Managing risks in a war zone

Anthony Cordesman:

AMERICANS cannot see a tragedy like last week's attack on a military mess tent in Mosul, Iraq, without wondering how it could ever have occurred - and how it can be prevented from ever happening again. Like the furor over improved armor for trucks and Humvees, the attack rouses the instinct to make force protection the immediate priority for United States forces in Iraq. No American wants Americans soldiers to be vulnerable.

These instincts, however, are wrong. The United States can win in Iraq only through offensive action. It cannot afford to make every American base a fortress, or to disperse scarce manpower and other military resources in force-protection missions. United States forces have to be mobile and able to redeploy where the threat is - even though such redeployments often mean moving forces to vulnerable areas. If the Pentagon concentrates on protecting troops in the short run, the war will last longer and total casualties will be greater. Worse, the United States will simply never win.

This is not a pleasant message for military families and the ordinary soldier in the field. Senior commanders understand its importance, but no one who has just been wounded or seen a friend die does. Experience also tells us that incidents of this kind lead to immediate political opportunism: members of Congress grabbing headlines, contractors rushing forward to sell in the guise of helping the troops. It also leads to instant news media trials of commanders for failing to protect our troops. This happened after the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, and it gave the attackers a major additional victory.

Demanding that American troops keep their distance from Iraqis, or imposing security restrictions that make it difficult or impossible for them to work with the military, is also problematic. The United States cannot possibly achieve its political goals in Iraq - or the goal of reducing its own military presence over time - unless Iraqis are treated as partners. Humanitarian aid, economic assistance, the creation of Iraqi military, security and political forces that can defeat the insurgents and give the new government credibility - all require the cooperation of Iraqis.

War is not about eliminating risks; it is about managing them. America should do everything it can to manage its risks in Iraq, and the military is constantly learning and adapting. So, however, are America's enemies - and they understand they can only win politically, not militarily. This in part explains the attacks earlier this month on Shiites in Karbala and Najaf, which killed 68 Iraqis and wounded about 175. It also helps explains last week's attack in Mosul; the insurgents knew the bombing would receive extensive news coverage in the United States, and they no doubt are aware of the results of recent polls that show rising opposition to the war among Americans. Why not try to divide Americans and Iraqis the way they are trying to divide Sunnis and Shiites?


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