Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Urge to Surge

As expected — indeed, as copiously leaked in advance — President Bush tonight announced his intention to commit an additional 20,000+ troops in Iraq. The mission they will undertake is to take and hold the areas of Baghdad and al Anbar governate from which the largest numbers of insurgent, sectarian, and/or terrorist attacks have originated. They will be attached to Iraqi units, who will take the lead in the fight, and the Prime Minister of Iraq has committed to providing those Iraqi troops, as well as giving the political clearance to allow the combined Iraqi-American forces to pursue the enemy. President Bush reached this decision in defiance of the views of the Iraqi people, the American people, the Congress, the Iraq Study Group, the rank-and-file military, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the generals in charge of the Iraq theater. He failed to enunciate a clear military objective for this operation, and failed to demonstrate that this "surge" will in any way hasten the departure of American forces from Iraq.

On the surface, it sounds good: send in an extra contingent of "cops" to lock down Baghdad long enough for the Iraqi government to gain the strength to actually govern Iraq, from al Anbar to Kurdistan to al Basrah. It promises the security that the people of Baghdad desperately need in order to begin rebuilding their city and their national economy. The great American eagle will shelter the newly hatched Iraqi democracy, just long enough for it to grow big enough to fly on its own. Problem is, this isn't a Disney movie.

Baghdad is a city of about 6 million people, even accounting for the thousands who have fled the violence. In peacetime, a police force of 50,000 would probably be more than enough to preserve order, but we're not talking about preserving order. We are talking about establishing order out of mayhem. A small number of provocateurs can keep the violence boiling, since an attack on one group generates reprisals, which in turn generate reprisals, which generate more reprisals. Shia death squads murder Sunnis, Sunni death squads murder Shia, and other factions murder their rivals. The insurgency was given time to establish itself, and the "government of national unity" has not yet lived up to its billing. The Sunnis in particular have felt that the political playing field is tilted against them; of course, given their disproportionate share of power under Saddam, absolute equality would still feel like privation. In order to pacify Baghdad, it will be necessary to pacify the entire city at once and neutralize the death squads and private armies of all factions. Putting it in those terms, even the entire American force of 150,000, even taking second to the lead of 18 brigades of Iraqi forces, will not bring quiet to the streets and markets of Baghdad.

The only way to establish order in Baghdad is for the Iraqi people to reach the point that the great majority of them are willing to put that goal above their sectarian rivalries, and back up the goal with concrete and coordinated action. Iraq needs an army and a police force that is Iraqi, not Sunni Iraqi, Shia Iraqi, Baathist Iraqi, or Kurdish Iraqi. Iraq needs a government that has the trust and loyalty of all of segments of society. Reforming the de-Baathification laws is an important step, because it will allow some of the experienced bureaucrats, police, and military commanders, many of whom were members of the Baath Party out of necessity rather than out of any personal loyalty to Saddam, to return to their posts. Reassembling the apparatus of government and of law and order is a daunting task, but building it from scratch is an impossibility, especially in the midst of a civil war. The Iraqis need to figure out how best to use their resources — human talent as well as petroleum — to build the foundation of a secure, prosperous, and (hopefully) democratic society.

President Bush, in his speech tonight, outlined a military mission that is ill-defined, ill-considered, and open-ended. How will we know that the mission — even just this much more limited mission — has been accomplished? At what point will we decide that it has failed to achieve its objective? What is the exit strategy? How can we expect our military, especially our military reserves, to sustain this surge of troop levels when many units are already on their third or even fourth deployment in Iraq? On television tonight, a soldier mentioned some alarming statistics. Among soldiers in Iraq, the suicide rate tripled from 2005 to 2006. Divorce is epidemic. Post-traumatic stress disorder will haunt thousands of these soldiers for years. And the bottom-line question remains: what are those soldiers there to accomplish? They're going to be policemen in a city in which, for the most part, they don't speak the language, don't have the trust of the locals, and don't know the neighborhoods or the neighborhood leaders, much less the nuances of alliances and rivalries. By all accounts, the mission on which President Bush is predicating this surge is more political than military, and that's a recipe for failure from both perspectives.

On the domestic political front, President Bush didn't go nearly far enough in taking responsibility for the mistakes made so far. It wasn't the generals on the ground, it was the ideologues in the White House and the Pentagon who decided that we didn't need to secure the capital in 2003, after our blitzkrieg to Baghdad. It was those same ideologues who gave us absurd predictions about how easy and cheap and quick this war would be. On Saint Patrick's Day, the Iraq War will have lasted as long as the American Civil War, making it — along with our ongoing war in Afghanistan — among our longest-lasting military operations. So much for "I doubt it will last six months."

The Congress will hold hearings on the President's plans in the coming days. The Democrats need to have the courage to not only ask the difficult questions, but to demand coherent answers. What exactly is the mission? How long do we expect it to take? How will it accelerate the substantive withdrawal of American forces from Iraq?
How can we be confident that we won't have to send in even more troops? What will we do if the Iraqi government is unable to muster 18 brigades to hold the capital? What measures are we taking to earn the trust of the average citizen in Baghdad?

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