Bush's smart new general can't save Iraq.
George W. Bush has named a new man to take charge in Iraq as a prelude to his announcement of (allegedly) a new strategy. Will either make any difference?
The new commander, Lt. Gen. (soon to be promoted to simply Gen.) David Petraeus, is probably the smartest active-duty general in the U.S. Army today. Late last year, he co-authored the Army's field manual on counterinsurgency—its first in over 20 years. During the early phase of the Iraq occupation, as commander of the 101st Airborne Division, he was one of the very few American officers who understood how to win over the populace, not just bash down their doors. In those halcyon days of the summer of '03, commanders had free access to Saddam Hussein's captured slush funds, and Petraeus used the money shrewdly to build local projects and to build trust with local leaders. It may be no coincidence that things started going to hell in northern Iraq, the 101st Airborne's area of operation, when the commanders' fund dried up—and no further funds poured in.
Alas, Petraeus is in much the same situation he found himself back then—loaded with enormous responsibility, the right skills, but not enough resources, either in money or, especially, in troops.
The big talk this past week, and probably the centerpiece of Bush's announcement (to take place Wednesday night), is the "surge"—20,000 additional U.S. combat troops to be deployed to Baghdad, as part of a classic strategy of "clear, hold, and build." This means swooping a lot of troops into a particular area (a town, a village, a neighborhood, whatever), clearing it of insurgents (i.e., killing or capturing them), and leaving behind enough troops or police to maintain order so that reconstruction can take place—while other troops move on to clear, hold, and build in the next troubled area on the list.
Petraeus and his co-authors discussed this strategy at great length in the Army's counterinsurgency field manual. One point they made is that it requires a lot of manpower—at minimum, 20 combat troops for every 1,000 people in the area's population. Baghdad has about 6 million people; so clearing, holding, and building it will require about 120,000 combat troops.
Right now, the United States has about 70,000 combat troops in all of Iraq (another 60,000 or so are support troops or headquarters personnel). Even an extra 20,000 would leave the force well short of the minimum required—and that's with every soldier and Marine in Iraq moved to Baghdad. Iraqi security forces would have to make up the deficit.
In the short term, then, say for a year or so, enough troops might be concentrated in Baghdad if troops now deployed in Iraq have their tours of duty extended, troops due for redeployment to Iraq are mobilized several months ahead of schedule, nearly all these troops are transferred to Baghdad, and enough Iraqi troops can be mobilized to make up the remaining slack.
Meanwhile, how will Petraeus be able to keep Baghdad's insurgents from simply slipping out of town and wreaking havoc elsewhere? This is what happened in Fallujah when U.S. troops tried to destroy the insurgents' stronghold in that city.
In the one successful counterinsurgency campaign, in the northern town of Tal Afar, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment surrounded the town with a 9-foot-high wall to isolate the city. This was in addition to other counterinsurgency techniques—maintaining a high troop-to-population ratio, dealing in a civilized manner with local authorities, and so forth. (Tal Afar slid back into chaos when the 3rd A.C.R. was redeployed to another hot spot—another indication that clear and hold, much less clear, hold, and build, requires a lot more troops than the United States has ever had in Iraq.)
Will Petraeus wall off neighborhoods in Baghdad? (The U.S. Army in Iraq does have a lot of concrete.) Is such a strategy feasible in a city of 6 million, as opposed to a town of 60,000 like Tal Afar? Moving in the bulldozers and the berms may be a dramatic first step. But then what?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photo of Gen. David Petraeus by Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images.