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Surge vs. Insurgence

The New Iraq Policy: Escalation

by BRIAN M. DOWNING

Ever since the November elections and the Iraq Study Group report, both widely seen as rebukes of the present war policy, there has been expectation of a new course in Iraq. A new policy, part of which has been dubbed a "surge," is expected in January. Changes are thought to include expanding the overall size of the army and marines, raising troop levels in Iraq, increasing troop levels in Baghdad to reduce sectarian killing, and placing greater emphasis on training Iraqi forces. Change tacitly admits problems with the old policy, and that is at least somewhat promising. Nonetheless, serious problems in the proposed changes suggest themselves–sending in more US troops not the least of them.

More troops in Iraq might have helped suppress the insurgency three years ago, but it is unlikely to work now. There is considerable though not unanimous thinking that the very presence of US troops on Iraqi soil is the principal cause of the insurgency. Hence, increasing troop levels invites comparison with throwing gasoline onto a fire. It will strengthen the already widespread belief among Sunni Arabs that we launched the war to humiliate them, seize their resources, and build permanent bases with which to dominate the Middle East. Support for the insurgency will increase and, owing to the greater number of army and marine personnel, so will US casualties. More soldiers and marines, more hatred and casualties.

More troops will also incur the wrath of previously acquiescent but increasingly hostile Shi’as–and not only those loyal to al Sadr. Fear of American empire building has obtained a purchase outside the Sunni Arabs and could certainly spread and deepen, thus bringing the already unsteady coalition closer to dissolution and encouraging more and fiercer fighting between Shi’a and Coalition forces in the heretofore less violent south.

The plan to pacify Baghdad then spread out across the Sunni Triangle, like an oil spot on water, draws from venerable counterinsurgency doctrines developed in Malaya and Algeria. But the late hour presents problems for implementation in Iraq. An observer with even a modicum of local knowledge might wonder if an American army could ever win popular support in any Arab country, let alone in one that has been invaded for dubious reasons, had its government and military summarily dismissed, experienced the humiliation of Abu Ghraib, suffered hundreds of thousands of violent deaths, and been hurled into civil war. In short, winning hearts and minds in the Sunni Arab region, where memories of centuries-old western interventions still burn, is today impossible. But we Americans, if nothing else, are an optimistic and ingenuous and forgetful people.

Insurgent groups–Ba’athist, army, tribal, and religious–have demonstrated formidable adaptive skills over the years, altering tactics and locations with great craft. Concentrating our forces in Baghdad would offer the insurgents new opportunities. Efforts to pacify Baghdad will require withdrawing troops from surrounding areas, thereby allowing insurgents greater opportunities to recruit, train, and operate there. Over the last year or so, insurgent attempts to cut off the capital from energy and food have failed, but with fewer US troops on the supply routes on the periphery, the prospect of critical shortages will loom, requiring a pullout of many troops only recently deployed to Baghdad.

Perhaps most ominously, concentrating US troops in the capital could allow insurgents to begin a bloody and perhaps decisive campaign–the Battle of Baghdad. By bringing in fighters from the periphery and increasing attacks on Shi’a and US troops, insurgents can bring about vicious and sustained urban warfare, turning large parts of the city into rubble, as in Fallujah. Casualties on all sides could be horrific. Though the media have been reluctant to go out into heavily contested areas in al Anbar and elsewhere, raging battles just outside the Green Zone can be more easily covered. The images of destruction will invite comparisons–in Coalition countries and throughout the Muslim World–to Stalingrad and Hue.

Allocating more resources to building an Iraqi army will have adverse consequences, though foreseeable ones. Heretofore, efforts to build an Iraqi military have largely failed owing to tribal and sectarian fissures in the country, which preclude unit cohesion and smooth command. (Many insurgent units, conversely, are built within individual tribes, thereby avoiding inter-tribal animosities.) Sunni Arabs volunteer mainly for steady paychecks in dire times; they are despised, even by kith and kin, as traitors. The Iraqi army comprises mainly Shi’as, most of whom are more loyal to local leaders and militias than to the Maliki government. Accordingly, building an Iraqi army will almost certainly increase Shi’a power, endanger Sunni Arabs, and solidifying the latter’s already considerable hostility toward the national government and its foreign protectors.

Almost four years on in the war, the perseverance of our military personnel and the cohesion of combat units have been remarkable. Despite the hardships of increasing indifference at home and escalating war overseas, and despite repeated warnings that the military verges on collapse, enlistment and reenlistment goals have been met, albeit with a little jiggering and a lot of bonuses. Commitment to the mission and more importantly to fellow squad members remains stronger than the stress and privations, formidable though they are. Confidence in our troops’ commitment and dismissal of dire warnings were premises of the new policy of more troops in Iraq, which will necessitate longer tours there and shorter reorganization periods stateside, at least until more combat units are built in a year or so.

The new course is undoubtedly supported by arcane equations that to administration officials, whose experience with the military may charitably be called limited, will take on, if it has not already, the status of scientific truth. That’s Washington. But there is a breaking point, and our military may be nearing it. That’s war. Longer tours in Iraq, at a time of deep pessimism at home over the war, may lead to more insistent familial appeals and to softening enlistment and reenlistment rates. The latter may decline especially so among NCOs and junior officers who have already put in two or more tours in the Middle East. They might justly conclude that they have performed their duty–fully and ably–and that it is time for gentlemen now a-bed, who defer the call to duty by sporting a yellow ribbon on their cars, to step forward and walk point for the policies they tout at soirées that seldom receive GIs.

Unfortunately, there is nothing in the new war policy to elicit confidence in favorable change. The word "surge," evocative as it is of progress, confidence, success, and pleasurable adrenaline releases, undoubtedly came from the minds of artful policymakers and consultants, whose vehicles proudly display the aforementioned emblem of American quasi-patriotism. They trade in images, not reality; rhetoric, not soldiering; infighting, not fighting; statistics, not dead friends and family members. Their job now is to sell the nation on the surge–a policy that could just as easily be called "escalation," though they are astute enough to avoid that word and obedient enough to vilify anyone who does. There is little in American public life today to suggest they will fail.

BRIAN M. DOWNING is a veteran of the Vietnam War and author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at: brianmdowning@gmail.com

© BRIAN M. DOWNING