Politics & Policy

One for the Wastebaskets

The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group (ISG) is turning into a parody of bipartisan commissions. Such commissions are often driven by their own internal dynamics rather than by any connection to the real world. So it is that the ISG has apparently blended a Republican option to keep fighting in Iraq with a Democratic option to adopt a timetable for withdrawal by next year, and come up with a recommendation of withdrawing American combat troops (perhaps to their Iraqi bases) on a non-specified timetable. If this is so, any costs of distributing the report should be saved by printing it and then immediately depositing it in the nearest wastebaskets.

It shouldn’t be surprising that five Republicans and five Democrats sitting around a table can’t come up with any ready solutions to Iraq. First, there are genuine, deep divides between the two parties that can’t be bridged by a few elder statesmen, no matter how exalted or well-meaning. Second, there are no ready solutions, at least not in the sense of magic bullets that wouldn’t already have occurred to people much more expert in military strategy and Middle Eastern affairs. As the admirably plainspoken former GOP senator Alan Simpson, an ISG member, said of Washington’s expectations of the commission: “If they think this noble group of ten are going to solve this issue, I think people are doing a little bit of heavy breathing.”

He was right. Redeploying to Iraqi bases is militarily absurd. Put aside for the moment that, once you account for the 70,000 or so logistical and support troops that can’t leave, and the combat brigades needed to protect the Green Zone, Camp Victory, the Baghdad airport, and various supply routes, the number of combat brigades that actually are redeployable is very small. Even if they were to head back to their bases, they might as well redeploy to Guam, where Rep. John Murtha once suggested they go.

There is much wishful thinking according to which American forces can hole up in their bases and then come out to destroy terrorist targets of opportunity. But terrorists aren’t going to announce themselves and hang around long enough for Americans to find out about them and leave their bases in time to hit them. Iraq is crawling with terrorist targets now, but they are intermingled with the population in a classic insurgency.

Unfortunately, the only way to extricate them is through intensive patrolling that provides security to the population, kills terrorists as they present themselves, and, over the long term, creates the conditions for the Iraqis to take up the fight themselves. This is grueling, dangerous work (which is why every American should thank God for the grit and bravery of the U.S. military). Sitting in a base just isn’t a substitute.

U.S. forces have repeatedly been able to clear areas of terrorists and insurgents, but haven’t been able to hold them, for lack of manpower (witness the failure of the current Baghdad-security plan). We need more troops to do the holding, but the ISG wants to stop the clearing as well.

This is just a dressed-up surrender in Iraq. As soon as the U.S. began such a redeployment, the security situation would worsen and the political environment would further deteriorate. It would become clearer that the anti-American Moqtada al-Sadr had bet correctly against us, and he would have a chance of commanding the most effective fighting force left standing in Iraq. The theory is that a U.S. withdrawal to bases would pressure Prime Minister Maliki to begin to crack down on the militias and purge the extremists in his midst. But the opposite would likely be the case. The men with guns would be more empowered — and they aren’t the moderates. Maliki might not be the most adept politician, but he would be able to see — and unfortunately, probably already has — which way the wind was blowing, and would tilt even further toward Sadr.

The U.S. needs to fight more in Iraq, not give up. That means sending more troops to Baghdad. Yes, we should be training more Iraqi units and embedding more American troops with those units, but there is no substitute in the near term for more U.S. troops on the ground. Only we can stabilize Baghdad, and only a better security situation there can provide the conditions necessary for the kind of political progress that might turn the war around.

The apparently risible recommendation of the ISG has a silver lining, however. It will make it easier for President Bush to politely dismiss its findings, and — we hope — do what’s necessary to try to save Iraq.

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