A 'Surge' in Wasted Sacrifice

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Here's an idea: Let's send more U.S. troops to Iraq. The generals say it's way too late to even think about resurrecting Colin Powell's "overwhelming force" doctrine, so let's send over a modest "surge" in troop strength that has almost no chance of making any difference -- except in the casualty count. Oh, and let's not give these soldiers and Marines any sort of well-defined mission. Let's just send them out into the bloody chaos of Baghdad and the deadly badlands of Anbar province with orders not to come back until they "get the job done."

I don't know about you, but that strikes me as a terrible idea, arguably the worst imaginable "way forward" in Iraq. So of course this seems to be where George W. Bush is headed.

Don't assign any real significance to the fact that the president has decided to wait until the new year before announcing his next step in Iraq, because if history is any guide, all of this photo-op "consultation" he's doing is just for show -- to convince us, or maybe to convince himself, that he has an open mind. The Decider doesn't have the capacity for indecision.

Through Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, he has ruled out direct talks with Iran and Syria to try to enlist their cooperation in quelling Iraq's sectarian civil war. Through his own remarks, he has ruled out a firm timetable for a U.S. withdrawal. He has declared himself open to any and all advice, but he rules out any course of action that in his estimation will "lead to defeat."

So much for the Iraq Study Group. So much for the will of the voters. As Dick Cheney helpfully spelled out just before the election, "full speed ahead."

At least the Decider is consistent. From the start his administration's approach to this botched war has been to sort through all the tactical alternatives and pick the most counterproductive -- send too few troops, disband the Iraqi army, stand by while looters destroy critical infrastructure and the social order, allow sectarian militias to fill the power vacuum, make reconstruction an afterthought, and put know-nothings in charge of it.

There are more than 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and it's unclear what they are supposed to be accomplishing. It should be obvious that to establish security in all of Iraq and disarm the sectarian militias -- to conduct a proper occupation, in other words -- would require a massive infusion of boots on the ground. The Pentagon says that finding even an additional 20,000 to 30,000 troops to send would be a stretch, and officials warn (perhaps a little melodramatically) of the danger that the demands of Bush's war "will break" the U.S. Army.

I find it hard to believe that even this addle-brained administration is capable of breaking the Army. The generals could find 30,000 more troops to send, and I'll bet they could even find an extra 50,000 if they had to. But why?

Whom would they fight? Would they ally themselves with those elusive "mainstream" Sunnis, or maybe those publicity-shy "moderate" Shiites? Would they capture and hold territory, or would they continue the practice of staying for a while, turning the job over to Iraqi forces and then watching as the militias move back in? If an extra 20,000 troops were sent to Baghdad tomorrow, could they realistically be expected to establish order in a sprawling megacity where some two dozen armed militias control the streets? Since we would be providing 20,000 new targets for snipers and roadside bombs, how many do we calculate will die?

It is unconscionable to think about dispatching more young men and women to Iraq without the realistic expectation that their presence will make a difference in a war that is no longer in our control. Here in Washington, proponents of a troop "surge" speak of giving the whole Iraq adventure one last try. But they sound as if they're more concerned about projecting an image of American resolve than anything else. Does anyone think a symbolic troop increase is going to have the likes of Moqtada al-Sadr or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tossing and turning through sleepless nights?

Doubling the number of American troops in Iraq would be wrong -- we need to get out, now, before we set the whole Middle East on fire -- but at least a surge of that scale would have a purpose. The modest increase now on the table would be purposeless and wrong. What could be more immoral than sacrificing American blood and treasure to save face in a lost war?

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