- by Steve Coll
- The Iraq assessment.
by Steve Coll April 14, 2008
- General Richard A. Cody graduated from West Point in 1972, flew helicopters, ascended to command the storied 101st Airborne Division, and then, toward the end of his career, settled into management; now, at fifty-seven, he wears four stars as the Army Vice-Chief of Staff. This summer, he will retire from military service.
In 2004, in a little-noted speech, Cody described the Army’s efforts to adapt to its new commitments. (It was attempting to fight terrorism, quell the Taliban, invade and pacify Iraq, and, at the same time, prepare for future strategic challenges, whether in China or Korea or Africa.) The endeavor was, Cody said, like “building an airplane in flight.”
Last week, the General appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee and testified that this method of engineering has failed. “Today’s Army is out of balance,” Cody said. He continued:
The current demand for our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan exceeds the sustainable supply, and limits our ability to provide ready forces for other contingencies. . . . Soldiers, families, support systems and equipment are stretched and stressed. . . . Overall, our readiness is being consumed as fast as we build it. If unaddressed, this lack of balance poses a significant risk to the all-volunteer force and degrades the Army’s ability to make a timely response to other contingencies.
In 2006, the Army granted eight thousand three hundred and thirty “moral waivers” to new recruits, meaning that it had accepted that number of volunteers with past criminal charges or convictions. The percentage of high-school graduates willing to serve is falling sharply from year to year; so are the aptitude-exam scores of new enlistees. To persuade soldiers and young officers to reënlist after overlong combat tours, the Army’s spending on retention bonuses increased almost ninefold from 2003 to 2006.
In normal times, when an active four-star general implies in public that the Army is under such strain that it might flounder if an unexpected war broke out, or might require a draft to muster adequate troop levels, he could expect to provoke concern and comment from, say, the President of the United States. Some time ago, however, George W. Bush absolved himself of responsibility for his Iraq policy and its consequences by turning the war over to General David H. Petraeus, Cody’s four-star peer, and the champion of the “surge” policy, who will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee this week.
Petraeus, too, is a loyal Army man, but he has distinctive views about military doctrine; he has long advocated a change in orientation by the Army, away from preparations for formal warfare between governments and toward the challenges of counter-insurgency and nation building. (“Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife” is the title of a book co-written by one of Petraeus’s advisers, Lieutenant Colonel John A. Nagl.) To buy time in Iraq, Petraeus has lately argued within the Pentagon that the Army must buck up and accommodate his need for heavy troop deployments, despite the strains they are creating, and he has publicly fostered an unedifying debate about how to most accurately assess failure and success in Iraq, as if such an opaque and intractable civil conflict could be measured scientifically, like monetary supply or atmospheric pressure.
There is, of course, empirical evidence of declining violence in Iraq, which has coincided with Petraeus’s command. The additional troops he requested have certainly been a factor, but not even Petraeus can say how much of one. At best, during the past year he has helped to piece together a stalemate of heavily armed, bloodstained, conspiracy-minded, ambiguously motivated Iraqi militias. Nobody knows how long this gridlock will hold.
A war born in spin has now reached its Lewis Carroll period. (“Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”) Last week, it proved necessary for the Bush Administration to claim that an obvious failure—Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s ill-prepared raid on rival Shiite gangs in Basra, which was aborted after mass desertions within Maliki’s own ranks—was actually a success in disguise, because it demonstrated the Iraqi government’s independence of mind.
In this environment, it is perhaps unsurprising that General Cody’s plainspoken, valedictory dissent about the Army’s health attracted little attention. His testimony marked a rare public surfacing of the contentious debates at the Pentagon over the strategic costs of the surge. These debates involve overlapping disagreements about doctrine (particularly the importance of counter-insurgency), global priorities (Iraq versus Afghanistan, for instance), and resources. At their core, however, lies Cody’s essential observation: the Army is running on fumes, but Petraeus and his fellow surge advocates are driving flat out in Iraq, with no destination in sight. It hardly matters whether Petraeus would recommend keeping a hundred and thirty thousand or more combat troops in Iraq for a hundred years, or only ten. Neither scenario is plausible—at least, not without a draft or a radical change in incentives for volunteers.
Flag officers in the Bush Administration’s military have learned that they can be marginalized or retired if they speak out too boldly. The Administration does not romanticize the role of the loyal opposition. Last month, Admiral William J. Fallon, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, announced his early retirement, under pressure from the White House, after he argued privately for a faster drawdown from Iraq, to bolster efforts in Afghanistan and to restore a more balanced global military posture. Publicly, Fallon also described the “drumbeat of conflict” against Iran as “not helpful.”
The suppression of professional military dissent helped to create the disaster in Iraq; now it is depriving American voters of an election-year debate about the defense issues that matter most. These include the nature and the location of the country’s global adversaries and interests, the challenge of a revitalizing Al Qaeda in Pakistan, the conundrum of Iran, the failing health of the nuclear nonproliferation regime, and, to address all this, the need for a sustainable strategy that restores the Army’s vitality and makes rational use of America’s finite military resources. To implement such a strategy, it would not be necessary to rashly abandon Iraq to its fate, but it would be essential, at a minimum, to reduce American troop levels to well below a hundred thousand as soon as possible. In the long run, success or failure for the United States in Iraq will not hinge on who wins the argument about the surge; it will depend on whether it proves possible to change the subject. ♦