Two important pieces out today highlight a concern I’ve had for some time about the troop surge move, which is that it is more a lowest common denominator of broad consensus than the result of a strategy. Several folks recently back from Iraq have told me that even the rather small number of troops we have in the country aren’t allowed to do half the things they know they should be doing, out of deference to the Iraqi government. I can understand that this makes people mad but think about it for a second. It is logically inescapable in the overall strategy of transition to an Iraq that governs itself, that we should now be fighting with one hand tied behind our back, and that — in the best case scenario — we shall soon be fighting with two hands tied behind our back. The reason is that the Iraqi government must succeed in establishing security with its own forces, and this means that it must establish central authority, even if this means subordinating the authority of coalition forces and constraining their freedom of action. The success of the Iraqi government in this respect is the only real prospect of victory — I think we all agree on that. Changing horses in mid-stream is hard enough — doing it under fire may be virtually impossible here.
“Clear, hold, and build” may work as counter-insurgency strategy, but I can’t imagine that it can be as effective in a counter-terror or counter-death-squad mode. Terrorists and death squads have a much easier time hiding among the urban population than a guerrilla force, which sooner or later cannot escape the necessity of controlling territory — or at least be able to openly challenge the territorial control of coalition forces. It is one of the tragedies of the Iraq conflict that in the counter-insurgency dimension of the war, coalition forces were actually largely victorious in 2004 and 2005. But then Al Qaeda came up with its “civil war” strategy, and an effective counter-strategy has thus far eluded us.
In this WSJ op-ed (req. subs.) Johns Hopkins’s Eliot Cohen and former assistant secretary of defense Bing West write:
We prefer an offensive strategy based on three ironclad principles: take the offense immediately against the death squads in Sadr City, who are now unsettled; arrest and imprison on a scale equal to the horrific situation (or at least equal to New York City!); and insist on a joint say in the appointment of army and police leaders. If the Iraqi government refuses, we should be willing to disengage completely, and soon.
It seems to me that this suggestion is a step in the right direction in terms of shifting from counter-insurgency to a more police & intelligence-based concept, and also more properly focuses on the key political dimension.
In the Independent, from the other side of the political spectrum, General Wesley Clark likewise argues that under the current strategic concept, a troop surge is likely to backfire.