The latest bad idea for Iraq.

Military analysis.
Dec. 20 2006 6:18 PM

The Urge to Surge

The latest bad idea for Iraq.

The hottest briefing in Washington these days is a 56-page PowerPoint slide show titled "Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq," by Frederick Kagan, military analyst of the American Enterprise Institute. It proposes "surging" 20,000 extra troops to secure Baghdad as a necessary and sufficient first step to securing and rebuilding the whole country.

It's being taken very seriously in White House and congressional quarters. I don't understand why, because it's not really a serious study. Numbers are grabbed out of thin air. Crucial points are asserted, not argued. Assumptions are based on crossed fingers, not evidence or analysis.

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The upshot is that Kagan's surge involves more troops than the United States can readily mobilize and fewer troops than it needs for the kind of victory he has in mind.

He proposes a classic "clear and hold" method to secure the capital. Troops sweep into Baghdad's nastier neighborhoods and clear them of insurgents and other bad guys. Some troops stay behind to maintain security, while others move on to clear the next set of neighborhoods; some of those stay behind, while others move on; and so forth. Once Baghdad is stabilized, still more troops will pour into other troubled cities. Meanwhile, security allows reconstruction to proceed.

Kagan is inconsistent on how many troops need to surge in the first place. In an article for the Dec. 4 issue of the Weekly Standard, he calculated a need for 80,000 extra U.S. troops by spring 2007 but concluded, offhandedly, that 50,000 would be adequate. In his briefing, dated Dec. 17, that number is down to 21,000, with no explanation for the difference and, as far as I can tell, no difference in the analysis. Maybe someone told him 50,000 would be completely impossible.

Either way, where are they coming from? It's worth emphasizing that Kagan calculates that at least 150,000 combat troops will be needed to secure Baghdad alone. In all of Iraq, he estimates, the United States has only 70,000 combat troops now. He proposes moving 63,000 of them into Baghdad (leaving the other 7,000—two brigades—in Anbar province). The other 87,000 would be a mix of the "surge" and of Iraqi soldiers.

The surged forces themselves, whether they total 21,000 or 50,000, would come from a change in troop rotation—pushing up the movement of troops coming in and stopping those troops scheduled to go out, i.e., keeping them from leaving Iraq. Besides demoralizing the troops, many of whom are on their third tours of duty, this would also create a logistical nightmare; supplies would be needed for twice as many soldiers; supply lines would have to be denser and more densely protected.

Kagan acknowledges that putting all these additional American soldiers on the street might trigger still-greater waves of violence, both sectarian and anti-occupation. (An intriguing chart in Tuesday's New York Times indicates that, although an increasing number of attacks are aimed at Iraqi civilians, the vast majority are still directed at U.S. forces.) Kagan's proposals for how to counter the escalation (on Pages 30-32 of the briefing) are a bit jaw-dropping:

Clear message that security operations are underway that protect all Baghdadis. Step up civil security focus of units in Baghdad. … Tell the nation and Iraq that high casualties are the effect of enemy actions, but that we are taking the fight to the enemy.

Yes, that should do it. We're so good at sending messages to the Iraqi people. And, by the way, who's this "enemy," Kemo Sabe? Is it the insurgents and sectarian fighters (all Iraqis), or is it (gulp) us?

Kagan also explicitly states that U.S. forces should focus their efforts in the Sunni and mixed Sunni-Shiite areas of Baghdad, the source of most sectarian fighting. He ignores the internecine fights among the Shiite militias. Is this intentional? Is he tacitly proposing—as Vice President Dick Cheney seems to be doing these days—that the United States take the Shiite side in the Iraqi civil war? If so, his briefing's advocates should make this clear, so the audiences know what they're getting into. If not, and we have to go clear, say, Sadr City too, do we need still more troops?

However they're counted, a lot of extra troops are necessary, because not only do they have to "clear" a neighborhood of bad guys, some have to stay there ("hold" the area) while others move on to clear the next neighborhood. (This was the problem at Tal Afar. The city was cleared, but then the troops were called to Baghdad, and the insurgents returned.)

In Kagan's plan, after Baghdad is secure, we have to go clear and hold the rest of Iraq. This means still more troops will be needed, beyond the initial surge, because the troops in Baghdad have to stay there.

Where will these troops come from? Kagan says that the Pentagon will have to expand the size of the Army and Marines by at least 30,000 a year over the next two years. However, according to some very high-ranking officers who deal firsthand with these sorts of issues, the Army can recruit, train, and equip only about 7,000 combat troops a year. This is a physical limit, constrained by the number of bases, trainers, supplies, and other elements of infrastructure.

Kagan writes, "The President must call for young Americans to volunteer to defend the nation in a time of crisis." Given the unpopularity of the president, and of this war, this seems unlikely. After the Sept. 11 attacks, when Bush was at peak popularity, and when the country was experiencing a surge of patriotism, Congress passed a bill expanding the size of the Army by 30,000 troops. Five years later, the Army has actually expanded by just 23,000 troops. It's still 7,000 troops short of that target. How does Kagan expect to attract 30,000 more in just one year, much less to do so two years in a row?

This week, President Bush announced that he would increase the "end-strength" of the Army and Marines by an amount yet to be determined. Many officers and analysts have been pushing this idea for years now. (Donald Rumsfeld, still infatuated with his doctrine of fast, lean "transformational warfare," opposed it.) But its effect will take shape over a long period. It is not, nor would any military officer claim it to be, a solution for shortfalls right now.

Meanwhile, if Kagan's advice is followed, the surged troops will have plenty on their hands. Kagan writes that they will have to fight the bad guys—and provide food, water, electricity, and other essential services. It's not as if they haven't been trying to do all that for the past three and a half years.

How long will the surged troops have to stay? Kagan writes that "the security situation" "improves within 18-24 months and we can begin going home." But given the way the numbers add up, this seems extremely unlikely. For one thing, they'll have to be replaced by Iraqi soldiers, but if all the American troops are engaged in counterinsurgency, who's training the Iraqis? Current administration policy calls for embedding U.S. advisers within Iraqi units. Kagan is opposed to that policy. He favors expanding U.S. units and having some Iraqi units tag along. He claims that those Iraqis will be trained "much more effectively" his way, "because they will be partnered with and fighting with our excellent soldiers."

This is simply wrongheaded. Indigenous soldiers are best trained by taking the lead in military operations. They gain most legitimacy in a counterinsurgency campaign if the local population sees them as being in charge, not as sitting quietly in the occupier's back seat.

One reassuring moment in President Bush's press conference today came when he said that if he did decide to surge more troops to Iraq, he would do so only if there were "a specific mission that can be accomplished with more troops." Kagan's briefing doesn't spell out that mission, doesn't show it can be accomplished with more troops, at least not with the number of extra troops that are remotely available.

There may be no good solution to the sand-dune quagmire of Iraq. Kagan's proposal is getting more attention than it deserves because officials—and the rest of us, too—are so desperate for some, for any, head-lifting way out.

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