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The War Nerd / November 13, 2008
By Gary Brecher

Worse yet, Bush’s people figured that since Afghanistan, the tough nut, cracked so easily, their pet project, a second Iraq invasion, would be a cakewalk. This time they would do it right, occupying the Iraqi cities instead of just crushing Saddam’s army and withdrawing like Bush senior did.

Nobody wants to recall what Americans believed back then. That’s OK: I’ll remember it. People thought that Saddam was “connected to” 9/11, and his agents were going to poison our water, nuke our cities, and gas our subways. At least they claimed to believe all that unlikely James Bond stuff. I don’t think they really did. There was just so much revenge momentum after 9/11 that it had to burst out somewhere. Everybody wanted payback. It’s natural. But most of the time, in your average democracy, cooler heads are in charge. Not this time. Bush and his team were foaming at the mouth far more than the average citizen. It was like a crazed sheriff trying to talk a lukewarm mob into a lynching frenzy. With the help of people who should have known better—I’m looking at you, Colin Powell—he got his way.

That, in the short version, is why George W. Bush is about to leave office the most unpopular American president in history. You can spin Iraq a hundred different ways, but it still comes up bad news because once the dust settles, the Iranians are in control of the whole region, and they didn’t have to fire a shot. We destroyed their old rival for them.

It’s a simple story: we crushed Saddam’s army, occupied the cities, and then acted like the whole country would turn itself into a neocon fantasyland. Paul Bremer’s cult kids were talking tax reform while the Iraqi army they had sent home unemployed was busy digging up the weapons they had buried in their yards. Bush’s counterinsurgency policy was pretending there was no insurgency then pretending it was just Saddam’s “deadenders.” When Saddam’s capture at the end of 2003 didn’t slow the insurgency, Bush’s defenders stopped acting like they knew what was going on and just settled for blaming the Iranians—as if it was a nasty surprise that Iran, the country that openly hates America most in the whole world, might get involved in anti-American operations when we occupied Iraq right next door.

People ask what our counterinsurgency strategy was before the surge. Easy: we had none. We were doing nothing but offering the insurgents moving targets. A standard operation for the occupation force in those dark days was patrolling through an alien Sunni neighborhood, waiting for an IED to go off under the lead vehicle or for an RPG or small-arms ambush. When that happens, conventional forces have a grim choice: do nothing, withdrawing while the locals snicker at your dead and wounded, or open fire on everyone in sight. Either way, the insurgents win. If you withdraw, they’ve hit you with impunity and gained respect in the neighborhood. If you open fire on the slums, you kill civilians and make enemies.

Effective counterinsurgency means not relying on massive firepower the way conventional forces are trained to do. The idea is not to fire until you know exactly who you’re up against. It’s the opposite of shock and awe. It’s discipline and patience. Gen. David Petraeus implemented a set of reforms usually called the surge, though they were about tactics more than reinforcements. All he really did was initiate overdue standard counterinsurgency doctrine. He integrated U.S. units with Iraqi forces then sent them out into the neighborhoods. You can’t run any kind of counterinsurgency plan without good street-level intelligence, but Bush’s people wouldn’t admit that there was an insurgency, so they wouldn’t commit to learning about it. Their style was to ignore it and hope it would go away.

That’s why Afghanistan went well in the early stages: we didn’t go in trying to turn the Afghans into democrats, but trying to crush the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In Iraq, Bush was dreaming from the start, so the whole effort was doomed.

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  • 1. TJ  |  November 17th, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    The whole period felt someone was doing their best to stealthily destroy the country without stirring up a backlash. Had aliens landed and held a gun to our heads, it coudln’t have been done more effectively.

    So thanks for pointing out who the aliens were. We have seen the enemy, and he is us.

  • 2. Raad  |  November 17th, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    Why is he crying?

  • 3. D.  |  November 17th, 2008 at 2:42 pm

    I’ve been saying for years that Cheney is clearly a sleeper. Khomeini parachuted him into Wyoming around 1963, and after some initial distractions from all the booze he got down to business. It’s been a hard and lonely road, and some days only the thought of his SAVAMA medal on the Ministry wall back in Tehran keeps him going, but he is dedicated to the revolution, and will not rest until he has destroyed the foundations of our society from within.
    He hates our freedom.

  • 4. Arch Stanton  |  November 18th, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    Buying off the Sunnis and Sadr declaring a unilateral ceasefire is “good counterinsurgency” doctrine? Umm, yeah, that’s from the book of Mao–Rofl Mao, to be precise. I wouldn’t enamel Bush’s place in history just yet. Obama seems to have a longing for that Empire’s Graveyard, and if his current choice of cabinet posts is any indication, the eagle just might get buried in the Hindu Kush after all.

  • 5. Stephen  |  November 18th, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    When are people going to learn the simple fact that the only way can have a lasting victory against muslims is if you exterminate them.

  • 6. Amaxen  |  November 18th, 2008 at 5:27 pm

    Brechter, when you’re in a hole, you should stop digging.

    You were predicting six months ago that by this time Iraq would be a burning charnel house filled with blood, smoke, and IEDs. Sorta like the Republican Party looks today. Yet even so, the Sunni and Shia and Kurds appear to be getting along satisfactorily, the Iraqi army *and* police appear to have trained up to take over security in most parts of the country, and most amazing of all the Iraqi government is requesting that we leave, which is a victory condition in an insurgency if I’ve ever heard of one. Your assertion that Iran is more powerful than ever seems hollow, both because of falling oil prices and because on the diplomatic front Iran is increasingly isolated, and the contries that process Iranian oil into gasoline for re-export are seriously considering embargoing. There have also been a decided lack of signs that Iran is gaining any sort of influence over Iraqi politics, despite the river of treasure they’ve poured into special ops in Iraq. If things continue as they have been, Iran is going to end up with a much more powerful and politically stable regime counterbalancing them than there was under Saddam.

    In any case, the endgame in Iraq is not at all turning out the way you were predicting since shortly after the war started. We see stability in the Iraqi state without the ethnic cleansing measures you were declaring necessary. We see the Iraqis themselves working out their tougher domestic political problems mostly politically and no so much with IEDs. (although admittedly they are still doing some of that).

    I’m disappointed in you. I’m a fan of your writing, one aspect of which is that you usually admit when you’ve screwed the pooch. I was looking forward to you admitting you had been at least partially wrong, and giving Bush some credit for at sticking to his guns when everyone (including you) was screaming to run to the exits. It may have been the wrong decision to invade, but on the question of whether or not to stay or pull out, Bush doubled down on the chance he could make it work out somehow after all. It looks like he was right and you were wrong.

    But I guess you don’t have the guts or the honesty to admit it.

  • 7. Harry  |  November 18th, 2008 at 11:07 pm

    Amaxen don’t be declaring victory so quickly especially considering Sadr and the Awakening Councils are still waiting for elections to legally take over power and if they don’t get it will resume the violence. Not only that, but the tension with the Kurds has only gotten worse.

    The counterinsurgency strategy of paying off some of the Sunni insurgents, allowing for Sadr’s self interested ceasefire to happen, pulling our troops into the bases, and it turns out assassinating top insurgent leaders right before the “surge” to make Al Qaeda in Iraq easier to knock down was a brilliant strategy, but was also a lie to the American people because the trickling of extra troops actually had zero to do with it, but was the only military strategy Americans could understand.

    You accuse the war nerd of screwing the pooch and not admitting it, but I expect if you’re pooch is screwed (probably conveniently as soon as Obama takes office) I expect you to be in denial.

  • 8. Amaxen  |  November 19th, 2008 at 11:40 am

    I don’t deny the possibility that things could still go south in Iraq. However, the ones hoping for Sadr to get going again I suspect are going to be disappointed. He got his tail kicked last time he brought he tried to seize power through military action, and it will be a lot tougher the next time he tries, because the Iraqi state looks a lot more stable and more importantly has men that will defend it.

    I also suspected at the time and still suspect that ‘the surge’ was more of a political device to buy time so that the other policies, whatever they may be, could have time to work. Whether ‘the surge’ worked militarily may or may not be true and is a reasonable argument to make. I’d just point out that most battles in the civil war were militarily unnecessary, but politically very necessary. Politics is what counts. A gun is just a tool to make the enemy change his mind – unless you’re like Brechter and think that genocide is the only way to do so.

    What is not a reasonable argument to make at this point is that Bush was wrong and the War Nerd right in terms of their visions of, say, 4 years ago for how Iraq would be at this point in time. Brechter was accusing Clancy of being too involved in the hardware, but oddly enough it looks like Brechter fell into the same trap, focusing on go-go gadget missile trucks and the like and not understanding the underlying insurgent strategy and the counter-insurgency strategy put used by the US and the Iraqi government. This is forgivable. Counter-Insurgency is hard and unglamorous, and involves a lot of waiting to get blown up. What isn’t forgivable to my mind is how Brechter’s persona had to yield to the lefty journalist underneath and screed his hatred of Bush, regardless of the military facts of the situtation.

  • 9. Amaxen  |  November 19th, 2008 at 11:50 am

    So, for example, if you’re a true war nerd, you should have been reading Michael Yon regularly, whether you agree with his outlook or not:

    He has been correct on about every aspect of the war that he’s written about, and pissed off both sides on more than one occasion.

    He’s recently declared that we have won in Iraq.

    Have we? I don’t know, but Yon has credibility not so easily dismissed. Certainly a lot less easy to dismiss than some green-zone visiting MSM type. I’d noticed Brechter had fallen silent on the subject of Iraq entirely lately, and so I was expecting that sooner or later he’d have to eat his crow online. But it looks like he’s trying to defer the meal by attacking Bush. He should have posted some of those oh-so-amusing Bush=Monkey photos while he was at it. It would have helped distract the reader away from the uncomfortable truth that Brechter flubbed his call.

  • 10. Huzzah  |  November 19th, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    Here’s a water test for a successful Iraq mission: After the American’s have completely left we get 2 two fairly elected (reasonably) pro-western governments without civil strife. Then I’ll believe it.

  • 11. leshnah  |  November 19th, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    I just wanna say that as a Chilean I resent being put in the same group as Chavez, Morales, Kirchner… It is true our gov´t is a left-leaning one, but that´s it. Our economy is one of the most successful example of the benefits of free market and capitalism.
    Leaf-leaning does not mean corruption, goofiness, unemployment as it happens in Bolivia or Venezuela.
    Left-leaning or not we are one of the most important allies of the US in S.America

  • 12. Amaxen  |  November 19th, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    Huzzah, that’s moving the damn goal posts pretty damn far, I think. What does ‘without civil strife’ mean? The Brits had the IRA going about blowing things up for 40+ years, and that counts as civil strife. Or look at the Red Brigades in Italy/Germany. Or the Basques in Spain/France. Let’s not even start on the Indian’s problems with the Tamil Tigers. Also, what does ‘pro-western’ mean? I’d settle for a ‘pro-Iraqi’ regime.

  • 13. PSmith  |  November 19th, 2008 at 9:02 pm

    Amaxen, you are full of it. The War Nerd rules.

    Any day now the mayor of green zone Baghdad will be handed his head by ‘his people’ and we will see another Exit from Saigon. The two War Nerd columns below remain spot on.

    … If you think that the policy insiders have screwed it up beyond salvation, listen to the little guy. Specifically Gary Brecher, War Nerd.

    “Who won Iraq’s “Decisive” Battle?;action=display;threadid=20671

    “Bringing Ireland to Baghdad: How the Resistance Will Eventually Kick the Americans Out.”

    “They have created a wilderness. And they call it peace. That is our legacy.”
    – Malcom Rifkind, past British Minister of Defense

    For a group that certainly DOESN’T get it, with the exception of Malcom Rifkind, see the Intelligence Squared debate on the motion: “America is finally winning the war in Iraq,” from October 13th, 2008

    Another school of thought says that George Bush is a genius. No really.

  • 14. PSmith  |  November 19th, 2008 at 9:18 pm

    “Cheney is clearly a sleeper” – D

    He certainly is. Though for who is the question. Russia? The Nazis (oh wait that ended in 1945 or thereabouts)? … or the OIL COMPANIES? “It’s the oil lobby, stupid” seems to be a good general answer to a lot of questions at the moment. Like, oh say, the last eight years.

    Also, Cheney used to be human, apparently. But everyone with a bypass suffers brain damage and 42% lose 20% of their cognition. In one event. Mutliple events implies how much greater loss?

  • 15. Raad  |  November 20th, 2008 at 4:01 am

    Wow I missed those, thanks.

  • 16. bipolar2  |  November 22nd, 2008 at 12:52 pm

    ** Iraq just one projection of a death wish **

    Bush II, of course, did not intend to bring about any alleged positive outcomes of his imperial adventure. He suffers from borderline personality disorder.

    Shia ethnic cleansing finds no moral offset in distant events supposedly linked causally to the initial lies of our post-modern Caligula.

    “God wills it” in Bush’s mind and “oil justifies it” among neo-con’s are equally specious cover for a completely trumped up invasion and occupation.

    History offers no absolution for the US even should Iraq flow with milk and honey in some distant, unforeseeable future.

    Any link would be nothing but causality running down any of the new channels traced out by the blood of Iraqi civilians and US soldiers. This is the Law of Unintended Consequences in action, as it always is.

  • 17. Merc  |  November 24th, 2008 at 1:50 am

    Why is Brecher silent on Iraq? Because everyone’s waiting for the US Troops to exit, before the Party begins. The lines have already been drawn. The Kurds will fight to the death to defend their lands, which they view not as a part of a Sovereign Iraq, but as their own independent enclave. This pisses off the Turks, who are US Allies. Wouldn’t say that it’s a positive point.

    Maliki and Sadr are both Shia. Under Saddam, who was Sunni, the Shia were divided and oppressed. Now they are out to get the Sunnis and take control of Iraq. Oh wait, they already have. Sadr controls the poor, and Maliki controls the middle class conservatives, and rich in Iraq. If you take a look at Sadr and Maliki, they don’t fight each other for constituency. They pledge to different people, like Republicans do in the US, giving one line to the racist whites – the Republican Poor, and another to the “Compassionate Conservatives” – the Republican Middle Class. Didn’t Maliki study how US Government works?

    Same exact thing here. The Sadrists are the poor and the Dawa are middle class. Why do you think the Sadrists stopped their attack so soon, even before the US Troops went in? Did anyone even ask, how the Sadrists knew when the US Troops went in?

    So now the Shia control Iraq. They want the US out. Once the US is out, there will be a major crackdown on the Sunnis, who are also getting together and organized, resulting in a mini-civil war.

    The US just doesn’t learn. In Kosovo, there were Albanians who wanted to take land from Serbia. So they started an insurgency movenment, which the Serbs checked. Then the US went in to support the Albanians, under promises of “Democracy” from Thaci. I mean was Clinton playing stupid? Or plain stupid when it comes to foreign policy? Once the US help was no longer needed, up in flames went the century-old Serbian Churches, 200,000 Serbs were driven out, thousands killed, the women and children brutally raped and murdered. But that was in a minor region. Iraq is one whole big country.

    So when the Sunnis are going to fight the Shia, they’ll start losing. The Shia have better numbers, organization and government support. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Shia did to the Sunnis, what Albanians did to the Serbs. This leads to more pissed off Sunnis and more recruits for Al Qeada. The War on Terror, remember?

    And this is yet another present that Obama’s getting from Bush. And of course the Media will continue to somehow find a way to blame either Iran or Russia for this. Like it was Iran & Russia combined that sent in the Marines to transfer control of Iraq from Sunnis to Shia.

    So why’s everything quite now? Because if the Sunnis attack too early, they’ll be utterly destroyed by US Troops. If the Shia act too early, they’ll be hurt by US Troops. Neither side wants to lose a company. And with the budget the US has, America cannot keep the troops in Iraq forever. Once they’re gone, the Civil War shall come. Of course CNN won’t really cover it…

  • 18. Raptoreyes  |  December 1st, 2008 at 12:27 pm

    While bushes wars were not successful in the end I really dislike your article. You offer no comprehensive alternatives to what Bush unsuccessfully ended up doing. Gary you could have done much better. Another paragraph or two wedged in somewhere might have given people the sense you were doing something more then random badmouthing. The readers never get a clear sense of what you would have done differently only what bush did badly.

    In your earlier article you hinted that the second Iraq invasion could have been another culling of the armed forces followed by going home. Unfortunately you did not go into any detail about how this could have been rolled into better outcomes then what happened.

    Hinting that the tactics of CI warfare should have been followed earlier was useful but you did not go into much detail. Nor clear up the logical inconsistency of advocating a notably un-comprehensive conventional (George Bush Senior style strategy) in one paragraph and in another advocate the ugliness of CI warfare. This inconsistency makes it sound like you wrote this article just be be a fat sour grapes nerd than to engage in the betterment of US combined arms policy.

    Offering criticism without at least giving clear arguments to your favored alternatives just makes you look like a partisan democrat or garden variety complainer. Gary I expected more from you based upon past articles. Your loosing your touch… for god sakes get it back!!

  • 19. HS  |  December 2nd, 2008 at 4:36 pm

    I think he has been giving us what should have been done. Stay the hell out of Iraq. As for what to do now, its kinda tough to say. My take is that since the insurgents are going to win anyway, get an exit strategy. I’d say liase with the insurgent leaders and give them some big bribes to play along with a graceful exit. Fifty million dollars is an incredible amount of money to the Madhi army, and a drop in the bucket to the US occupation cost. I’m sure they’d play nice for a couple of months while the US leaves, stick to preparing to fight rather than actually fight. Then most everyone who isn’t a war nerd or an Iraqi will fail to draw the connection between the US and whatever nasty stuff happens. At home it could probably be chalked up as a win or at least a draw for the public.

  • 20. Roadwarrior08  |  January 2nd, 2009 at 11:27 am


    Feel free to try you little “extermination” plan and i’ll be glad to defend my right to place a bullet in your brainpan.


  • 21. Dave  |  January 16th, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    Roadwarrior08, you’ll have to get there before I do.

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