December 27, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Iraq: To surge or not to surge?

Now that President Bush has acknowledged that U.S. forces are not winning in Iraq (see Washington Post), the obvious question is how much more of our precious military resources is he willing to devote to attain a reasonably favorable outcome. It has just been announced that one brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division will be sent to Kuwait, pending possible deployment in Iraq. That strikes me as an effort to buy time while he rethinks his war strategy. The Washington Post reported that the Joint Chiefs oppose adding large numbers of troops to Iraq, however, preferring to focus on strengthening the Iraqi army in hopes of achieving some stability. Most Pentagon officers "think that there is no purely military solution for Iraq."

In today's Washington Post, Jack Keane and Frederick W. Kagan call for at least 30,000 additional combat troops lasting 18 months or more. In a sense, they are correct in that the incremental increases that have been suggested thus far would hardly make a dent in the situation. Their confidence that raising troops levels by X thousand will be sufficient to achieve victory seems wildly misplaced, however. Likewise, if the insurgents knew that we would only stay for an extra year or two, they could simply wait us out. This highlights a fundamental strategic asymmetry in Iraq: The insurgents and militia forces who are engaged in terrorism against our forces and against each other have a much greater stake in the outcome than we do. For the brutal warlords like Moqtada al-Sadr and others like him, it's a winner-take-all situation with a huge potential payoff. In contrast, it is doubtful that a majority of Americans are willing to make a strong enough commitment, and endure enough sacrifice, to prevail. Somehow Keane and Kagan seem oblivious to the political will factor on the home front. The number of Americans who favor a major escalation of our military effort is under 30 percent. I wonder if the authors are really serious, or if they are simply positioning themselves as hawks like Sen. John McCain is?

That is parallel to the argument of Victor Davis Hanson, who recently wrote that the only way for a surge to yield a battleground success is if the rules of engagement are widened. True, but the psychological preconditions for a brutal crackdown on insurgent strongholds does not presently exist. I have often wondered why we didn't send in a couple squadrons of A-10 Thunderbolts and a few AC-130s to lay waste to rebellious neighborhoods. Back when we had the initiative, such an aerial offensive might have subdued the resistance in the Sunni Triangle, but I think the time for that has long since passed.

The fundamental obstacle to implementing any such "surge," however, is the simple fact that we are quickly running out of combat-ready forces. Many of our soldiers and units are about to embark on their third tour of duty in Iraq, which is far more hardship than most human beings could endure. That is why Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker is calling for a steady increase in the size of the Army, by 7,000 additional troops a year for the next few years, coupled with corresponding increases in the National Guard and Reserves. See Washington Post. The fact that such an expansion was not undertaken in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks constitutes one of the biggest mistakes of the Bush administration, I think.

In Sunday's Outlook section of the Washington Post, John Kerry heaped predictable scorn upon Bush for "refusing to flip when it's obvious that your course of action is a flop." It's a cute turn of phrase, I suppose. He is quite correct to warn against throwing good money and human resources after bad, but Kerry is hardly the best person to make such an argument. His criticism of Bush's stubbornness is well-taken (and hardly novel), but he lost me by saying that the only way we can achieve stability in Iraq is by setting "a deadline to redeploy our troops." He just doesn't get it. Deadlines will only make things easier for our adversaries. We will have much greater chance for success by keeping them in the dark about our plans. Kerry makes the same mistake many in the Bush administration do: Presuming, falsely, that our actions are what will determine the ultimate outcome in Iraq. Wrong! The situation is now largely in the hands of the Iraqis themselves, for better or worse.

The essential purpose of any surge would be to regain the tactical initiative. The only way I would even consider supporting an increase in troop levels in Iraq is if the forces were redeployed from Germany. We still have two divisions stationed there, with no conceivable mission other than preparing to redeploy to some crisis spot in Eurasia. Guess what? We are already in a crisis spot. The worst thing of all would be to commit additional forces just to postpone the inevitable, "running out the clock," so that Bush will not bear the blame for defeat, if it comes to that.

What worries me about Bush is that he does not seem to grasp the potential political leverage that he has with our troops in Iraq. His past commitments to stay as long as the Iraqi government wants us there basically let them off the hook for taking more responsibility. That is the opposite of the situation we are trying to create. Is he just naive? In Vietnam, the primary justifications for continued military effort was to maintain U.S. credibility among our allies, so they would not doubt our commitment to come to their defense in case of attack. That backfired, as the Vietnam campaign eventually undermined U.S. credibility, as nearly everyone saw that it was a losing cause. In Iraq, the most important thing Bush needs to do is to redefine our objectives in such a way that success becomes a realizable prospect.

More on ISG report

Daniel Drezner scrutinizes the suggestion from the Iraq Study Group that we redeploy our forces from the Arabian Peninsula countries to transport assault ships offshore, to neutralize the grievance that the presence of our forces is what inflames Arab-Islamic extremism. Leaving aside the question of whether we have enough ships for that, Drezner correctly notes that such a policy would not necessarily end things, because Osama bin Laden and other Islamo-fascists would almost certainly up their demands. Also, the friendly regimes in the region such as Qatar or the U.A.E. would be subject to intimidation from radical Islamic forces.

Many observers on the right (such as Baseball Crank) are still recoiling at the ISG, deriding their suggestions as retreat or surrender. I think that's way off base. (!) The ISG members share the objective of defeating the terrorist threat and President Bush's initial reaction seemed rather dismissive, which was unfortunate, but I think the ISG's overall course of deliberate, gradual scaling back of our combat forces in Iraq is appropriate. Contrary to what some editorialists have asserted, however, their recommendations should not be considered as an all-or-nothing package. Some tinkering may be necessary. Those who bear governing responsibility usually have a superior perspective to that of outsiders such as the elder statesmen James Baker and Lee Hamilton. (The ISG report can be downloaded free from the U.S. Institute for Peace.)

The Heritage Foundation was right to criticize the Iraq Study Group's argument that stability in Iraq depends on resolving the Israel-Palestine dispute. That is based on the widespread faulty premise that the grievances of extreme fascist-type political movements should be taken at face value, hoping that they might be "appeased."

In the end, however, the decision about whether to increase our troops levels in Iraq or begin to reduce our commitment is an executive decision, based on secret information to which legislators and outside experts are not privy. If Mr. Bush is looking more weary these days (as David Ignatius observes), it's because he has a lot weighing on his mind. It's all up to him... He could use our prayers in making a wise decision.