Bush takes a do-over

The upcoming escalation…. excuse me, “augmentation”… of 21,500 US troops in Iraq has been reduced to political football. Most of the press concentrates on the political battle, which begs the question — is Bush right? Is there evidence that additional troops at this time will make some significant difference? Bush defined the strategy of the surge during an interview with Jim Lehrer on January 16, 2006:

Well, the – the purpose of the strategy, Jim, is to settle Baghdad down, is to secure neighborhoods, is to give the Iraqi people a chance to live in peace, which is what they want. And the way to do that is to send troops into neighborhoods to clean the neighborhoods of insurgents and terrorists, and it’s to hold the neighborhoods. And the problem in the past, there weren’t enough troops to hold the neighborhoods after neighborhoods had been cleared. And then to build is to have a political process behind it that will work.

But will an additional 21,500 troops make such a large difference?

The surge won’t result in the largest force we’ve had in Iraq during the insurgency. At present — or at least at the end of November, 2006, — 158,000 troops were in Iraq, 140,000 Americans and an additional 18,000 Coalition troops. An additional 21,500 troops will result in a total of 179,000. But twelve months ago, in November and December of 2005, there were 183,000 troops, including 160,00 Americans and 23,000 coalition troops — the highest troop strength in Iraq since the start of the war. What can we expect to accomplish with 179,000 troops that we could not do one year ago with 183,000? (Numbers are from the Sabin Center for Middle East Policy.)

President Bush claims the additional forces will allow us to clean up Baghdad neighborhoods and then to hold them. (Five of the additional brigades — 17,500 troops — will be assigned to Baghdad.) In the past, insurgents moved into cleared neighborhoods as soon as troops withdrew.). But how long can we hold them? Can we really believe Iraq forces will be capable of taking over this task in anything like a reasonable amount of time?

The President seems to thinks so — requiring Iraq to meet benchmarks is part of the President’s plan. But this might be an overly optimistic basis for bringing more American troops into danger. As the Iraq Study Group pointed out, the Iraqi military forces have significant problems: shortages of equipment; troops who refuse to deploy outside their own area of the countries; and a readiness level that’s often at 50% or less.

Does the threat of a US pullout mean anything to Iraqi leaders? The Iraqi parliament is split on the question (Iraq is in a civil war, let’s remember), the President and Vice-President of Iraq seem ambivalent at best, and the Iraqi people just want the US out. Will the threat of a US pullout energize the factions supporting our presence to unify Iraqi military forces?

Finally, why are American forces acting as police for the city of Baghdad in the midst of a civil war? We’ve created a mess in Baghdad and we have responsibility to improve the situation. But perhaps we should learn something from our errors. We bumbled ourself into this mess — putting more American lives at risk is more of the same. And hey, didn’t we vote for someone to do something smarter?

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