It Can't Be Won Militarily; So, Send More Troops?
Wednesday 20 December 2006
As Robert Gates takes the helm at the Pentagon this week, he can be in no doubt that Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush remain determined to stay the course in Iraq (without using those words) for the next two years. What Gates probably does not realize is that the US military is about to commit hara-kiri.
The media are abuzz with trial balloons leaking word that President George W. Bush is about to approve a "surge" in US troop strength in Iraq by tens of thousands. At the same time, surge advocate Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC), just back from a brief visit to the Green Zone with fellow surgers John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), has warned that "the amount of troops will make no difference" if Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki avoids taking "bold" moves. The three pretend to be unaware that the most important move for which they pressed - breaking with radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr - would amount to political suicide for Maliki.
Incoming Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who owes his position to the popular revolt in November against the war, has said he can "go along" with a surge, but only for two to three months and only as part of a broader strategy to bring combat forces home by early 2008. Meanwhile, says Reid, Democrats will "give the military anything they want."
Is it conceivable that Reid doesn't know that this is about the next two years - not months? Former Army vice chief of staff General Jack Keane, one of the anointed retired generals who have Bush's ear, is urging him to send 30,000 to 40,000 more troops and has already dismissed the possibility of a time-frame shorter than one and a half years. Egged on by "full-speed-ahead" Cheney, Bush is determined that the war not be lost while he is president. But events are fast overtaking White House preferences and moving toward denouement well before two more years are up.
Perhaps it was not quite the way he meant it, but Bush has gotten one thing right; there will indeed be no "graceful exit." And that goes in spades, if he sends still more troops to the quagmire.
Let's send more troops to Iraq so we can pull our troops out of Iraq. A generation from now, our grandchildren will have difficulty writing history papers on this oxymoronic debate on how to surge/withdraw our troops into/from the quagmire in Iraq. Historians will have just as much trouble, especially those given to Tolstoy's theory that history is ruled by an inexorable determinism in which the free choice of major historical figures plays a minimal role. Tolstoy died before events put into perspective the legacy of Tsar Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat [Decider] of All the Russias, and his Vice President/éminence grise, Rasputin.
Judging from President Bush's behavior in recent weeks, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that he may be no more stable than Nicholas II. And if retired colonel Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell's top aide at the State Department, is right in saying that Bush still has the "vice president whispering in his ear every moment," we have an unhappy but apt historical analogy.
But, you protest, the generals most intimately involved in Iraq - John Abizaid and George Casey - and Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker have made no secret of their strong reservations about sending large numbers of additional troops. And, if the Washington Post is to be believed, so have the Joint Chiefs. That may be correct; it is also irrelevant. As was the case in the Vietnam War, our top generals have long since morphed into careerists and politicians. Sadly, they have become accustomed to looking up for the next reward - and not down at the troops who bear the brunt of their acquiescence in political/military decisions that make no sense.
But what about Senators Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy - and Colin Powell, and even Donald Rumsfeld, all of whom have spoken out in recent days against a sizable surge in troop strength in Iraq? Not a problem. The Cheney/Bush team is the sole "decider."
This does not mean that Defense Secretary Robert Gates should renege on his promise to visit the troops in Iraq and hear the generals out. It does mean that by the time he gets there, the generals probably will already be "with the program," as they say. Just as they "never asked for more troops" at earlier stages of the war, they are likely to be instant devotees of a surge, once they smell the breezes coming from the White House. As for Gates, whatever input he has will almost certainly be dwarfed by Cheney's. And taking issue with "deciders" has never been Gates's strong suit.
Stalingrad on the Tigris
Whether Robert Gates realizes it or not (but the generals should), once an "all or nothing" offensive like the "surge" contemplated has begun, there is no turning back. It will be "victory" over the insurgents and the Shia militias or palpable defeat, recognizable by all in Iraq and across the world.
Any conceivable surge would not turn the tide - would not even slow it. We should have learned that last summer, when the dispatch of seven thousand US troops to reinforce Baghdad brought a fierce "counter-surge" - and the highest number of casualties since the Pentagon began issuing quarterly reports in 2005. Those who believe still more troops will bring "victory" are living in a dangerous dream-world and need to wake up.
A major buildup would commit the US Army and Marine Corps to decisive combat in which there would be no more strategic reserves to be sent to the front. As Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway pointed out on Monday, "If you commit your reserve for something other than a decisive win, or to stave off defeat, then you have essentially shot your bolt."
It would be a matter of win, or die in the attempt. In that situation, everyone in uniform on the ground would commit every ounce of their being to achieving "victory," and few measures would be shrunk from.
Analogies come to mind: Stalingrad, the Bulge, Dien Bien Phu, the Battle of Algiers. It would be total war, with the likelihood of all the excesses and mass casualties that come with total war. To take up such a strategy and force our armed forces into it would be nothing short of immoral, in view of predictable troop losses and the huge number of Iraqis who would meet violent injury and death. And for what? If adopted, the surge strategy will turn out to be something we will spend a generation living down.
Senator Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) spoke for many of us last Thursday on the Senate floor:
I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way, being blown up by the same bombs day after day. That is absurd. It may even be criminal. I cannot support that anymore.
Yesterday, when George Stephanopoulos asked Smith what he meant by "criminal," he replied:
I said it. You can use any adjective you want, George. But I have long believed in a military context - when you do the same thing over and over again, without a clear strategy for victory, at the expense of your young people in arms, that is dereliction. That is deeply immoral.
W. Patrick Lang is a retired Army colonel who served with Special Forces in Vietnam, as a professor at West Point, and as defense intelligence officer for the Middle East. Ray McGovern was also an Army infantry/intelligence officer before his 27-year career as a CIA analyst. Both are with Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).
An earlier version of this article appeared onTomPaine.com.