The Magazine

Fighting the Wrong War

From the January 17, 2005 issue: What Rumsfeld's defenders don't want to admit.

Jan 17, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 17 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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In each case, Rumsfeld has added that he would support an increase in end-strength if it were needed, but that he saw no need for it. He has argued consistently that it would be better to "rearrange" the active and reserve components of the Army, and he has argued for increasing use of civilian contractors to free up soldiers for combat duties. While claiming that a permanent increase in end-strength would take too long to complete to be useful, he has admitted the obvious--that "rearranging" the Army, active and reserve, is also a process that takes many years. He has not admitted another obvious problem with this approach--that the civilianization of military positions has increased the number of contractors in a combat zone where the enemy specializes in kidnapping and beheading people unable to defend themselves.

Congress has not been the problem here. Nor is it fair to blame Clinton entirely for this problem. Clinton downsized the military excessively, to be sure, and left an Army obviously too small for the missions it faced. But Rumsfeld has been in office for four years. If he had begun to address this problem four years ago, the Army could have been considerably expanded by now.

Neither is it true that more troops would not have helped the situation in Iraq. Victor Davis Hanson, the most eloquent of Rumsfeld's defenders, claims that "offensive action, not troop numbers alone, creates deterrence; mere patrolling and garrison duty will always create an insatiable demand for ever more men and an enormously visible American military bureaucracy." But troop numbers on the ground make offensive action by some of them easier to order. More significantly, the Iraqi insurgency is so weak that the rebels dare not face our troops in open combat. They are not centrally organized. Offensive action in the traditional sense, therefore, is virtually impossible. Patrolling, garrison duty, and training Iraqi military forces alone can win this conflict. This takes boots on the ground.

With more troops in Iraq during and immediately after the war, we would have been able to do the following things that we did not do:

* Capture or kill thousands of Iraqi soldiers who were at that time still concentrated in combat units and had not yet melted back into the countryside with their weapons and their skills.

* Guard the scores of enormous ammunition dumps from which the insurgents have drawn the vast majority of their weapons, ammunition, and explosives.

* Secure critical oil and electrical infrastructure that the insurgents subsequently attacked, setting back the economic and political recovery of Iraq.

* Prevent the development of insurgent safe havens in Najaf and Falluja, or at least disrupt them at a much earlier stage of formation.

* Work to interdict the infiltration of foreign fighters across Iraq's borders.

If the U.S. Army had begun expanding in 2001, we would have been able to:

* Establish reasonable rotation plans for our soldiers that did not require repeatedly extending tours of duty beyond one year.

* Avoid the need to activate reservists involuntarily.

* Dramatically reduce the frequency with which soldiers return from one year-long tour only to be sent immediately on another.

* Let the troops that would still have been overstrained know that help really was on the way.

The U.S. military did not do these things because of Rumsfeld's choices. He chose to protect a military transformation program that is designed to fight wars radically different from the one in which we are engaged. He chose to protect Air Force and Navy programs that are far less urgent and under far less strain during the current crisis rather than augmenting the service carrying the lion's share of the load. He chose to focus on high-tech weapons technologies that are virtually useless to the troops now in Iraq rather than providing them sooner with the basic requirements of their current mission--including armored Humvees, body armor, and a regular complement of armored vehicles. Even the deployment of Stryker light armored vehicles, which many now tout as a major contribution to the fighting in Iraq, was not Rumsfeld's initiative, but that of General Eric Shinseki. Shinseki was the Army chief of staff whom Rumsfeld drove out of office, partly for correctly predicting that Operation Iraqi Freedom would require more than the handful of units that Rumsfeld and his staff were willing to send.

It is not that Rumsfeld's decisions were without a rationale. The secretary of defense simply chose to prioritize preparing America's military for future conventional conflict rather than for the current mission. That position, based on the hope that the current mission would be of short duration and the recognition that the future may arrive at any moment, is understandable. It just turns out to have been wrong.