Surging to Disaster

In 1964, when Lyndon Johnson began escalating America's involvement in Vietnam, Undersecretary of State George Ball warned that "the party which seems to be losing will be tempted to keep raising the ante." In the summer of 1965, when the United States had less than 100,000 troops in Vietnam, Ball concluded that "humiliation would be more likely than the achievement of our objectives -- even after we have paid terrible costs." As Ball predicted, the United States eventually increased its troop levels to nearly 600,000 and suffered almost 60,000 deaths to no avail.

And so today we hear the latest call from the architects of the war in Iraq to raise the ante by surging our troop presence. With The Weekly Standard incessantly arguing for more troops, John McCain staking his presidential hopes on the idea, and the president now entertaining the possibility, it looks increasingly likely that the U.S. may double down by increasing its troop levels. The new plan, discussed last week in these pages by Spencer Ackerman, comes from Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute and Jack Keane, retired Vice-Chief of Staff of the Army. It calls for sending about 50,000 more troops, including five additional combat brigades, and placing the majority of them in the middle of the most violent neighborhoods in Baghdad, where they would occupy street corners and patrol neighborhoods. Kagan and Keane assert that their plan represents a change of strategy, as "[t]he U.S. military has never set itself the goal of establishing and maintaining security" for Iraqis. (Four years ago, if you had said the goal of the U.S. invasion should not be to kill the enemy but to create security, you would have been laughed, or shouted, out of AEI headquarters.)

But this plan is unrealistic and dangerous. Its title, "Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq" naively assumes that U.S. military power can still be used to create a stable unified democracy. In fact, sending more troops would not only fail to secure Iraq but also leave the United States less secure, by further degrading American ground forces.

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Those ground forces have already been stretched to the breaking point. Even without increasing troop levels, Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker testified that "At this (current) pace ... we will break the active component." As General John Abizaid testified in November, "the ability to sustain that commitment [of only 20,000 additional troops] is simply not something we have right now." Adding 50,000 troops would only exacerbate the situation.

Currently there are no active or reserve Army combat units outside of Iraq and Afghanistan that are rated as "combat ready." To ensure that troops fighting in Iraq have the equipment they need, units rotating out of Iraq have been leaving behind their equipment for units taking their place. The units that return home are so depleted that the Marines have been referring to this phase as the "post-deployment death spiral." The additional units sent to Iraq would not have enough body armor, radios, and armored vehicles or training (since without equipment, non-deployed units cannot train properly).

In an effort to equip these additional units, equipment would have to be taken from troops stationed in places like Korea and National Guard units in the United States. This would leave the country dangerously exposed, without sufficient force strength to deter potential adversaries from possible aggressive action.

In addition to the readiness challenges, sending more troops would cause tremendous personnel problems. To implement Kagan's plan the United States would have to break pre-determined deployment plans, extend tours, accelerate deployments, or mobilize National Guard and Reserve troops for the second time. This would have a disastrous impact on morale, worsening the current crises in recruitment and retention, leaving the ground forces undermanned and under-equipped for years to come.

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Even if you could wish away the practical difficulties, the fact remains that more troops would not be able to stabilize the situation in Iraq. Kagan's proposal calls for "bringing security to Iraqis," yet our presence itself acts as a magnet for and instigator of violence. U.S. troops stationed on street corners or patrolling violent Baghdad neighborhoods like beat cops would be sitting ducks for suicide bombers and attacks from insurgents dedicated to ending the U.S. occupation. U.S. forces operate in a manner that is too blunt or kinetic for effective counter-insurgency operations, let alone for policing a civil war. Small American units holed up in outposts in Baghdad would have to respond aggressively to insurgent attacks. Our increased presence would result in an even greater level of violence, further fueling the insurgency and strengthening the militias.

In 1972 the British had 42,000 troops in Northern Ireland (equivalent to the United States having 750,000 troops in Iraq) to mediate the simmering conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Yet, even with much greater intelligence and situational awareness then the United States has in Iraq (they all spoke English after all), the heavy-handed tactics of the British forces resulted in an escalation of violence. Today, the United States could put a soldier on every street corner in Baghdad, but unless there was a political reconciliation process it would not make a bit of difference. Through no fault of their own, our soldiers and Marines lack the training, language skills, and cultural knowledge to operate in the ways that are being proposed.

Additionally, this operation would severely undercut the Maliki government. Sending additional troops would be the equivalent of a no-confidence vote in that government and the Iraqi security forces, and could lead to the government's collapse. Many of Maliki's backers vehemently oppose any U.S. troop increase and would blame Maliki for failing to stop it. Opinion polls show that Iraqis want us out. Increasing our troop presence would only bolster the view that U.S. forces intend to remain as permanent occupiers.

The neoconservative architects of the war claim that those who oppose increasing the number of troops do not understand the implications of failure in Iraq. But they have it backwards. Those who opposed the war from the outset understood the difficulty and scope of the task at hand, while the war's architects are the ones only now coming to grips with the catastrophic implications of a possible civil and regional war. Kagan's plan reflects the same intellectual failings and operates along the same assumptions (especially, putting too much faith in limitless efficacy of U.S. military power) that were responsible for the United States invading with too few troops and without a realistic plan in the first place.

Instead of sinking U.S. forces deeper into Iraq based on a gamble we are sure to lose, those calling for escalation need to come to grips with the reality: there are no good options. The least bad option is a strategic redeployment of U.S. forces out of Iraq to other bases in the region and to shore up our undermanned forces in Afghanistan. This, combined with regional diplomatic initiatives and an Iraqi peace conference, could help stabilize Iraq and the region. More troops will not.

Lawrence Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information; he served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. Max Bergmann is a Research Associate at the Center for American Progress.

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