No Good Choices in Iraq (Updated)

There’s plenty of news on Iraq today. First, major attacks have declined in Iraq, apparently as a consequence of “the surge”:

The number of truck bombs and other large al-Qaeda-style attacks in Iraq have declined nearly 50% since the United States started increasing troop levels in Iraq about six months ago, according to the U.S. military command in Iraq.

The high-profile attacks — generally large bombs hitting markets, mosques or other “soft” targets that produce mass casualties — have dropped to about 70 in July from a high during the past year of about 130 in March, according to the Multi-National Force — Iraq.

Let me state the reverse of that coin: increased troop levels and a more involved approach to operations means that we’re taking more casualties. The Iraqi government has taken the opportunity of the space being given to them by the increased security to go on vacation.

The New York Times has arrived at the stunning conclusion that reducing our troop levels in Iraq might be worse than leaving them there:

As Americans argue about how to bring the troops home from Iraq, British forces are already partway out the door. Four years ago, there were some 30,000 British ground troops in southern Iraq. By the end of this summer, there will be 5,000. None will be based in urban areas. Those who remain will instead be quartered at an airbase outside Basra. Rather than trying to calm Iraq’s civil war, their main mission will be training Iraqis to take over security responsibilities, while doing limited counterinsurgency operations.

That closely follows the script some Americans now advocate for American forces in Iraq: reduce the numbers — and urban exposure — but still maintain a significant presence for the next several years. It’s a tempting formula, reaping domestic political credit for withdrawal without acknowledging that the mission has failed.

If anyone outside the White House truly believes this can work — that the United States can simply stay in Iraq in reduced numbers, while ignoring the civil war and expecting Iraqi forces to impose order— the British experience demonstrates otherwise. There simply aren’t reliable, effective and impartial Iraqi forces ready to keep the cities safe, nor are they likely to exist any time soon. And insurgents are not going to stop attacking Americans just because the Americans announce that they’re out of the fight.

Perhaps I missed it but I haven’t heard any White House representatives urging that course of action although I’ve heard plenty in the Congress making the argument not to mention the first-tier Democratic presidential aspirants.

Don’t miss this interview by Charlie Rose with Col. Gary Anderson on wargaming withdrawal from Iraq:

[coolplayer width=”480″ height=”380″ autoplay=”0″ loop=”0″ charset=”utf-8″ download=”1″ mediatype=””]
Charlie Rose Interviews Col. Gary Anderson

Hat tip: SWJ Blog.

The quick summary is that following a U. S. withdrawal from Iraq the Shi’ites will move to ethnically cleanse Sunni Arabs from everywhere in Iraq other than Anbar province, then they’ll probably start fighting amongst themselves. Iran will, no doubt, involve itself in the fracas. The Sunnis in Anbar will probably get assistance from the Saudis in rooting out al-Qaeda there. The Kurds will hope like hell that enough of an Iraq remains intact to discourage the Turks from crushing them. Cheery.

As I see it when taken together these news stories mean something like this. We can continue to make progress in stabilizing Iraq as long as we’re willing to take casualties in doing so. The Iraq government isn’t helping a great deal and the Iraqi police and military are coming along very slowly. Withdrawing slowly is an awful solution. And withdrawing completely is even worse—it creates a Lebanon-like situation. If there were better choices, I believe we’d already have taken one of them.


I believe I’ve identified one of the participants in the wargame exercise described above.

14 comments… add one
  • Unfortunately there seems to be broad agreement that the army can keep up this level only until spring. The surge will be followed by a slump. At that moment the balance of power begins to shift against us. Probably decisively.

    So it’s not really about our patience alone, it’s about the power we can project. If we’re making limited progress with 160k we’ll perhaps break even with 150k and lose ground with 140k. Further, there’s reason to suppose that the enemy is lying low in anticipation of this shift. In other words, the balance may already be worse than we realize.

  • Michael Yon has a somewhat different take.

  • Michael,

    The force levels in Iraq can only be sustained through use of Reserve and Guard forces, but Title X (IIRC) would have to be amended for that to happen since most of the Guard and Reserve deployed in 2004-2005. Currently there are, I believe, 20 BCT’s in Iraq which is about 1/2 of the entire active force. Now, consider that Army units are deploying for 15 months and staying home for at least 12, then add in that we still have forces in Korea, Afghanistan, etc., and it becomes apparent that the current deployed force levels are unsustainable past next spring.

    Now, I’m not sure what that has to do with “balance of power.” A single BCT has more combat power than all the militias in Iraq combined. The effect of troop reductions will be felt by the Iraqi’s and not so much the US forces. Of course much depends on how our forces are deployed – in COPS and neighborhoods among the people, as they are now, or ensconced on big FOBs as they were in 2005 & 2006.

  • Andy:

    I mean that if it takes ten guys to barely hold the lid down on the boiling pot, and you remove two guys, it becomes more likely that the pot will blow.

    Compounding the situation, (and wandering into very mixed metaphors) the insurgent forces may be playing possum, showing less muscle than they have available, awaiting the inevitable slump to carry out their own surge.

    Look at it from Sadr’s POV: the Americans will be ten feet tall for a limited period of time. So you stay out of their way because you know that at some point they’ll go back to being a more manageable 6 feet tall. You show less muscle than you have, you give the Americans the illusion of progress, you await the slump, then you surge your own forces. The balance of power shifts dramatically in your favor.

  • Ice:
    I read Yon regularly and he may be right.

    But here’s why I’m skeptical:

    1) I love that Sunnis are attacking Al Qaeda. I worry that their alliance with us is a “hold your nose” marriage of convenience — on both sides. The anti-Soviet alliance between the US and what became the Taliban is the historial model. The tribes may be looking to remove Qaeda elements who are, in effect, competing for power in Anbar in advance of a civil war with Shiites. They know we’re leaving sooner or later, so while we’re there why not get us to kill some foreigners for them?

    2) Unless the Sadrists and other militias are very stupid insurgents they’re withdrawing in the face of American strength. When the Americans draw down — as they must inevitably — the insurgents will advance. That would make our advances in Baghdad illusory.

    3) Basra. Four years of the Brits telling us things looked good in Basra. Now the Brits are hiding and the Shiites are warming up for an internecine war. If the south falls into chaos where does that leave us? Answer: at the wrong end of a very dangerous road out.

    4) I don’t think the Iraqi government has any interest in reconciliation. I think the Shiite government is hoping we’ll eliminate Al Qaeda and in general do more damage to their enemies than to them. The better to prevail in a civil war.

    5) Sorry, but I’ve been hearing for 4 years that the Iraqi army was standing up. I’ve seen Waiting for Godot. And someone would need to explain to me how, in the absence of political reconciliation, a mixed-sect army is going to hold together.

  • Michael,

    If Sadr gets his goat up again and wants to play with the US military, even if we’re down to 50k, he’ll still lose. We would actually welcome that. Sadr’s militia and the other militias and insurgent groups will never have the capability to openly stand against us. But what they will do is fight amongst themselves as they did in 2005-2006 culminating with the Samarra mosque bombing. Even the “slump,” as you term it, will probably not dip below the 100k mark.

  • I think that what Michael Yon is doing in Iraq is heroic, sincere, invaluable, irreplaceable, and anecdotal. I have no doubt that there are individual Iraqis and maybe even whole battalions of them doing selfless, heroic, and wonderful things to help create the new Iraq. I also think that there are a small proportion of Iraqis abetted by Iranians, Syrians, and Saudis who will do anything to prevent a free and democratic Iraq from emerging from the chaos.

    The question in my mind is not whether the American soldiers in Iraq are doing good things. I think they are. It’s not whether the Iraqi military is growing in strength and ability. I think it is. It’s whether we have the patience, tenacity, and will to take the actions necessary to leave our forces in Iraq long enough to keep the whole mess from really going off the rails. Watch the Charlie Rose interview I linked to.

  • Dave:

    I think it would be about those things if we had the forces to leave there. But we don’t. So the question of will becomes subordinated to the question of means.

    That naturally begs the question of whether sufficient will might not bring forth sufficient means. It could, of course, in theory. After all we put 9 million men in uniform when our population was half what it is today and our GDP was a fraction of current GDP.

    But no one, in any party, on either side, is talking about that kind of committment. It remains purely theoretical, not real world.

    So the real world choice involves maybe a sustainable 80k or so men in Iraq. If that were enough to prevail I’d argue for it. I don’t think it is. I think it’s enough to drag out the inevitable and leave us right where the Brits are today: hiding on base. I am ready to suggest we remain patient and take casualties if there is some prospect of a desirable outcome. But if all we’re doing is sending men to get their legs blown off for political cover then no, that’s got to stop.

  • Michael, you’ve neatly summarized my point in an inside-out sort of way. I think that 80,000 is probably not enough to prevail but it is enough to prevent our opponents from prevailing, either, and playing for a short-term draw is probably playing for a long-term victory. Note, too, that legislation to increase the size of our military (present law prevents our military from growing larger) is slowly making its way through Congress.

    I completely agree that if all that’s being accomplished is political cover then we should withdraw; I don’t think that’s all that can be accomplished.

    BTW, where we stand right at this moment is precisely why I opposed the invasion in the first place.

    I might add that, as long as we’re unwilling to invade Pakistan, going for the draw is probably the most we can accomplish in Afghanistan, too.

  • I think you and I are similarly frustrated, worried and pissed off. You from the perspective of having opposed this fiasco from the start, me from the perspective of having made the faulty assumption that we’d learned not to fight half-assed wars.

    I agree a draw is what we get in Afghnistan. And I’d add that sometimes the draw works out moderately well: the cold war, Korea. Of course the verdict is out . . . still! . . . on Korea. On the other hand, Afghanistan has some history, none of it encouraging to occupiers or even patrons. I wrote a post when Musharraf gave up the tribal regions asking “Did We Just Lose a War.” It’s very tough to win a war where the bad guy has a sanctuary. Like winning a boxing match where your opponent can call ‘time out’ whenever he likes.

    Another bit of history to consider is that we have in fact betrayed allies and friends in the past — the Baltics 1945, Hungary 1956, Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, the Shah, — and it wasn’t a disaster in every case. Well, not for us.

    I just don’t know about the 80k option. If I saw Maliki beavering away at a three way deal I’d support hanging in. But as many people have said: we can’t want it more than they want it.

  • The people of Iraq are watching. The people of Iraq are learning. The people of Iraq, if given the chance to vote again, will probably be removing a great deal of dead wood from their political system. Iraq has a parliamentary system. Elections can happen any time when there’s nobody able to form a government. The question is whether Iraqis have learned enough about their politicians to vote enough decent ones in so that the next government can make political reconciliation happen.

    And I don’t hear anybody on any side address this question in a realistic way. The political solution for deadlocked politics in a democratic republic is to elect new politicians who can get it done. That’s the real game, hold on militarily until the people have figured out how to elect decent leaders and those new leaders strike the compromise deal that’s necessary for us to be able to leave behind a viable Iraqi state.

  • TMLutas:
    Given a somehwat similar opportunity to vote our way out of an impending Civil War we did just the opposite. The Whigs gave way to the Republicans and the Democrats split north and south. We were a much more mature democracy and our differences were essentially economic with no significant sectarian or ethnic fault lines. And we weren’t occupied by a foreign power and impoverished by decades of misrule and sanctions.

  • Another bit of history to consider is that we have in fact betrayed allies and friends in the past — the Baltics 1945, Hungary 1956, Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, the Shah, — and it wasn’t a disaster in every case. Well, not for us.

    What a wonderfully cynical (and typical) comment. But I would posit that perhaps if we hadn’t abandoned the Shah (or at least, not abandoned Iran) we might not of had the difficulties we’ve had with Iran for TWENTY EIGHT YEARS. But I guess that’s just a quibble on my part….

  • It wasn’t cynical, Ice, it was mordant. I don’t minimize the crimes of my country, or its betrayals. You forget: I backed this war. And my anger now comes from our failure to make the effort necessary to win. It’s not cynicism, it’s bitterness.

    It’s also simple historic fact: sometimes we do fail or simply walk away, and survive. Our abandoned allies don’t always.

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