Friday, March 23, 2007

Overload in Iraq

If you decided to see one Shakespearean play every day, you would need 37 days to get through the canon – that is, if you didn’t first overdose on the Bard’s 34,896 lines (an average of 943 per play).

Fortunately, for the faint-hearted, there is an alternative: a performance by the RSC that requires about 2 to 2½ hours to “do” them all. Here the RSC is not the Royal Shakespeare Company but the Reduced Shakespeare Company, three actors who have “condensed” Shakespeare to “fit” that amount of time. (They have also reduced the world’s “Great Books” and “U.S. History” into two more two-hour presentations.)

I was reminded of the RSC (the reduced company, not the royal one) by reports in two prominent U.S. dailies today, the Washington Post (“GAO Faults U.S. Military Over Munitions In Iraq” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/22/AR2007032202017.html) and the Los Angeles Times (“GAO Looks At Gaps in Iraq Arms Security” http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-ied23mar23,1,5483452.story?ctrack=1&cset=true) about a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on an old subject – the lack of control of Saddam’s conventional ammunition dumps in the initial weeks of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF)..

Specifically, the report (“Applying Lessons Learned Concerning the Need for Security over Conventional Munitions Storage Sites to Future Operations Planning”) zeroes in on the inability of the U.S. and its allies, after four years in the country, to identify where these dumps are and provide a realistic estimate of how many tons remain (original guesses ran from 600,000 to a million tons). More germane, given the pressure U.S. ground forces are under and the prevalence of deaths and serious injuries from improvised explosive devices whose components come from unsecured munitions dumps, is the report’s all too common conclusion that trying to overthrow Saddam “on the cheap” with insufficient numbers of “boots on the ground” allowed the wholesale looting of not only government buildings but also weapons arsenals.

What’s the connection between the RSC and OIF? The RSC performance is agile, light (as in lighthearted), and sharp, yet has such enormous scope for improvising (which is done well) that you can see it, say, at the start and the very end of a two week run and have seen two unique performances. One emerges with a “Shakespearean” sense about the world – albeit with fewer cents after paying for tickets.

A key element for the RSC is audience reaction – what is “working” during each performance that can be exploited to keep the pace going in a continually reinforcing give and take. Similarly, military planners and field commanders constantly evaluate the movements of enemy forces as the latter react to friendly forces implementing their battle plans.”

OIF unfolded as agile, light (in size), and swift-moving, but also as an unpredictable and relatively risky traditional set-piece campaign. Washington’s apparent lack of alternatives, once it became clear (as happened well before the invasion started) that Ankara would not allow U.S. ground forces to traverse Turkey to create a “northern front” against Saddam’s forces, should have raised alarms about the underlying rigidity of the war plan. It had few if any “branches” – well-thought out alternatives that could be quickly implemented if the overall campaign did not unfold as predicted – both the combat and the logistics aspects. In short, there was little scope for give and take.

Less than two weeks into the invasion, there were signs that a number of the assumptions of the coalition war plan were wrong. Significantly, the “resistance” was evaporating, which meant there would be minimal help from Iraq’s security forces to impose and maintain order in the country once “major combat” ended. The politicians in Washington and the generals in the field may call it a different name, but for the troops and for Iraqi civilians trying to live in a society awash in guns, combat continues.

So with an unknown but substantial pile of Soviet/Warsaw Pact weapons and ammunition left over from Saddam’s era, what has the administration decided to do? Of course – send in U.S. arms and ammunition, $3 billion worth. This will allow the Iraqi army to retire and stockpile the Soviet gear – probably at minimally secure sites.

It is a form of manic madness – like seeing all of Shakespeare in two hours.

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