Final Fantasy

There's a line from one of Johnny Cash's final songs that adequately sums up the new Iraq strategy proposal released yesterday by Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute. Go tell that long tongue liar, Johnny sings, go and tell that midnight rider; tell the rambler, the gambler, the back biter -- tell 'em that God's gonna cut 'em down.

Now, Kagan is no liar. As far as I know, he takes no midnight rides and has bitten no backs. But judging from his paper, he has quite a gambling problem. And while I can't presume to know what the Lord's plans for Fred Kagan are, if God doesn't cut him down, reality surely will. The plan, as released in preliminary form yesterday by AEI, is a tease. It's arranged as a 52-page bullet-pointed PDF -- easily translatable into the Pentagon's indigenous language of PowerPoint -- and as such, it makes assertions instead of arguments. Uncharitable as it may be to argue with bullet points, it's a necessary task when faced with such overwhelming and consequential shallowness of thought. The full report is to be released in January, raising the prospect that Kagan's proposal could dovetail with President Bush's anticipated "New Way Forward" plan to be released shortly after the New Year. As such, countering Kagan's fantastic plan has a certain urgency.

Kagan, in his writings for The Weekly Standard, has been a vociferous critic of outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the senior military leadership, whom he believes have jeopardized America's fortunes in Iraq through their insistence on both a relatively light military footprint and a rapid handover of security responsibilities to Iraqis. That makes it all the more painfully ironic that his plan is so Rumsfeldian: it seeks to essentially re-fight the invasion of Iraq; it substitutes wishful thinking for sound military strategy; it presumes that American military resources are both omnipotent and inexhaustible; and it's agnostic to the point of indifferent about what political settlement is to follow military operations.

First, Kagan's basic idea can be summed up in two words: "Security First." By this, he means that no possible acceptable outcome to the Iraq war can occur without an imposition of security. Furthermore, since the Iraqi Army is hardly up to the challenge, the only force imaginable that can impose security is the U.S. military. In the final analysis, Kagan proposes that once the U.S. military can impose security, some political settlement is possible. This, of course, runs up against one very potent obstacle: the sheer exhaustion of the Army and Marine Corps, many of whose forces are on their third combat tour in Iraq and operate equipment in dire need of replacement or repair. Also past the wheezing point is Americans' political desire to continue fighting a near-half-trillion dollar stalemate, as demonstrated by November's Republican meltdown at the polls.

Kagan's response is the blithest one possible. He writes (again, in bullet point form) that America has "1.4 million troops under arms [versus] 140,000 in Iraq." Well, then! Arguing for a troop infusion this week in the Standard, editor Bill Kristol and contributor Robert Kagan (Fred's brother) insisted that "yes, the troops exist," and that Fred Kagan has identified "where they would come from." In fact, what Kagan has offered is no more than a bewildered assurance that there simply must be more troops to send. What he neglects is that nearly all of the available combat force among the Army and Marines are either in Iraq now, recently returned from deployment (in most cases, not their first), or are preparing to return. Kagan settles on 50,000 troops as his magic number. Were he serious about actually deploying these forces, they could be roughly found in the combined forces stationed in Afghanistan and Korea. Yet, for some reason, he doesn't propose pulling out of either of those hot spots, despite warning of the catastrophe that losing in Iraq would augur.

Having conjured up 50,000 additional soldiers and marines, Kagan has the burden of suggesting what they should do. His answer is that they should first secure Baghdad, which he asserts can occur by fall 2007. The basis for his estimation receives not a word of explication. "Security" is less than a clear objective. What does "security" entail? Twenty attacks a day? Forty? None? Furthermore, three and a half years in Iraq has yielded a single proven course of action for providing security. As Tom Ricks of The Washington Post documents in his definitive book Fiasco, the Fourth Infantry Division under General Ray Odierno opted for a massive show of near-indiscriminate force to subdue its area of operations north and west of Baghdad, while the 101st Airborne Division under General David Petraeus opted for a lighter approach combined with economic initiatives for Iraqis in its area of operations around Mosul. Petraeus was vastly more successful. If Odierno and Petraeus represent opposite extremes, Kagan refuses to embrace any particular approach at all, seemingly under the sway of the fantasy that more troops automatically equals more security.

Yet Baghdad has received a substantial infusion of American forcse since mid-2006, for an offensive known as Operation Forward Together. And Baghdad became more dangerous, not less. After all, Iraq is in the throes of multi-tiered sectarian conflict, which Kagan recognizes -- threats to both the Iraqi government, the Iraqi people, and U.S. troops arise from al-Qaeda, Sunni insurgents, Sunni death squads, Shiite death squads, Shiite militias, and the Iraqi security forces themselves. And here's where Kagan's agnosticism on Iraqi politics will doom his plan. To send an additional 20,000 or so troops to simultaneously take on Sunni and Shiite forces in the capitol with no evident strategy is more likely to plunge Baghdad deeper into chaos while absolutely severing the factions in the Iraqi government from the population it allegedly represents.

Kagan's security-only strategy begins to make sense only if the United States is to reassert direct political control over Iraq -- in essence, bringing back the Coalition Provisional Authority. If this has occurred to him, he gives no evidence of it in his paper: at one point, he simply writes that the fall of the Iraqi government "may create [an] opportunity for [a] National Unity Government." Better for him to just call for a coup directly. How this will represent the "victory" he calls for is unclear -- yet another manifestation of the strategic lacuna infecting the war's dead-ender enthusiasts.

A more sensible assessment comes from Colonel Jim Pasquarette, commander of the 1st Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division. Pasquarette recently returned from a year-long tour outside of Baghdad, and I interviewed him on Monday. "It is beyond military means to fix the issues in Iraq right now," he told me. "Most everybody agrees there is not a military solution." Instead of building on that basic insight, which comes from direct experience, Kagan would subject ever more forces to die for an ever-elusive goal. Not once does he stop to consider whether his means only push his ends further into the horizon. Somewhere from beyond the grave, Johnny Cash is trying to warn Kagan, and he hasn't given up hope that Kagan will listen.

Spencer Ackerman is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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