Winning in Iraq

Okay, I'll just go ahead and admit it right off the bat: I haven't the foggiest idea how to actually win the war in Iraq. Yes, I write about just war theory. And yes, I'm trying to get more involved in the day-to-day realities of politics as opposed to the ivory tower of political theory. That said, the fact remains that when it comes to thinking about actual strategies for winning a war, I prefer to leave that to experts. Maybe someday we'll have a President who takes that approach too.

In the meantime, I'll just do what I am good at: sniping at bad arguments. Like this, from today's WaPo editorial page.

The bottom line is this: More U.S. troops in Iraq would improve our chances of winning a decisive battle at a decisive moment.

This gem comes to us courtesy of William Kristol and Rich Lowry. Now credit where it's due: Kristol and Lowry are at least willing to break from the George-Bush-can-do-no-wrong wing of the conservative movement. And both are willing to admit that the war has exactly gone according to the hearts and flowers model that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld seemed genuinely to expect back in early 2003. There's a real plan here.

Well, okay, there's not actually a real plan here at all. There's a call for more troops, but there's no discussion of a specific number of troops. Nor is there any sort of proposal for where, exactly, we're supposed to find more troops. Let's not forget, after all, that while the U.S. Army is pretty big, its actual number of combat soldiers is much smaller. I seem to recall my colleagues at West Point saying that it takes roughly 9 logistics and support soldiers to put 1 soldier into combat. That may be a conservative figure, but it's probably not too far off the mark. (One older estimate that I found here claims a 7:3 ratio in favor of logistics and support.) That means that we've a fairly limited number of boots to put on the ground. And however hooah American soldiers happen to be, significantly extending their deployments is going to play hell on reenlistment figures.

So what are Kristol and Lowry really saying? As far as I can tell, it's something like:

    1. The status quo isn't working.
    2. Withdrawal is a bad option because (take your pick)

    a. It would be immoral to completely wreck a country and then leave without fixing it.
    b. It would mean that our plan to invade Iraq was maybe not such a good idea.
    c. It would mean that Democrats were right to criticize us back in 2004.

    3. Therefore, we have to stay in Iraq and change something, so
    4. We should send more troops to Iraq, and
    5. More troops will guarantee that we can win more battles.

It seems to me that Kristol and Lowry are at least partly right. (1) seems pretty clearly to be true. I'd be inclined to accept 2b and 2c, and would argue that 2a is also true. Since withdrawal, staying the course, or changing something pretty much exhaust the options, then it would pretty much follow that (3) is true as well.

The sticking point, then, is (4). Should we send more troops to Iraq? I don't honestly know. I suspect that, in the short run, more soldiers in Iraq would help. In the long run, maybe not so much. The trouble, it seems to me, is that while Kristol and Lowry are certainly right that more troops win more battles, our issue in Iraq has very little to do with winning battles. After all, it's not as if we've really lost any battles in Iraq yet. When it comes to conventional battles with conventional enemies, no one holds a candle to the U.S. military. Unfortunately, Americans are not actually fighting all that many conventional battles with conventional enemies in Iraq. What we're fighting is an insurgency. And we're fighting it not as soldiers trying to capture or defend ground, but as occupiers who are attempting to pacify a nation while building democratic institutions.

So my worry is that more soldiers won't really make a significant difference. The soldiers that we have in Iraq are already doing exactly what American soldiers typically do: winning every battle that they fight. The problem is that American soldiers aren't actually trained to do what needs doing in Iraq. Despite fighting (and losing) a decade-long insurgency in Vietnam (despite, again, winning nearly every conventional battle it fought), the American military has never actually gotten around to learning how to fight insurgents. It's hard to blame them, really. Winning such a war is slow, difficult, and pretty unglamorous. Kicking Russian ass with an M-1A1 in Germany: cool. Blasting MiGs with an F-14: also cool. Shooting down nuclear ICMBs: geeky, but still cool. Driving around in an unarmored Humvee in the middle of a desert looking for insurgents and trying to avoid IEDs: not even remotely cool.

So I'll go along with Kristol and Lowry that things aren't working and that just bailing out is pretty seriously immoral at this point. But more troops? Probably couldn't hurt, but it's not clear that they would really change all that much in the long-run. My proposal: a Pentagon that focuses on learning how to win a war against insurgents and stops spending all its time lobbying for new toys that would have been really useful winning the cold war, but are utterly pointless in the new single superpower world.

Hey, I guess that this turned into a claim about actual strategies after all.

Share this