By lex, on January 8th, 2007

I’ve been agnostic on the issue of a troop surge that’s been kicked around Washington in the last several weeks, at least as it has been described thus far and at least partly because I’m ill-qualified to speak on the issue of ground force end strength. That hasn’t seemed to stop anyone else however, including various pundits and retired general officers, none of whom speak with any degree of consensus. With all that in mind I thought I might as well plunge right in.

On one end of the force strength spectrum is the inherently time-limited “double down” strategy – putting all the personnel chips on the table, in other words. Although this would seem to provide the greatest short-term chance for success, it smacks of solving 2004′s perceived problem – insufficient occupational troop strength in the post-major combat operations phase – with today’s already stretched resources.

If we faced the same problem we were facing after Bagdhad fell – a nationalist Ba’athist insurgency augmented by a growing al Qaeda/foreign jihadi threat – a double down strategy might well make more sense. But rather than stamping out an insurgency it seems to me that we are mostly straining to prevent committed sectarian partisans from slaughtering eachother’s constituents.

Quashing insurgencies takes time, often lots of it. Once we’d launched down an all or nothing path, the clock would be ticking – the American people would not support an open-ended committment of nearly all the country’s ground combat power even if such a deployment was morally sustainable in an all-volunteer force or strategically wise given our other global concerns.

On the other side of the force spectrum, the status quo of rotational deployments – although psychologically and materially draining – is nevertheless sustainable, at least over the medium term. But that strategy has not shown the kind of success its proponents hoped for, especially after last February’s Samarra Golden Mosque bombing by Sunni-allied terrorists finally goaded the Shi’a masses beyond endurance.

It is now clear that the only thing standing between the Sunni revanchists and Shi’a militants engaging in a bloody civil war, with regular lines and definable military objectives – and with the Kurds standing on the sidelines cheering for both sides to lose – is coalition military power: If either side attempted to field a force-in-being of sufficient mass to accomplish operational objectives it would be quickly be destroyed in detail by massed coalition air-ground power. But as we’ve seen, losing American lives to prevent Iraqi’s from killing each other comes attached to a difficult moral calculus: Exactly how many lives do we owe in forfeit to a people whose government we “broke”? At what point does their desire to murder each other outweigh our ability to stop them? And is the status quo, with all its attendent suffering, really the worst case for them or for ourselves? There are no simple answers to any of these questions, and the last is essentially unknowable.

But if doubling down is too risky and standing pat is unpalatable, what are the other options? The unveiling of the Iraq Study Group’s compendium of “realist” recommendations on the political stage has forced the administration to formulate at least a political response and now we are told to expect an augmentation of some 20,000 troops as a part of the President’s new strategy.

Now, I am no master of land combat and you can take my thoughts on troop strength in a part of the world I’ve only seen from 25,000 feet with a large grain of salt, but I was and am concerned that such politically induced baby splitting might in fact be worse than maintaining the status quo. It might be just enough to finally break the rotational force without being sufficient to suppress the bloodshed, in other words.

With that in mind, there are a couple of must-reads in the WSJ today, the first on the editorial page itself:

President Bush is set to announce his new strategy for Iraq this week, and the early signs are that it will include both more American and Iraqi troops to improve security, especially in Baghdad. We think the American people will support the effort, as long as Mr. Bush treats this like the all-in proposition it deserves to be.

If the stakes in Iraq are as great as Mr. Bush says–and we believe they are–then he should commit whatever forces are needed to achieve success. The public’s support for the Iraq campaign is waning, in major part because the casualties and expense have been producing no visible progress. Even with Democrats running Congress, Mr. Bush has a political window to pursue a more robust security strategy. The paradox is that the fastest way home from Iraq is a bolder commitment now.

That’s only a taste, and you really ought to read the whole thing before going on to today’s featured editorial (behind a subscription wall, alas) by Bing West and Eliot Cohen. The journals editors disagree with West and Cohen as to whether Nouri al-Maliki should be presented an ultimatum, but they are significantly silent on a point that I have raised before:

Sadr City cannot remain of limits. When the death squads know they are hunted, many will flee the city. Others will fight back. Intense violence, however, cannot sustain itself. American forces fought Mr. Sadr’s milita in April and August of 2004. In both cases, all-out war by the Mahdi Army petered out due to lack of logistics. In both cases, the Shiite population stood to one side. We created a monster by letting Mr. Sadr go free twice. We cannot make that mistake a third time.

Maliki’s Iraqi troops are now engaged in combat with Sunni insurrectionists in western Bagdhad, part of an ostensible campaign to clear the city of all militias. If his intention is to even-handedly pursue that strategy, it makes sense from both a military and domestic political perspective for him to first secure his rear by clamping down hard on Sunni neighborhoods before squaring off with Sadr’s Mahdi army. For that, he’ll probably need the help of an augmented coalition force, one sufficient to not merely clear the city’s warrens but also to hold, and then rebuild them.

If, on the other hand, this is just another campaign of sectarian point-settling, there will probably never be a political solution and perhaps the time will have come to pull back into cantonment – or else fortify both the eastern and western borders – and let them have their little civil war.

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, GWOT, Iraq, Lex, Neptunus Lex

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