May 16, 2006
In Iraq war, time is a weapon
By Bernd Debusmann, Special Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. forces in Iraq, locked in a war
that cannot be won by military force alone, are facing a weapon
that tends to favor insurgents -- time.
The war is in its fourth year and public support is waning.
According to opinion polls taken in May, a majority of
Americans think that invading Iraq was a mistake and that
things in Iraq are going badly. The souring public mood does
not bode well for the prospects of prevailing over an
insurgency U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said
could last another decade.
Military officers and experts involved in drafting a new
counterinsurgency manual for the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps
say that patience is one of the keys for success in winning
against the kind of enemy the U.S. is facing in Iraq.
"The (counterinsurgency) effort requires a firm political
will and extreme patience," says the draft, now going through
revisions and expected to be issued in summer. "The insurgent
wins if he does not lose, while the counterinsurgent loses if
he does not win. Insurgents are strengthened by the common
perception that a few casualties or a few years will cause the
United States to abandon (the effort)."
Military history shows that past counterinsurgency
campaigns in other parts of the world have taken between five
and 15 years.
The manual, the first new edition for the Army in 20 years
and for the Marines in 25, is being written against the
background of what the army describes as its most profound
transformation in half a century, a massive program to change
mindsets away from traditional army-against-army warfare to the
type of irregular conflict the United States is confronting in
Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a fundamental change in policy, the Pentagon last year
also declared that establishing order and security, restoring
essential services and meeting the humanitarian needs of the
population of a vanquished country were a "core U.S. military
mission." In other words U.S. soldiers should be equally adept
in fighting war and making peace.
"None of this can be done quickly," said a Special Forces
officer just back from Iraq who requested anonymity. " And one
can only hope we will be given enough time to do it. What we
now have in Iraq is incredibly complex -- elements of a failed
state, an insurgency and terrorism."
"EXTREME PATIENCE" NOT TYPICAL U.S.TRAIT
In past conflicts the United States has often lacked the
"extreme patience" prescribed in the new manual, largely
because of pressures from a public clamoring for swift,
decisive victories. Both in Vietnam and Korea, public support
ran high for the first two years and then dropped steadily in
the perceived absence of fast progress.
In a recent study published by the Strategic Studies
Institute of the U.S. Army War College, scholar Colin Gray
noted that "time is a weapon, (and) the mindset needed to
combat an enemy who is playing a long game is not one that
comes naturally to the American soldier or, for that matter, to
the American public."
"To wage protracted war is not a preference in our military
and strategic culture, " he said, and it is difficult to
explain and defend to a doubting and increasingly impatient
Doubts and impatience, the polls indicate, stem from a
steadily mounting casualty toll -- nearing 2,500 -- and the
perception that the United States is bogged down in Iraq and
getting sucked into a vortex of sectarian violence between
Iraqi factions who have been unable to form an effective
The U.S. government has shied away from estimating how long
the insurgency in Iraq might last since Rumsfeld said, in June
last year, that it "could go on for any number of years.
Insurgencies tend to go on five, six, eight, 10, 12 years."
Andrew Krepinevich, a retired army officer and professor at
Washington's George Mason University, estimates that defeating
the insurgency in Iraq would take at least a decade, hundreds
of billions of dollars and longer casualty rolls. "Are the
American people and American soldiers willing to pay that
price?" he asked in an article in the magazine Foreign Affairs.
The crucial role of time was discussed at a recent
Washington seminar of military officers and academics. They
touched on the need for patience and the tension between the
military's traditional desire for quick short-term results and
the requirements of fully understanding the environment before
To underline the different concept of time in different
cultures, one of the participants cited a saying he attributed
to the Taliban in Afghanistan, where the United States has been
fighting for the past five years and the insurgency is
"The Americans have the wristwatches," the saying goes,
"but we've got the time."