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Friday, July 18, 2003

Where's the End-Game?

Unfortunately a lot of this now looks far too predictable. The 'hearts and minds of the people' always was a difficult and nebulous concept. Then there is Maynard's endless point about cultures and differences. The lesson of Vietnam was supposed to have been 'never go in, unless you know how you are going to get out'. Here it's hard to see an end game or an exit strategy. Two years become four, and four become eight. My feeling is that things move so much faster today, that this evolution is unlikely. The exit strategy may need to be on the table much sooner. For one thing there are elections. Next year is already too late to change, and Bush is now clearly a hostage to fortune: to the 'jobless recovery' and to the evolving situation in Iraq. It is hard, however, to see this conflict continuing into the 2008 campaign. At the same time, Iraq is not Somalia. The US cannot just walk away, at least not so easily. Again my feeling is that whether or not you want to see the US in Iraq, the international consequences of failure may be very significant: among other things any US 'failure' in Iraq would likely produce more wars not less, as every would-be dictator decided to try their hand (not to mention the economic consequences which this process is bound to have on what is already a 'difficult' global recovery). Even for the Iraquis the price of failure would be very high. Many of us in my generation protested Vietnam, but at the same time it's difficult not to let the thought pass through your mind: wouldn't Vietnam be better-off today if it were more like S Korea or Taiwan. And wouldn't the Iraquis be better off if Iraq was like Kuwait. But maybe this decision is not in our hands, and is not ours to make. Herein lies the real folly of the US approach. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the biggest internal problem the US has is it's 'natural attitude', the idea that it is everyone else who has a culture, but not the United States. The US is the natural terminus for the rest of the planet. What was it Fukiyama called it.......the end of history?

Comparisons with Vietnam are easy, but still to the point. Obviously the situation is different, both militarily and politically. But the parrallels are still clearly there. And then there is all this flashy social science stuff about non-linearities and path-dependent lock-in. Put more simply there is a point of no return. The day that just one Iraqi too many decides the US cannot win, this situation will have no solution. This change of view may happen because of internal intimidation, cultural nationalism, religious belief, or.......... because you have a friend, a cousin, a brother held unjustly in a US army round-up. In other words here we will see all the 'herding behaviour' that is so typical of financial markets: either towards one side or towards the other, that is what makes this gamble so risky. And the other lesson from Vietnam: that the US military machine is well able to win a conventional, high-tech war like no other in history, but a day to day battle, in the city streets or in the desert, where your enemy chooses the terrain, this is another country.

To some military analysts, the rebuke doled out to a lowly foot soldier by General John Abizaid, the new head of US central command, this week was telling. Centcom's commander felt the need to point out in front of a national audience that saying you would like Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, to resign is not acceptable from a man in uniform. The public reprimand was a window into how concerned the Pentagon is about troop morale, particularly in the increasingly overstretched army. "He would not be disciplining a soldier like that if he didn't feel there was a major problem," said Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institute. "It's remarkable that he felt a need to go after his own soldiers."

It is a problem that is going to get worse before it gets better. Pentagon officials now admit troops should expect to spend a year on deployment - rather than the usual six months - for the foreseeable future. And with nearly half of the US army's 33 active combat divisions deployed in Iraq - and with additional commitments in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Korea - the army has been forced to call up nearly 140,000 reservists, many of whom have been on duty for more than a year. The Pentagon is now considering activating even more troops from National Guard units. "Rumsfeld may have passed the point of no return," one senior administration official said of morale among reservists.

"We have not gone on what I would call a war footing, we are cutting taxes, we are not drafting, we are still relying on a volunteer military. There are going to be some real problems in the future recruiting and everybody knows that." It remains unclear where any relief will come from. Gen Abizaid hinted senior generals may rely on the marines to assist the army - in recent years Marines have been used only as expeditionary forces, doing little peacekeeping work - and said US brigades will gradually be replaced by international troops.

But the Pentagon appears to be having problems recruiting those non-US troops needed to make a dent in the US deployments. Military planners had anticipated three divisions worth of foreign troops, but with the announcement this week out of New Delhi that India will not send its hoped-for 15,000 troops without a new UN resolution, it appears the foreign troops arriving will work exclusively in the southern UK sector or northern operations run by the Poles. "To the extent we're replacing Brits with other Europeans, we're not getting any help for the US," Mr O'Hanlon said, predicting that between 150,000 and 175,000 US troops would have to remain in Iraq for approximately two years. This was the number once suggested by General Eric Shinseki, the recently departed army chief of staff, but dismissed by Pentagon civilians as "wildly off the mark". Mr Rumsfeld has vigorously resisted expanding the army, arguing it was not needed and would drive up costs, but without such relief an overtaxed army could find itself in crisis. Mr O'Hanlon says: "This has the potential to threaten the quality and the basic fabric of the US military more than anything since Vietnam."
Source: Financial Times

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