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Fighting The Wrong War

The column from The Weekly Standard was written by Frederick W. Kagan.
Conservatives have been inclined to defend Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld because many of his critics oppose him for executing a war they don't like, or because these critics' true target is a president they despise. It is quite possible to support President Bush and the war in Iraq and still find fault with Rumsfeld, however. Indeed, some of us find fault with Rumsfeld precisely because we do support the president and the war.

Rumsfeld has much to recommend him, to be sure. He took firm control of a Pentagon that was largely drifting and gave it clear direction. He focused on the importance of military transformation and made it a going concern rather than a conversation piece, as it had been for much of the Clinton presidency. When the nation was attacked, he oversaw two successful military operations in response.

But Rumsfeld has much to answer for, as well. Claims that there are no serious problems with military policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, or with the equipment our soldiers have, or with the number of troops available, are childish and damaging to efforts to identify and solve real problems.
Rumsfeld's defenders are now deflecting all criticism from him onto the Clinton administration, Congress, and the military service chiefs. Take the most serious criticism leveled at Rumsfeld -- that he has refused to expand the American military in order to enable it to deal with the strain the current missions are imposing upon our men and women in uniform. The chief of the Army Reserve, in a December 20 memo leaked last week, warned that the Reserve "is rapidly degenerating into a 'broken' force." Rumsfeld's defenders assure us he is not responsible. Only Congress can approve an increase in military end-strength; Rumsfeld has never opposed increasing the armed forces; more troops in Iraq wouldn't help anyway. These are the arguments deployed in behalf of the secretary of defense.

Unfortunately, they are evasions. It is of course true that the military underwent a dramatic reduction starting at the end of the Cold War under the first President Bush. The pace of that reduction accelerated during the Clinton years, and by the mid-1990s some of us were already warning that it had gone too far. By 1996, the military had reached its current size, a modest increment below the reduced strength Bush I had originally called for.

George W. Bush took office declaring that "help is on the way," however, and military observers hoped that meant an increase in defense budgets and force sizes. Defense spending has increased, to be sure, although the huge bulk of the increase went to paying for transformation and for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There has been no significant increase in the size of the military. According to the Department of Defense Annual Report of 2004, the Active Army rose from 482,170 men and women in 2000 to 488,640 in 2003, while the Total Army (including the National Guard and Reserves) fell from 1,208,642 in 2000 to 1,176,223 in 2003. Although the actual strength of the force is somewhat higher than these authorized figures (there are perhaps around 500,000 in the Active Army today), that increase is temporary and is due in part to a policy of preventing certain soldiers and officers from leaving the force when they wish to do so. In no sense can Rumsfeld claim to have rushed aid to the Army in any way that is helpful in the current crisis.

He has, in fact, consistently and vociferously opposed congressional attempts to offer such aid. In February 2003, he declared, "we will come back and ask for an end-strength increase at any moment that we believe it is in the interests of the armed forces. At the present time we do not have evidence that suggests that's the case." In October 2003, he discouraged Congress from "going into the taxpayers' pockets for a 10,000-person increase, when there's no analytical work that supports it." He added, "Those who argue that the end-strength should be increased, I think, have an obligation to say, 'Where do you want to take the money out of?' What are we going to take it out of? If you increase the Army end-strength by 10,000, are you going to take it out of the Navy or the Air Force or the Marines? Are we going to take it out of research and development and our future? Are we going to take it out of the future combat system or the helicopters or whatever?" In January 2004, he explained, "A permanent increase in end-strength would require cuts elsewhere in the defense budget . . . crowding out funding for various types of transformational capabilities that can allow us to do more with the forces that we currently have." In September 2004, he added, "We have not supported an [increase] in permanent end-strength by statute. . . . And the reason for that, very simply, is we don't need to do that."

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.

    Hanson reminds us that American forces in World War II, and in many other conflicts, had to fight with imperfect weapons and under imperfect conditions. All quite true. But in no previous American war has the chief of the military administration refused to focus on the war at hand, preferring programs that could not help soldiers then in the fight to survive and win. Even Robert McNamara, engaged in a "sideshow" war in an otherwise irrelevant theater, did not imagine that he could focus his efforts on preparing to meet the Red Army in the Fulda Gap at the expense of supporting our troops in Indochina.

    Rumsfeld's attitude has already led to a series of mistakes that have made a difficult situation more difficult. It has put the administration on the defensive about its conduct of a policy that is vital to America's national interest. It has distracted attention from the problem of winning the current war -- our most important priority today bar none. These problems don't result from the liberal media or the antiwar crowd making a ruckus about nothing. They result from Rumsfeld's stubborn adherence to a wrongheaded policy. Surely, with the election safely over, there is no longer any need to protect the architect of these mistakes.

    Frederick W. Kagan is a military historian and coauthor of "While America Sleeps."

    By Frederick W. Kagan