The Pentagon has launched yet another “information warfare”
offensive that aims to reshape how Americans and the world perceive
the ongoing war in Iraq.
results have been confusing, at best.
A major target of this latest information campaign is, oddly enough,
one of the biggest truisms of warfare:
“Know thy enemy.”
Defense officials in fact know so little about the insurgency American
troops are combating in Iraq they decided that detailed information
about the enemy, such as its strength and capabilities, is not all
that important to winning the war.
“Nobody’s maintaining a count of the size of the insurgency
or the numbers that we’re capturing because, as we’ve
discussed from here and elsewhere—before Congress—it’s
not a metric that has a lot of meaning by itself,” said Larry
DiRita, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs.
And even if those numbers mattered, DiRita continued, obtaining
accurate information would be a “difficult thing to do”
and would not be worth the effort.
DiRita was responding to a reporter’s question about retired
Gen. Jack Keane’s account following a recent trip to Iraq.
The former vice chief of staff of the Army reported that U.S. forces
had either captured or killed some 50,000 insurgents so far this
The Defense Department, DiRita stressed, does not necessarily dispute
Keane’s numbers, but neither does it compile its own figures.
“It’s an interesting thing to understand, you know,
what’s the size of the adversary that we’re facing,”
DiRita said. “And the estimates have ranged from a few thousand
to many tens of thousands … It’s not a number that we
do track … It’s a number that we aren’t interested
Most military experts agree that enemy body counts are not a useful
means to measure success, as the Vietnam War proved.
But not knowing the size and overall strength of the opposing force
seems counterintuitive when one considers that the military spends
billions of dollars on battlefield intelligence programs and officials
have lectured for years that the key to winning is to “get
inside the enemy’s decision cycle.”
Victory in Iraq recently has been redefined as achieving stability
and security. What that really means, however, is in the eye of
the beholder. “We’ll know it when we see it,”
said Marine Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, director of operations on
the Joint Staff.
Iraq’s insurgency is so amorphous and incongruent that it’s
no wonder the U.S. is having problems figuring it out, said Michael
Eisenstadt, senior fellow and director of security studies at the
Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Even the insurgents themselves may not know how many combatants
they have on the battlefield or in the organization,” said
Eisenstadt. “It’s an insurgency unlike any other—with
no hierarchy, with loosely organized cells.”
The fighters in this “composite” insurgency are fueled
by diverse motives, such as resisting foreign occupation, reinstating
the old order and financial incentives to commit terrorist acts.
“We came into this war ill-equipped to wage this kind of
war,” said Eisenstadt. The United States eventually can beat
the insurgency, but not until it can penetrate the cultural barriers
that have made it difficult for U.S. commanders to help train Iraqi
soldiers and policemen. “It will take Iraqis several years
to make a substantial contribution to turn things around,”
said Eisenstadt. “Like Rumsfeld said, the Iraqis are going
to win this war.”
Insurgencies are not won on the battlefield, but with political
and economic developments, he added. “The military makes the
smallest contribution to success.”
Despite the thick fog of war that hovers over U.S. troops in Iraq,
American forces are doing a remarkable job, commented U.K. Rear
Adm. Chris Parry, director of joint doctrine and concepts at the
British Ministry of Defense. “You are doing better than you
think,” he told a military conference in Washington, D.C.
The problem is not that U.S. forces can’t beat the insurgents,
but rather that the United States “expects to have these things
done overnight,” Parry said.
British intelligence on the insurgency pegs its ranks at 20,000
trained and experienced fighters, according to Parry. Many of these
combatants have 20 years of insurgency experience in Afghanistan,
Chechnya and Bosnia. “Iraq now is a superb piece of fly paper
that attracts them,” said Parry. “We should be able
to kill them before they come out.”
Even if U.S. commanders lack precise data on these insurgents,
they should know several key traits that define them, Parry said.
First and foremost, they are “psychopaths” who live
inside a fantasy world where radical Islamic culture rules. “They
confuse their Playstation 2 lives with the real world,” he
added. “These people do not belong in the 21st century. They
come straight out of medieval times.”
The frustration defense leaders are experiencing in this war, meanwhile,
was made visible when officials announced they would re-label the
so-called “global war on terrorism” to a “global
struggle against violent extremism.”
DiRita explained that the change reflects the Defense Department’s
view that the United States is in a “struggle against radical
Islamic fundamentalism that is, at the moment, using terrorism as
But it’s unlikely that the “global war on terrorism”
will be banished from official rhetoric. As Conway pointed out,
“We’ve been told, actually, that ‘global war on
terrorism’ translates pretty well into the various languages.
So I think that continues to make it a part of the discussion.”
As the battle for Iraq unfolds, it is fair to predict that events
on the ground will continue to remake the Pentagon’s message.
Maybe soon we finally will understand what constitutes victory and
what kind of enemy we are up against.