No better idea

MAX BOOT is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

PRESIDENT BUSH’S plan to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq has not, to put it kindly, been well received. But does anyone have a better idea?

Should we just declare defeat and go home? Not even most leading Democrats are willing to go that far. At least not yet. Most instead talk of gradually drawing down forces and possibly redeploying them either to Iraq’s borders or to other bases in the region. There is something to be said for this strategy. But it also entails huge risks.

If the U.S. is seen as retreating -- which is how it would look even if it were labeled “redeployment” -- the fragile Iraqi security forces might completely disintegrate. U.S. advisors with Iraqi units could be imperiled. An all-out civil war could break out. Neighboring states such as Jordan could be destabilized by massive refugee flows. Western Iraq could become a Taliban-style haven for Sunni terrorists. Southern Iraq could become a launching pad for Shiite extremists bent on liberating their oppressed brethren in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states.

It is doubtful that an “over the horizon” presence of U.S. forces could do much to mitigate these catastrophic effects. Iraq is a big country -- about the size of California. You cannot police Los Angeles from San Francisco any more than you can police Ramadi in western Iraq from Irbil in northern Iraq, much less from Kuwait.


It sounds reassuring to say that U.S. forces could be positioned on its borders to “contain” Iraq’s civil war, but it’s not clear what they would do there. Sure, they could prevent Iranian or Syrian troop formations from entering Iraq. But a conventional invasion is unlikely. U.S. soldiers would have much less success stopping the influx of foreign terrorists, cash and arms that goes on now disguised as normal commercial traffic. Besides, is it really politically possible for U.S. troops to cavalierly sit by while a few miles away ethnic cleansing or even genocide is being perpetrated?

Such a dire outcome is by no means foreordained if U.S. troops start withdrawing. Perhaps, as some advocates of drawdown suggest, the Iraqi government will succeed in establishing law and order on its own. But that’s not the way I’d bet. And that’s not the way Bush is betting.

After years of taking a rosy view of the war, he has finally acknowledged that conditions are grim and require more troops. Ironically, he is being pilloried for this stance by many of the same people who have been saying for years that we didn’t have enough troops in Iraq.

Perhaps the objection now is that 21,500 troops won’t make much difference. It’s true that, according to the new Army-Marine Counterinsurgency Manual, effective operations generally require at least one soldier or police officer per 40 or 50 inhabitants. That would suggest doubling our current force of 132,000 to secure Baghdad and the entire Sunni Triangle (population 13 million). But it would be difficult to find that many soldiers in the overstretched and undersized U.S. armed forces.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the reinforcements Bush is sending are useless. As called for under a plan formulated by military historian Frederick Kagan and retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, the five newly arriving brigades should be deployed alongside Iraqi units to live in Sunni and mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad. This is a classic counterinsurgency approach focused on securing the populace, and it has never really been tried before in the capital. It could work, especially if the surge is long lasting and if it’s coupled with other vital steps -- such as increasing the number of American advisors in the Iraqi security forces, instituting a biometric identity card to make it easier to detain terrorism suspects and enhancing the capacity of the Iraqi legal system to incarcerate more violent offenders.

If everything goes right, large swathes of Baghdad could gradually be brought under control. Then American and Iraqi units could pursue a “spreading inkblot” strategy -- another classic counterinsurgency concept -- to increase the pacified zone outward.

Of course that’s a big if. It may be that we still don’t have enough troops to successfully carry out this strategy. It may be that we don’t have the will to see it through. It may be that we don’t have enough reliable Iraqi partners. But considering the massive investment we have already made in Iraq, and the lack of good alternatives, it seems worth one final effort to see if we can salvage something from this dire situation.