Sunday, January 18, 2009

Historical Similarities to Iraq War

Oftentimes people refer to Iraq as being another Vietnam. Though there are many similarities and differences between the Iraq War and the Vietnam War, there are many other wars throughout history from which parallels can be drawn and lessons learned. I will try to touch on a couple here (which have already been examined as well by several other sources in varying ways).

Second Boer War (1899-1902)
Fought between the British and  2 independent Boer Republics(The Orange Free State and South African Republic). 

  •  Britain's population primarily opposing the war, as with America and Iraq. 
  • A relatively quick military victory followed by extensive guerilla warfare is a common aspect of both wars. Britain expected an easy victory, as they saw the Boers as a small collection of farmers that they would easily defeat. They also had recently won a quick, easy, and decisive victory in Sudan, similar to America's Afghanistan.  
  • Britain at the time was the primary economic superpower in the world, but was under increasing pressures from America and Germany, similary to America's situation in dealing with India and China. 
  • Britain declared an end to combat operations in 1900, only to have fighting last long after that. America declared victory in 2004. As of the writing of this, the fighting has not ended.

The Boer War, in many people's eyes, marked the apex of Britain's empire. However, it would be very hard to say that America is at the apex of it's empire and about to decline due to the war, as the Iraq War is using a substantially lower percentage of our GDP (4.06% spent on military as a whole, about 0.5% spent directly on Iraq) and killig a smaller percentage of our population. 

A lesson from the Boer War may be the troop surge that worked for the British. Britain ended up needing 450,000 troops, and to move 1/4 of the population into concentration camps, where 26,000 civilian Boers and around 20,000 Blacks died (whereas the British lost 22,000 troops, 8,000 of which were in battle and the remaining from disease,  while the Boers lost between 6,000 and 7,000 fighers). The British further used "Scorched Earth" policies to eliminate the ability of the Boer guerillas to subsist. These allowed Britain to crush the resistance, but also eliminated their ability to use the moral high ground and be seen as the world leader. These tactics of course are not used in Iraq, and should never be used again by any military. However, it does seem apparent that an alternative must be used to effectively facilitate an end to the fighting.

This war is not so often compared to Iraq, though I believe that there are several good lessons to be learned.

  • The local population was fighting the Ottoman Empire, which was referred to as the Arab revolt. This is similar to the current factions of the population fighting against what some see as the occupying American forces. Further, Arabs from all over the Middle East arrived to fight for the common cause of the Arab people, as many view the insurgents are doing today in Iraq.
  • The Turks held their locations without too much problems or significant casualties. The supply lines and economic costs were the largest costs. Similar to America's position in Iraq, where there are relatively few casualties when compared to the large amounts of money spent. On the other hand, the American economy is less stressed than the Ottoman Empire of the time was.
  • The Turks held small bases, while the Arabs viewed that they controlled all of the land in between. Similarly, today, many fighters are able to work in cities, etc that Americans are not welcome in, and the Americans hold small bases and travel through the rest of the country only with a great deal of protection and arms.
  • The Turks had a far more professional and well armed military than the Arabs. Yet the Arabs had flexibility and guerilla tactics.
  • To quote TE Lawrence in his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom (about the Arab revolt): "...war upon rebellion was messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife." This is as true today as ever.
  • The Turks were fighting for land and traditional military victory. The Arabs were fighting with an ideology, which could not be stopped by traditional military checkpoints or strongholds.
The lessons that can be drawn from these similarities can be distilled as:
  • America needs to continue to transform its force to be seen not as an occupying force, but as an aide to Iraq's own people.
  • Traditional military tactics and metrics can not be used to evaluate mission effectiveness. Number of troops lost, insurgents killed, etc has no meaning when applied to people fighting for an ideology (whether it be Arab independence, anti-Americanism, sectarian Islamic dominance, or whatever else people may be fighting for) instead of for a traditional leadership structure.
  • Emphasis must be placed not on defending bases, strongholds, or soldiers as much as on promoting good will and strengthening strategic relationships with the locals and government. These people are the water that guerilla fighers swim through, and when drained, the ability for the guerillas to get supplies and backing for their ideology will inevitably wain as well.
Please comment if you have opinions for or against any of these statements I've made, as they are entirely personal opinions.