View Full Version : Quick-win conflict a quagmire for U.S.

11-01-06, 07:47 AM
Quick-win conflict a quagmire for U.S.

By ROBERT BURNS, AP Military Writer
Wed Nov 1, 2:27 AM ET

The Bush administration's struggle to find a way out of Iraq, years after its original exit plan collapsed, is the latest example of a seemingly quick-win conflict turning into a quagmire for the United States.

The U.S. had lightning victories in Panama, Grenada and Haiti in the 1980s and again in Haiti in 1994. But it's also seen interventions go sour in Lebanon in the early 1980s and in Somalia a decade later — and, of course, in Vietnam.

Administration officials like to say they have no exit strategy for Iraq, only a "strategy for victory." In other words, once you win the leaving will follow.

Shortly after U.S. troops captured Baghdad in April 2003 after less than a month of combat, it seemed they were about to do both — win and leave. Thus far, in nearly the time it took the U.S. and its allies to prevail in World War II, they have done neither.

How much longer the U.S. will stay in Iraq remains a guess. President Bush says the U.S. is winning and will not leave until victory is achieved, but he has also said he expects some troops to remain in Iraq after his presidency ends in January 2009.

The conflict's unexpected duration is a familiar circumstance for a U.S. military billed as the most powerful on Earth. It also points to the unpredictable nature of warfare, and how political complexities — domestic and international — can make it difficult for a president to declare success and bring the troops home.

"If you don't have a political and economic solution, then the military has to stay," said William Nash, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a retired 34-year Army veteran who commanded U.S. peacekeeping forces in Bosnia. "Inevitably, we end up staying until they finally figure it out or we give up and go home and just let it fall where it falls."

The Army entered Iraq prepared for conventional warfare, not for the shadowy, hit-and-run tactics that the insurgents and foreign fighters have used. Despite adjustments, the insurgency has only turned deadlier. U.S. troop strength has grown to 150,000.

Afghanistan also has proven tougher than expected. The Taliban regime that ran the country was routed within months of the U.S. air and land invasion in October 2001, which followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But a low-level insurgency has persisted, and remnants of the Taliban have recently put up stiffer resistance.

"Modern armies tend not to be very well equipped" — in ideas or in training — "for these sorts of wars, and you can just see it in Iraq," said Richard Shultz, director of the international security studies program at Tufts University's Fletcher School and the author of books on unconventional warfare.

Aside from military complications, a president can face political pressures that make it difficult to acknowledge mistakes and accept less than total victory. This is especially true when a president insists the nation's vital interests are at stake and after the U.S. commitment and casualties have mounted, as in Iraq.

President Johnson learned those same lessons in Vietnam, the standout case of a conflict in which the U.S. became entangled in a long, bloody war despite overwhelming firepower.

The U.S. began dispatching military advisers to South Vietnam in the 1950s. It escalated dramatically its military presence starting in 1965, with hundreds of thousands of combat troops ultimately fighting a tenacious and adaptive foe. With the American death toll climbing — it would eventually reach 58,000 — and anti-war sentiment spreading at home, Johnson stunned the nation by announcing in March 1968 that he would not seek re-election.

It took his successor, President Nixon, until 1973 to withdraw the last major contingents of U.S. combat troops from Vietnam, but other painful foreign interventions followed.

Following Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon to remove Palestine Liberation Organization fighters, U.S. troops entered the country, along with the French and Italians, to oversee the departure of PLO and Syrian forces.

A suicide bomber drove a truck into a Marine barracks in Beirut on Oct. 23, 1983, killing 241 U.S. troops. As civil warfare intensified, American troops introduced as peacekeepers had become targets, and President Reagan withdrew them that winter.

In December 1992, weeks before he left office, President George H.W. Bush sent Marines ashore in Somalia. A short-term mission of mercy to save the African nation from mass starvation evolved into a bloody conflict. In October 1993 an urban battle killed 18 U.S. soldiers and wounded 84. President Clinton, facing political pressure to leave, decided to cut his losses, and by the following spring U.S. troops were gone.

The 1991 Gulf War began with 45 days of aerial bombardment and ended with a 100-hour ground assault, with relatively few U.S. casualties. Iraqi forces surrendered, a cease-fire was signed with Saddam Hussein's army, the Kuwait government was restored to power, and most U.S. troops left within months.

That conflict can be seen as having been suspended, not ended, since the reason for the war — Saddam's adventurism — persisted. More than a decade of low-level conflict with Iraq followed, until Bush launched an all-out invasion in March 2003.

Sometimes U.S. forces remain behind not because American policymakers couldn't figure a way out, but for strategic reasons. After World War II, the U.S. military kept large numbers of troops in Europe and the Pacific to block Soviet expansion. The Korean War ended in 1953 with a cease-fire, and the United States has kept tens of thousands of troops there ever since as a buffer against the North Koreans and Chinese.