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.