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Why, in Truth, There is No Surge

The Bland Corporation

President Bush’s “surge” in Iraq has generated much controversy over the last six months, but opponents of the surge invariably seem to accept that there really is a surge. The purpose of this article is not to examine whether the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, or whether a military victory is still plausible, or what force levels might be required for such a victory. The goal here is to examine the question that few, if any, people have asked – Is there really a surge? That is, are current and projected force levels in Iraq significantly higher than levels that were inadequate in the past?

The United States has 160,000 troops in Iraq, compared to 132,000 in the middle of January. However, US troop levels in January were only slightly above the low point of the entire war and do not constitute a reasonable basis for comparison. The previous high point for US troop levels was 160,000 in November and December of 2005, so the current levels do not even constitute a new peak. Of course, the previous “surge” was sustained for only two months, whereas the current “surge” is expected to last longer. How much longer? The Army and Marine Corps can probably sustain current force levels for another 6 to 13 months. After that, force levels will decline rapidly unless there is a major increase in the number of involuntarily mobilized reservists. The previous peak for a six-month period was 148,000, from December 2004 through May 2005. The previous peak for a 13-month period was 146,900, from December 2004 through December 2005. Hence, current US troop levels are only eight to nine percent above the highest levels that were previously sustained for a meaningful amount of time. It is doubtful that this qualifies as a “surge.”

The situation gets much worse if we factor in the “Coalition of the Willing.” There are 11,500 allied troops in Iraq. The number of allied troops peaked at 25,000 in October 2003, and was as high as 23,000 in November and December of 2005. Since the end of 2005, the number of allied troops has declined 18 months in a row, by an average of about 640 troops per month, and is on track to reach zero near the end of the Bush administration. The number of allied troops is presently at its lowest point of the entire war.

The combined number of coalition troops in Iraq – American and allied – is 171,500. This number is noticeably below the previous peak of 183,000, which occurred in November and December of 2005 (the time of the last Iraqi elections). Of course, this previous peak lasted only a couple of months. What about long-term trends? Let us make two assumptions. The number of US troops in Iraq will remain constant for the next 6 to 13 months, and the number of allied troops will decline at 600 per month for the next 13 months. This rate of decline is slightly below the average rate for the last 18 months. With these two assumptions, the number of US and allied troops in Iraq will average 169,700 for the next six months and 167,540 for the next 13 months. By comparison, the previous six-month peak was 172,380 and the previous 13-month peak was 170,300. Hence, the current and projected US/allied troop levels in Iraq for the next 6 to 13 months will be below levels that were inadequate in the past.

There is no surge.

Of course, factors such as strategy, leadership, training, organization, and equipment are also important, perhaps more so than minor changes in troop levels. However, the burden should be on supporters of the “surge” to explain what these improvements are and why they are great enough to turn the tide.

The United States is at least 21,000 troops short of anything that would marginally qualify as a surge. With 21,000 more US troops, total coalition troop strength in Iraq would probably stay about five percent above the late 2005 peak for the next couple of months, and about ten percent above the previous 6-month and 13-month peaks for the next 6 to 13 months. Unfortunately, maintaining 181,000 US troops in Iraq for the next 13 months would require the mobilization of several hundred thousand additional reservists. Such a mobilization would increase the costs of the war by at least $5 billion per month, and would impose other economic burdens by taking hundreds of thousands of people away from their civilian jobs. Because this additional mobilization would be imposed on reservists who do not want to be in Iraq, there might also be a serious adverse effect on military recruiting and retention, which could force a return to the draft.

In other words, a REAL SURGE would force the president to place the Global War on Terror ahead of the Greedy War on Taxes, and to ask the United States to behave like a country that is at war. There is no sign that Mr. Bush is willing to do either.

Herman Mineshaftgap of the Bland Corporation is the nom de plume of a senior official in the government or a think tank