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Posted by on Sep 15, 2006 in At TMV | 8 comments

The “More Troops in Iraq” Option considered

This last week, two of the most prominent conservative editors, Rich Lowry of the National Review and William Kristol of the Weekly Standard, co-authored an important op-ed piece in the Washington Post, calling for an increased US troop presence in Iraq. Much of their logic was, in my opinion, quite sound. Namely:

* The Iraqi army has been utterly useless by itself in maintaining security

* When American troops arrive in a hot spot, things calm down; when US troops leave, things get bad again

* While the solution is ultimately political, violence has a radicalizing effect on the population, driving Shi’ites into the hands of radicals and Sunnis into the hands of Al Qaeda.

* Failure to change the course will lead to defeat

* American troops are more trusted (in some Sunni areas) than Iraqi troops because Americans don’t come in death squads like the Sadrist and Badr Corps-infested Iraqi army and police

To quote Lowry and Kristol:

“Those neighborhoods intensively patrolled by Americans are safer and more secure. But it is by no means clear that overall troop numbers in Baghdad are enough to do the job. And it is clear that stripping troops from other fronts risks progress elsewhere in the country.
The bottom line is this: More U.S. troops in Iraq would improve our chances of winning a decisive battle at a decisive moment. This means the ability to succeed in Iraq is, to some significant degree, within our control. The president should therefore order a substantial surge in overall troop levels in Iraq, with the additional forces focused on securing Baghdad.”

Like I said, there is some logic to this. The transfer of authority – civil and military – to the Iraqis has failed to create an environment of security and a functioning government. The government in the Green Zone is increasingly irrelevant to events happening outside the bombproof walls. Moderate forces that once encouraged Shi’ites to restrain themselves from avenging Sunni acts of terror have yielded to radical elements hell-bent on revenge and sectarian murder. The only viable power broker is the United States. And there are far too few American troops to keep the peace.

While I agree with much of the premise, I see three big problems with this op-ed. First, the authors never indicate how many more troops they require. Are we talking another division? Two divisions? Are we talking about doubling the entire US force, or tripling it? Lowry and Kristol say that they would be deployed in Baghdad. But what about Anbar? What about the Sadrists who hold sway in Shi’ite towns outside Baghdad? Failing to put numbers on this detracts from the overall argument.

Second, where are the troops going to come from. In a recent response to the Kristol/Lowry piece, Larry Korb and Peter Ogden note that we simply don’t have enough troops in our military to make a difference. Most of the soldiers we have in our military are “not ready for combat.” The quality level of enlistees has dropped as the Pentagon lowered entrance standards and made it easier to pass bootcamp. Without a draft, it’s hard to see these new troops helping out in Baghdad.

A third, and more ominous reason why Kristol and Lowry are wrong is their basic claim that US troops can pacify the regions or neighborhoods in which they occupy. Surely, there are some success stories, such as Tall Afar. But the recent bloodletting over the last two weeks shows that Baghdad is as violent as ever, even with US troops patrolling. There’s really no way to know if the violence is occurring in areas under US patrol, or if it’s shifting to adjacent neighborhoods. But given the willingness of US officials to claim a drop in the August murder rate that, frankly, was not warranted by the facts, I’m a bit dubious of DoD claims that some Baghdad neighborhoods are under control. The problem is that the US mission in Baghdad is very different than the mission in Anbar. Whereas in Anbar, the goal was to target and destroy Sunni insurgent cells, the Baghdad mission requires the prevention of sporadic gangs from killing each other in streets and alleys where Americans don’t know who is who. Communal war is even harder to stop than guerrilla insurgency. It’s akin to police officers trying to stop domestic crime: it’s very dangerous and usually fruitless.

So, while Kristol and Lowry make a persuasive case that the Iraqis have been unable to keep security on their own – not that that was a great revelation – their option for troop increases may be unrealistic, and ultimately, unsuccessful.

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  • Mikkel

    Elrod, my main problem with any of the solutions is that they never take into account that much of the violence in Baghdad (and nearly all of it in the south when it breaks out — which it’s doing increasingly often) is political. Many times the factions fighting both have fidelity to members in the government. What is the best way to use the military when there is no clear “good guy” and when all (five or six) sides are responsible for the violence to various extents?

  • C Stanley

    First, I have to say that I think Kristol and Lowry should have used pen names to get this opinion out. Right now, their opinions are certainly not likely to sway anyone!

    On this:

    So, while Kristol and Lowry make a persuasive case that the Iraqis have been unable to keep security on their own – not that that was a great revelation – their option for troop increases may be unrealistic, and ultimately, unsuccessful.

    That is a very eloquent summary of the concerns. On the unrealistic and untimely parts, I agree. The third point, though, I’m not so sure about, and I think it is the crux of the decision. Before we even consider how many additional troops and where they would come from, I think it’s essential to analyze whether more troops leads to better chance of success or not. If the answer is no, then the other two questions become moot.

    I’m not sure I agree with your conclusion that the chance of success with higher troop levels isn’t there. You seem to base this on the situation so far in Baghdad, but to me the question is, did we sufficiently raise the troop level there to accomplish the mission? If we increased troops but by too small a margin, then that isn’t an adequate test of whether more US troops can be a successful strategy. I’m not saying that I take the opposite position (that more troops would definitely work), but I’m not ready to say that they won’t, either.

    Where I definitely agree is that it is very difficult to assess the situation because of muddled reporting.

  • Let’s assume for a moment that more troops would solve the problem. Well, there are no more troops.

    My unit is 25% IRR troops already. That’s 25% involuntarily recalled former servicemembers.

    Many of the soldiers I talk to are here on their second or third tour. Many of those are not going to reenlist. I’m considering not reenlisting due to the less than professional environment I’ve found myself subjected to (yes, I volunteered).

    So where are these troops going to come from? A draft?

  • chester

    At this point anyone who listens to Kristol has to be a fool.

  • grognard

    Every body found in the street means another family bent on revenge. I thought higher troop levels would help years ago, not now. Too much damage has been done that can’t be repaired. If we really wanted to reduce sectarian violence we need to provide secure transportation for refugees too camps in safe areas. The sight of that would make the administrations security efforts look futile but it is the only way to keep people out of harms way and reduce the cycle of revenge attacks.

  • Elrod

    C Stanley,
    You might be right in the end that the places where troop levels have increased, violence has decreased. Gen. Caldwell made that point today, in fact. He said that while violence is flaring up across Baghdad, it hasn’t spiked in the “focus areas.” I have no idea if he’s telling the truth or not. The reporting on death statistics over the last month leaves me skeptical. I’d guess that there IS some drop in violence – at least temporarily. But the “focus areas” are simply not replicable. It’s like when they ban vehicular traffic during major religious festivals. Sure, it stops the violence. But it also destroys all economic and social life. And it’s impossible to keep up.

    Baghdad is a huge city. To replicate Forward Together across Baghdad, we’d need at least two more divisions for Baghdad alone. And even then, the outcome isn’t guaranteed over time.

  • BeYourGuest

    If the solution always was (and is) to send more troops, the problem always was (and is) where to get them from.

    A draft is a political non-starter these days. Maybe it always was.

    And yet the appeal of wishful thinking is timeless.

    At some point, reality has got to re-assert itself. The longer it takes, the worse it’s going to be.

    How did these guys get to be the ones who were “serious” about national security?

  • Kim Ritter

    I agree with Grognard- another reason we have not wanted to use overwhelming force is that we were sensitive to the anti-American sentiment that it fosters in that part of the world. OSB was able to garner support by pointing to our presence in Iraq and portraying us as imperialistic invaders (and infidels of course) who want to alter the way of life in the ME. A lot of moderates in the ME look at what we are doing in Iraq and agree with him.

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