in a way that

produced bad or insufficient military advice. Were now in an environment where the military is

going to be asked to do, I think, something that it doesnt want to do, split its attention in ways that

prevent them from being as proficient as they want in anything in particular. Thats going to create

a lot of potential friction. If we get either of those two solutions, an insubordinate military or an

excessively subordinate military, this wont work very well. Its going to require a very difficult

process of reconstructing a relationship between the civilian and the military characterized by what

Eliot Cohen has called an unequal dialogue and productive tension in which the military is

subordinate but makes its views known, the civilian government is in control but tolerates dissent.

Thats a very, very hard balance to maintain.

Before we can get to that national debate on that subject were going to have to solve this Iraq

conundrum which I want to go back to, because the political momentum at home seems to be for

withdrawal. What would be the consequences of a precipitous withdrawal, and then is this new

Petraeus strategy attempting to prepare us for withdrawal in the mid-term?

Well, let me set the question of withdrawal into the context of the requirements of the civil war

termination, and conflicts like this. And in particular, if you view this as the kind of communal civil

war weve been talking about and not as an ideological counterinsurgency there are two key

requirements for success. You need to get a power sharing deal that yields a cease fire but then you

need to have peacekeepers from outside the system police the cease fire that results. The locals dont

trust each other with guns. Thats the reason youve got a civil war in the first place. Even if you get

the cease fire it requires a perhaps twenty-year-long presence by outsiders to keep that cease fire

stable. Now were at a very interesting moment in Iraq right now. Were, as a result of the rapid

expansion of this Anbar model, this process of local cease fire agreements between the United States,

the government of Iraq and individual factions taken alone, we have had a dramatic increase in

security around the country. Much of the Sunni insurgency has essentially left the field in a series of

local cease fire agreements with individual American commanders on the scene. This process of local

cease fire negotiation has started to spread into the Shiite community. If this process continues to

unfold in this way, and thats a big if, it might and it might not, its gotten to the point where its at

least plausible to suppose that perhaps, if we continue to get lucky, we might get something that

looks like a national level cease fire. We might actually be able to get the first of the two central

requirements of civil war termination for Iraq. The problem is that leaves you with the second one,

and the second one is going to be politically very difficult for the United States. We are the only

plausible provider of this kind of peacekeeping, policing, stabilizing role to keep these local cease

fires stable in Iraq. No one else is going to line up to go to Iraq as blue helmeted UN peacekeepers

anytime soon. The political debate in the United States though has tended to be oriented around

the hope and the expectation that as soon as we get this country stabilized everybody will come

home. Theres going to be huge demand, if we continue to get fortunate and violence continues to

come down, to take a peace dividend in the form of major withdrawals of large fractions of the U.S.

military in Iraq. If were not very, very careful we could easily end up in a situation in which we hit

the lottery and got tremendously fortunate and got the cease fire that was the first of the two

requirements of civil war termination and then too rapidly withdrew the stabilizing forces that

classically are necessary to keep the cease fire stable and lost what was gained.

Realistically how long do you think wed have to stay and with how many troops to achieve the

second goal?

Let me start with how long and go to how many. How long is a generation. To get to the

point where the locals trust each other and no longer require a stabilizing presence from outside, I

think you have to get the rise to leadership age of a generation that is not caught up in the sectarian

conflict of 2003 to 2007-2008. So, thats a long, long time. Now let me then speak to the question

of how many, and that answer changes over time. Initially you want as many as you can possibly

get. I mean, the literature on peacekeeping, such as it is, says that in an ideal world youd like to

have one peacekeeper per fifty members of the population. If you apply that to Iraq you get

something like a requirement for a half million peacekeepers, which were obviously not going to get.

So, no matter what you do in Iraq youre stuck with fewer peacekeepers than you would like. What

that implies, I think, is if we want to maximizeif we continue to get fortunate and we get the cease

fire, to keep it stable we want to keep as many Americans there as were able to sustain so as to try

and keep the thing stable. That requires somebody to do a careful staff study in the Pentagon to get

you an exact number. My hunchwe apparently cannot sustain 130,000 soldiers in steady state in

perpetuity. If Id take a guess Id say 90,000, 100,000 maybe, is the most that we could sustain.

That requirement is not the same through this entire period though. Historical experience suggests

that if a large peacekeeping force establishes that violations of the cease fire will be punished, and

theyll be punished aggressively and forcefully, over time the demand for troop strength goes down,

first of all. We have many fewer peacekeepers in the Balkans now than we did initially after Dayton

was signed and initially after the Kosovo war ended. Secondly, whereas no ones willing to come in

and do this job now because they think of Iraq as a war, if four or five years of apparent peace makes

it look like a peacekeeping mission and not a war fighting mission, the willingness and ability of the

UN to provide peacekeepers to lighten the burden on the United States goes up substantially. So,

initially I think we need, if we continue to get lucky, as large a peacekeeping force as we can sustain.

Somebodys going to have to stay there for twenty years, the presence of U.S. forces to do that will

go over time, but if we try and nickel and diem this and bring them home too early, we run the risk

of undermining the prospects dramatically in the process.

Steve, I want to thank you very much for being here for our program

My pleasure.

and really giving us this overview of the situation in Iraq and what our options are for the

future. Thank you.

Thanks for having me.

And thank you very much for joining us for thisConversation With History.”

The Description of Conversations with History - Stephen D. Biddle