Bush's smart new general can't save Iraq.
Even on the level of troop deployments, the issue is as much quality as quantity. Petraeus' field manual notes that counterinsurgency is very different from normal combat and that successful operations "require soldiers and marines at every echelon" to possess a daunting set of traits, among them a "clear, nuanced, and empathetic appreciation of the essential nature of the conflict … an understanding of the motivation, strengths, and weaknesses of the insurgent," and a knowledge of local culture. [Italics added.] Are there enough such soldiers and Marines at every echelon who have these traits? If there were, this field manual would not have been necessary. Beyond this, the field manual notes that combat leaders, down to the company level, must be "adaptive, self-aware, and intelligent."
The purpose of an Army field manual is to lay down the requirements of combat—in the case of this field manual, a type of combat that the U.S. Army hasn't focused on for decades. It generally takes years, if not decades, for a new culture—which this field manual calls for and outlines—to take hold of any military. Petraeus is a brilliant officer, but it's questionable whether even he can force-feed a new culture in just a matter of months.
If he manages to succeed in Baghdad, how will he be able to "hold" it while proceeding on to Iraq's other troubled cities? (Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, who came up with the "surge" strategy, proposes expanding the Army's ranks by 30,000 combat soldiers over the next two years. The problem is, well-placed officers calculate that, even if enough recruits can be found, the Army could support an expansion of just 7,000 combatants per year.)
Then there are the more political considerations. Nothing will work, even under otherwise ideal circumstances, unless the Iraqi government supports the effort, orders Iraqi battalions to take part, and agrees to let the counterinsurgents go after all militias, including the Mahdi Army controlled by Muqtada Sadr, a key faction of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's power base. The Iraqi government would also have to devise some power-sharing arrangement—for instance, a formula to share oil revenues with Sunni regions—to deal with the causes of insurgency (or at least the causes of the insurgents' popular support or tolerance). While an area is being secured, the U.S. and other governments would also have to pour in massive funding for reconstruction projects, well beyond the $1 billion that President Bush is expected to request for urban job creation. In other words, a surge—even if it proves successful on its own terms—will mean nothing, in the medium to long term, unless it is part of a broader political and economic strategy. Does Bush have such a strategy in mind? We'll see on Wednesday. If he does, will the Iraqi government be willing or able to go along? We'll see in the next few months.
But security is the prerequisite, and to achieve enduring security, the hard arithmetic indicates that Bush needs to send in a lot more troops than 20,000. The problem is, he doesn't have them, and he won't be able to get them for many years, under the best of circumstances. (Even if he reimposed the draft—a sure way to convert popular disenchantment with the war to rioting-in-the-streets opposition—it would take a few years to get the Selective Service System running and to mobilize, train, and equip the draftees.)
One widespread, and plausible, theory is that the surge constitutes a last-ditch effort at success. The thinking goes like this: Maybe this will work; and if it doesn't work, the United States can cut its losses and pull back without making the retreat seem like too disastrous a debacle. "We gave it our all," the president could say; "don't blame us that it fell apart." And, since Kagan and other surge-advocates are saying the plan would take about two years to succeed or fail, the next president—not Bush—would be the one who orders, and takes all the heat for, the retreat.
I am not one who likens the Iraq war to Vietnam, but there is an eerie parallel to a memo that John McNaughton, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's closest aide, sent to him on March 24, 1965, after it seemed clear that the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign was producing scant results. "The situation in Vietnam is bad and deteriorating," McNaughton wrote. The important aim now is to "avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor)." Therefore, it is essential "that the U.S. emerge as a 'good doctor.' We must have kept promises, been tough, taken risks, gotten bloodied, and hurt the enemy very badly."
One month later, on April 21, McNamara and McNaughton met in Honolulu with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other top leaders. They concluded, as McNamara summed up in a memo, "that it will take more than six months, perhaps a year or two, to demonstrate VC [Viet Cong] failure in the South." (Both documents are reproduced in Volume 3 of The Pentagon Papers.)
It took another decade and 50,000 American lives to concede what McNaughton (who, soon after that meeting, died in an airplane crash) had realized just one year into the fighting. In the quite likely, lamentable event that Bush's surge doesn't work, let's hope that today's leaders accept the reality more quickly.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photo of Gen. David Petraeus by Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images.