January 11, 2007

A Trickle - Not a Surge - and Its Imminent Failure

[Click on the cartoon to go to the original image, and to visit the Ted Rall archive.]

On Wednesday, President George W. Bush unveiled his plan to escalate the number of American troops in Iraq. That plan calls for deploying an additional 17,500 men and women to Baghdad and 4,000 more to al Anbar province, where they will work to crack down on Sunni insurgents. Roughly two brigades will deploy immediately, with the remainder shipping out in the coming months, but while there had been early indications that he might name a deadline for turning over security responsibliity to Iraqis, the "surge" - as the White House insists on calling the escalation, despite little evidence that such a term is in common military usage - has been left open-ended.

Until recently, the focus of the Bush escalation plan has been on putting more troops in Baghdad, under the belief that securing the capital will force the rest of Iraq into line. Splitting American forces between Baghdad and al Anbar is more than just a new wrinkle however, since diverting almost one-fifth of the additional forces to al Anbar violates the core military principle of force concentration for operations shoring up existing deployments. The motivation for the split is likely a political accommodation to address the fact that American forces in Baghdad will be working to restrain, disarm and pacify Shiite militias - especially those led by Muqtada al-Sadr - that represent the most serious challenge to the remaining, faint hope for a political settlement. Concentrating "surge" forces against the Shia might potentially be construed as pro-Sunni intervention, and sending troops to al Anbar to take on Sunni insrugents there is a concession to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other leading Shia.

Further, and confirming that the idea of a "surge" has never been anymore than a marketing campaign, deployment of the 21,500 new troops to Iraq will happen not all at once, but gradually over what is likley to be months. While there is some dark humor in noting that advocating a "trickle" sports none of the élan carried by pushing for a "surge," the sad reality is that whatever "shock" benefit to the military situation in Iraq there might have been is now rendered non-existent. If there was ever any argument - and there has been - about whether the proper term for Mr. Bush's "new" plan was "escalation" rather than "surge," this should end it.

Having never previously been constrained by reality, it is unsurprising - although nonetheless horrifying - that President Bush continues to ignore it. While a recent USA Today/Gallup poll indicated that 61 percent of Americans oppose a short-term troop increase, only twelve percent advocated sending additional military personnel to Iraq on anything longer than a temporary basis. Mr. Bush, meanwhile, has made yet another open-ended commitment, merely wagging his rhetorical finger at the Iraqis, admonishing, "If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people, and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people." Sadly, and apparently unrealized by our commander in chief, those dire consequences have already come to pass, irrespective of his own 26% approval rating on Iraq.

And that brings us to the crux of the issue: While escalation has been touted as a military strategy, it is clearly a political plan designed for domestic consumption.

No one with any direct military experience in Iraq advocates increasing troop levels, and neither does anyone with extensive international diplomatic experience. Instead, the author of the "surge" strategy is housed at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute, home base for Richard Perle, who was one of the staunchest and most bellicose advocates for the initial invasion. As Lt. Gen. Robert G. Gard, Jr. of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation wrote:
An obvious weakness of this plan is that focusing on securing Baghdad could simply push insurgents out of the city and into the surrounding provinces of al Anbar, Diyala, and Salah ad Din. Since the force ratios required to protect civilians in these sparsely populated regions are beyond American capacity, the U.S. will get stuck playing provincial “whack-a-mole”: insurgents will be suppressed in one area only to reemerge somewhere else.

For evidence that a troop escalation will probably fall short, just look at recent history. Besides Operation Together Forward, which failed to secure Baghdad during fall 2006, the U.S. added at least 10,000 additional soldiers within a single month on three previous occasions in Iraq: March 2004 to prepare for the Iraqi Governing Council signing the interim constitution; December 2004 to prepare for electing the National Assembly; and October 2005 to prepare for the constitutional referendum.

These three “surges” all turned out the same: no effect the first month, drastically increased violence the second month, and a temporary reduction in insurgent activity the third month. The data suggest that a troop surge is not a permanent fix - it is a renewed military commitment that will likely catalyze more violence against both American soldiers and Iraqi civilians during the initial and transition phases. In layman’s terms, things will get worse in Iraq and there is no guarantee they will ever get better.
Worse than the strategic and tactical implications of the President's scheme however, are the political realities on the ground. Peter Galbraith, also of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation describes it as follows:
At this late stage, [even] 30,000 additional troops cannot make a difference. U.S. troops are ill prepared to do the policing that is needed to secure Baghdad (among other problems, they lack language skills). But, the fundamental problem is political. Bush continues to imagine that Nouri al-Maliki heads a national unity government. Everyone else understands he is a sectarian Shiite politician allied with the Shiite militias and bent on vengeance.

The surge strategy depends on the Iraqi police and military eventually taking over from the U.S. forces. This in turn assumes that Iraq’s army and police are somehow exempt from the country’s sectarian and ethnic divisions and can therefore be neutral guarantors of public safety. But, of course, Iraq’s security forces are as polarized as the country itself, with the important distinction that the police and army have weapons and are trained to use them. The Shiite police include the death squads while the Sunni police are insurgent sympathizers or the insurgents themselves. The army is not quite as bad, but still, most battalions are more loyal to their religious or ethnic leaders than to a civilian chain of command that is itself mostly sectarian. The Saddam execution illustrated just how pervasive is the militia penetration of Iraq’s security services. Since the surge proponents have no idea how to make Iraq’s police and army Iraqi, they simply pretend the problem doesn’t exist.
Although there appears little political appetite to cut off funding for the President Bush's adventurism in any way that could potentially be perceived as failing to "support the troops," it is crucial that every effort be made to do so. While the results will speak for themselves, encouragingly, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi stated the following in response to the Mr. Bush's speech:
In the days ahead, Congress will exercise its Constitutional responsibilities by giving the President's latest proposal the scrutiny our troops and the American people expect.

We will demand answers to the tough questions that have not been asked or answered to date. The American people want a change of course in Iraq. We intend to keep pressing President Bush to provide it.

Ultimately, the question is this: Is there actually any such thing as "Iraq" anymore, or has it ceased to exist as a nation, leaving only Sunnis, Shia and Kurds? If that is the case - and it appears increasingly that it is, then any timetable - like any surge - is irrelevant, and any commitment of American lives to the quagmire of Iraq is unconscionable.

Keith Olbermann has more on the history of President Bush's credibility:

No comments: