There are troop surges, and then there are troop surges, in military history. Some radically alter the calculus of the battlefield. Others simply add to the stasis and sense of quagmire, ending up as nothing more than preludes to defeat.
The Allied offensives of August and September 1918 that finally broke the Kaiser’s armies followed from a surge of thousands of fresh American troops into the western front. But the victory wasn’t due just to the increase in numbers. After all, the Germans themselves the previous spring had tried to break through the Allied trenches with thousands of additional storm troopers freed from the Russian Front. The difference was that the Allies created a new unified command structure under Gen. Foch, employed greater combined use of tanks, exploited the element of surprise by means of shorter bombardments, and depended on much better organized logistics to sustain initial breakthroughs.
In the first dark months of the Korean War, Gen. MacArthur increased U.S. troop strength for the September 1950 Inchon assault. But that dramatic breakthrough and recapture of Seoul came as a result of risky amphibious operations — not just more boots on the ground.
William Tecumseh Sherman’s Army of the West finally reached a level of nearly 100,000 troops in late summer 1864. Yet its success was predicated not on increased numbers per se, but rather on a radical shift in tactics, abandoning reliance on rail support and living off the land. When Sherman left on his March to the Sea, he actually pruned his forces. A good argument could be made that Lee finally cracked, not because Grant’s surges smashed his lines, but due to southern desertion and loss of morale, once it was known that a huge and unpredictable Union army under the unconventional Sherman was approaching the Confederate rear through the Carolinas.
In contrast, the troop surges of the Athenians under Demosthenes into Sicily in 414 B.C., the steady increases in the Union Army of the Potomac in Virginia from 1862-64, the British build-ups in Flanders from 1914-17, the French rise to nearly 400,000 troops by 1956 in Algeria, or the American escalation from 1964-67 in Vietnam did little to change the dynamics of any of those wars. In all these cases, tactics went largely unchanged, in the mistaken view that prior failure was primarily due to an absence of manpower.
If the United States sends more troops into Iraq, especially Baghdad, then we must expand the parameters of operations — otherwise, thousands of fresh American soldiers will only end up ensuring the four things we seek to avoid in Iraq: more conventional targets for IEDs when more soldiers venture out of our compounds; more support troops behind fortified berms that enlarge the American infidel profile; more assurances to the Iraqis that foreign troops will secure their country for them; and more American prestige put into peril.
As the troop levels gradually rise, there will be a brief window of opportunity as the world watches whether greater numbers will radically change conditions on the ground. If in a matter of a few months conditions do not improve, they will begin to get far worse — there will not be a continuation of the status quo. The jihadists will grasp that they have survived the last reserves of American manpower; antiwar critics will pronounce the war to be unwinable regardless of the amount of American blood and treasure spent.
So what might we do to ensure the success of this troop surge, the greatest gamble thus far in the war to secure the Iraqi postbellum democracy?
1) Provide a clear definition of victory as the establishment of a stable Iraqi democratic government, free from sectarian and terrorist violence. While there may be a sick appeal in allowing Sunni and Shiite jihadists to kill each other off, such endemic violence will only wreck the country. The role of the U.S. military, then, must be to ensure a monopoly on violence for the Iraqi government, itself free of militia infiltration, fighting to put down insurrection and factional strife.
2) Establish in advance new protocols with the Iraqi government that offensives and operations must be allowed to culminate. It will be a disaster if heads of militias are captured only to be let off, as happened once in the past when Moqtada Sadr was surrounded.
3) Ensure that an Iraqi veneer covers all of our operations. The aim of these operations is not just the disarming of militias and the killing of terrorists, but fostering confidence in the Iraqi people that their own soldiers were responsible for such successes. As much as possible, we should keep American generals off the air and avoid the public-relations disasters of the summer of 2003 when Americans, not Iraqis, were televised in daily press conferences.
4) Supporters of the surge may call it a “bump,” or suggest that it really does not mark much of a change. But like it or not, it will be seen as an escalation with all the attendant risks. So warn the American public that there is going to be a new level of violence, a storm before the calm, as American and Iraqi forces hunt down the terrorists, kill them, and disarm the militias — and that this is as necessary as it is going to be ugly, especially when the rules of engagement must expand.
5) The highest American administration officials — Bush, Cheney, Rice, Hadley, Gates — must all explain seriatim the new gambit in terms of democratic idealism, the only way to ensure that the millions of brave Iraqis who voted for a constitutional government are given the support necessary to stabilize their achievement. The war will not just be judged in Baghdad, but also in New York, Washington, Cairo, London, and Paris. Fierce antiwar critics, here and abroad, have staked their prestige and careers on American failure, and will not wish to see Iraqi and American troops, Ethiopian style, routing the Islamists. Their arguments must be countered hourly.
6) Emphasize offense. Our new forces are not going to “patrol” or “stabilize” things by their “presence” or “reassurance,” but rather are being sent to Iraq for one purpose: to hunt down and kill or capture terrorists to ensure public confidence that the Americans and the new Iraqi government are going to win. And fence-sitters should make the necessary adjustments.
7) Close the borders with Syria, and, as far as possible, with Iran. Assume that there will be more supposed “wedding parties” bombed and various other propaganda victories for the enemy once we begin hitting trans-border incursions — it is a necessary price to be paid in this final push for victory.
8) Prepare regionally for the unexpected with more troops and air wings on alert. If more coalition troops begin to arrest and kill terrorists, expect Syria and Iran to foment trouble elsewhere, or to move on fronts in Lebanon, Israel, or to accelerate nuclear acquisition. We should assume that a surge will raise the stakes in the Middle East at large, and that our enemies cannot afford to see us prevail.
There have been a number of anomalies in this war, as a brilliant American tactical victory in removing Saddam has not translated into quick strategic success. But one of the most worrisome developments is the narrowing of the recent debate to the single issue of surging troops, as if the problem all along has just been one of manpower.
It hasn’t. The dilemma involves the need to fight an asymmetrical war of counter-insurgency that hinges on what troops do, rather than how many are engaged. We have gone from a conventional victory over Saddam Hussein to an asymmetrical struggle against jihadist insurgents to what is more or less third-party policing of random violence between Sunnis and Shiites.
Our past errors were not so much dissolving a scattered Iraqi military or even de-Baathification, but rather giving an appearance of impotence, whether in allowing the looting to continue or pulling back from Fallujah or giving a reprieve to the Sadr militias.
So, yes, send more troops to Iraq — but only if they are going to be allowed to hunt down and kill vicious and sectarians in a manner that they have not been allowed to previously.
This surge should be not viewed in terms of manpower alone. Rather it should be planned as the corrective to past misguided laxity, in which no quarter will now be given to die-hard jihadists as we pursue victory, not better policing. We owe that assurance to the thousands more of young Americans who now will be sent into harm’s way.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author, most recently, of A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.