20 March 2011

Practical Utility in War

In anticipation of hours and hours - perhaps days - of cable news comparisons of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Operation Odyssey Dawn over Libya, it is important to discuss the idea of practical utility when it comes to war. By practical utility, I do not mean lofty goals and end-state proclamations; no "to secure democracy" or "to defend civilians" squishiness, however easy and comfortable it may be to limit discussions to those types of statements while iron is falling in some far-off place. Practical utility tends to shun such squishiness and relies more on language which may offend espousers of the squishy.

As an aside, I do not suppose my thoughts that follow are original; they have all been said in various forms and forums many times. But as a new war starts, it is instructive to take a critical look at our recent past.

In 2002, faced with an ugly place to fight anyone let alone a loosely organized pack of true believers, the US went through the necessary steps to expand the war to Iraq. In March of 2003, the Iraq theater was opened. The practical utility of expanding the war to Iraq has far less to do with weapons of mass destruction, human rights, or bringing democracy to the Middle East - though all of those sound like perfectly good reasons. The practical utility has to do with choosing the battle space. If Afghanistan is a nearly impossible place to fight, with mountains so high that aircraft can be shot at from above by men, then Iraq is preferable, even given the urban setting where (according to news reports) much of the ugly fighting happened. Add that the Iraq battle space had been "prepared" - a military euphemism of sorts - by bombing both the northern and southern no-fly zones regularly as follow-on to Operation Desert Fox in December of 1998. Regardless of all of the miscues, mistakes, and misfortunes which followed, the practical utility of fighting jihadists in Iraq instead of Afghanistan is clear: it was easier for us to kill more of them in Iraq as opposed to the other way around in Afghanistan.

That may be an ugly truth that folks do not want to hear, but it is important to hear it nevertheless. Every jihadist who came to Iraq was one who didn't have to be fought in another place, most notably Afghanistan. In the end, the invasion of Iraq probably - and I believe certainly - saved US and coalition lives and hastened the demise of many of the enemy.

As we begin another war, it would be very, very helpful to be clear about the practical utility of fighting in Libya. So far, I have been unable to discern one.

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