The Corner

Baghdad security plan

Unfortunately, it was not unexpected that the new security plan would fail. This is what NR wrote back in August when the plan was first announced:

…the U.S. and Maliki have a new plan to secure Baghdad. At this rate, “plan to secure Baghdad” will join “stay the course” as a phrase that can’t be uttered about Iraq without causing derision. The latest plan calls for 3,500 U.S. troops to redeploy from elsewhere in the country — including violent Anbar province — into Baghdad. It seems unlikely either that these troops can be spared from the areas they are leaving or that 3,500 Americans is enough to make a decisive difference in the capital city of nearly 6 million. Once again, the administration seems content with doing just enough perhaps — if it’s lucky — to hold things together, rather than dramatically changing facts on the ground.

It’s a little hard to tell from today’s news accounts whether the clearing (which our troops do) or the holding (which we rely on the Iraqis to do after we move on) is primarily failing. It seems to be the holding, which was also predictable. This is what I wrote with Bill Kristol a while ago:

If American troops hand neighborhoods over to Iraqis, they are likely to soon deteriorate again — in the same dynamic we have repeatedly seen of trouble spots being brought under control by American troops only to slide back again when the Americans leave.

This seems to be exactly the dynamic Gen. Caldwell describes here in The Washington Post:

“We’re finding insurgent elements, the extremists, are pushing back hard. They’re trying to get back into those areas” where Iraqi and U.S. forces have targeted them, he said. “We’re constantly going back in and doing clearing operations.”

The Times describes the same phenomenon here:

General Caldwell said American troops were being forced to return to neighborhoods, like Dora in southwestern Baghdad, that they had sealed off and cleared as part of the security campaign because “extremists” fighting back had sent sectarian violence soaring there. The security plan sent heavy deployments of American troops into troubled neighborhoods, reversing the previous policy, which was to allow Iraqi troops to police the capital…

…Across Baghdad, as in other troubled areas of Iraq that American forces have tried to “clear and hold,” military officials have struggled to deal with insurgents simply melting away, only to return stronger after the offensives wound down. Commanders say the challenge will be not only to clear and hold, but also to “build,” meaning that the cleared areas, with Iraqi policing after the troops withdraw, will benefit from infrastructure investment as part of a plan to cut the militants’ support.  

It also appears to be the case that Iraqi troops aren’t holding up their end:

American commanders who have discussed the Baghdad operation with reporters in recent days have spoken of having limited options as they seek for ways to make the campaign more effective. One is to increase the number of Iraqi troops deployed to the sweeps. Of six Iraqi battalions that were promised when the operation began, these commanders said, only two have been deployed. The commanders also noted that assessments of the operation might improve after November, when a phase of the plan involving economic reconstruction in the “cleared” areas would begin.

I understand the risks of sending more troops. There is the domestic political problem here at home, noted here in The Times:

Or, he could take the advice of Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who is expected to run to replace him in two years, who argues in favor of pouring more troops into Iraq, an option one senior administration official said recently might make sense but could “cause the bottom to fall out” of public support.

There are other problems too that Eliot Cohen points out in the Journal today (behind a wall):

Conversely, the U.S. could react by reasserting its strength in Iraq — sending an additional 30,000 or 40,000 troops to secure Baghdad and its environs, and making a far more strenuous effort than it has thus far to take control of the civilian ministries that are now merely fronts for political parties and their militias. But could American public opinion sustain this? More importantly, where would the soldiers come from? And has the strain on Iraqis’ sense of national identity become so great that those institutions could be built?

Now, it may be that we are beyond the point of more U.S. troops making a difference (and I don’t want to pretend there are any easy answers, nor that I have them, since I have been plenty wrong about Iraq before). But if we were going to try to secure Baghdad, we really should have tried to do it in an over-whelming way. Politically, the failure of the current plan will make it that much more difficult to try anything else. By pursuing a half-a-loaf plan we have only succeeded in limiting our options and in undermining support for the war.

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