The Surge is Failing
All indications suggested that the Pentagon was more than ready to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq last year, all the more so because the Army and Marines could not sustain the current pace. Donald Rumsfeld, we now know, had been trying to turn more of the job over to the Iraqis for quite some time. But instead, Rumsfeld was fired (ironically, in my opinion, because he refused to escalate our involvement further), and the President completely disregarded the Baker-Hamilton recommendations. He also relieved his commanders at CENTCOM and in Iraq, giving the latter command to the highly respected General David Petraeus, who had just helped draft a new manual on counterinsurgency and could hardly pass up the chance to try to put it into practice. Unfortunately, the first few months of the new strategy have been anything but a success.
The problems of counterinsurgency in Iraq and the American approach to it were the subject of a fine article by the brilliant if eccentric political scientist Edward Luttwak in Harper's. Luttwak said, in different words, what I have been saying here for two and a half years: that the political basis for the Iraq we are trying to create does not exist among the Arab population. The Sunni population either actively supports or fears the insurgents, and the Shi'ite population supports sectarian fundamentalism. It doesn't matter, as Luttwak points out, whether they are motivated by genuine allegiance or merely by fear; in either case they will not work for the objective of a non-sectarian, democratic Iraq. Nor is there the slightest evidence that any of the major factions within the government are really working towards such a goal; to one degree or another they sympathize with the goals of the Sunni insurgents on the one hand or the Shi'ite fundamentalists (still obviously very influential in the Al-Maliki government) on the other. The United States, as Luttwak points out, refuses to govern Iraq itself (he might have added that we have nowhere near the forces necessary to do so), and thus what authority there is is wielded by the insurgents or militias and Iraqis who are cooperating with them. Politically we are helpless.
The new strategy behind the surge consists in putting more American soldiers among the Iraqi population. As such it parallels what the Marines tried to do with Combined Action Platoons in the villages of Vietnam (as described in Bing West's excellent book, The Village), and what the American army also tried to do in some areas beginning in 1969. West showed how the Marines lived with the villagers, earned their trust, and kept the VC away from them by spending every night in ambush positions on the paths leading into it. Clearly, however, several problems make the success of such a strategy most unlikely in the neighborhoods of Baghdad.
First, the cultural gap between the Iraqi population and the Americans is considerably larger than that between the Americans and Vietnamese forty years ago--the reason why Americans and Vietnamese are now getting along so well. Second and more importantly, there were more Americans and fewer Vietnamese in that situation--20 Americans within a South Vietnamese village was a very larger number. Thirdly, we are now dealing in an urban environment of paved roads filled with motor vehicles--vehicles that can all too easily be turned into car bombs. Americans setting up ambushes on the streets of Baghdad would immediately suffer heavy casualties.
The Americans, recent press reports indicate, are doing the only thing they can: they are building fortified outposts in the neighborhoods to which they are assigned with the help of huge blocks of concrete. That, obviously, will separate them from the population and make it very difficult to build up any genuine trust. (This would be very hard anyway since so few Americans can speak any Arabic.) Those outposts will simply dare the insurgents to build bigger and better car bombs, or to attack them in new, ingenious, and not very labor-intensive ways. And indeed, because more Americans are out on the street, more Americans are dying. Our casualties hit a two-year high last month and this month isn't looking much better (six soldiers were probably killed today, although two of them, for the moment, are only missing.) In addition, the insurgents have been moving to new areas--most notably to Diyala province, where the US Commander has just asked for reinforcements. That will put President Bush on the spot, and today's Los Angeles Times actually speculates that Secretary Gates is encouraging commanders to make such requests to make it clear that what we are doing will not be enough.
Meanwhile, even the American-sponsored political leadership has had enough, and a majority of Iraqi legislators are preparing a call for an American withdrawal. That, I think, might be the straw that breaks the camel's back. Polls have been showing for years that large majorities of Arab Iraqis want the Americans out, Our politicians have paid no attention so far, but vulnerable Republicans will find it harder and harder to defend the increasing deaths of American troops if no Iraqis want us there.
The Bush Administration now faces serious attacks on so many fronts that its last eighteen months seem more and more certain to resemble those of the Nixon Administration. It may actually reverse course in Iraq, but I see no sign that it will reverse its overall foreign policy. Just yesterday, Vice President Cheney, in a brave replay of his boss's most disastrous symbolic moment, stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf and promised to use American naval power to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, interfering with trade, or dominating the Middle East. Preventive war remains, in short, our policy. Should it occur, I honestly believe that Americans will certainly never be safe in the Middle East and will face new threats even in Europe for many years to come. The Congress should act to stop war on Iran. Events will eventually end the American war in Iraq.