A 'Surge' in Iraq?

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Sunday, January 7, 2007

PRESIDENT BUSH is widely expected to unveil a new strategy for Iraq this week that will include a substantial increase in U.S. troops. If he does, he will face a formidable task in convincing Congress and the public that such a "surge" makes sense. It's well known that many senior American generals, including the outgoing commanders of American forces in Iraq and the Middle East, have resisted a troop increase. The Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki appears, at best, lukewarm. Mr. Maliki's own plan, like that of the Iraq Study Group, calls for Iraqi forces to take over most of the fighting in the coming months. A majority of the new Congress, and most Americans, favor a winding down of the U.S. troop commitment, not an escalation.

Mr. Bush's first challenge if he proposes a surge will consequently be to convince the country that the fresh troops would have a vital and achievable mission. Those who have been arguing for the move -- notably, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) -- say the purpose would be to pacify those sectors of Baghdad where sectarian fighting has been most intense. They argue that the main U.S. goal in Iraq, which is to forge a stable and sustainable government, can't be achieved unless there is a minimal level of security in the capital. The Iraqi army isn't yet able to impose order, they say; if the United States doesn't do it, the sectarian warfare will continue to escalate. Without a surge, Mr. McCain and Mr. Lieberman warn, the war will be lost.

This is a serious argument, and the two senators have been principled and even courageous in making it. But several questions give us pause. One is whether the administration and the Army will have the political and logistical capacity to carry out the sort of surge that the senators, and experts at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who support them, say is necessary: Total U.S. forces in Iraq would grow from fewer than 140,000 to as many as 175,000 and remain at that level indefinitely. Such a deployment would place severe new strains on the Army and probably require the alteration of Pentagon rules limiting the deployments of reservists. Some reports have said the administration is considering a more modest increase, both in numbers and in length of deployment. Mr. McCain says that would doom the strategy to failure.

There's no guarantee that the new American forces could stop the mayhem in Baghdad. But let's assume violence did plummet: The logic of the surge assumes that while U.S. soldiers ensured security, Iraq's Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions could be pressured into political accord. Yet given their recent behavior, it's hard to believe that the political leadership of any of Iraq's main factions is ready for compromise -- or will be during the limited window created by the surge. While Mr. Maliki occasionally speaks of accord, his government has pursued a sectarian agenda. If U.S. troops pacify Baghdad, Shiite politicians in the government may feel less rather than more pressure to compromise.

The constructive alternative to a surge is not the abandonment of Iraq. Instead, it is the fashioning of a strategy that positions the United States to support the country's moderate forces over the long term -- not just 18 months but the years that may pass before the country can be stabilized. That means a smaller and sustainable military force that can focus on training and backing up the Iraqi army and fighting al-Qaeda, and an aid program that supports the elected government while seeking to marginalize its extremist elements.

The Iraq Study Group, the Maliki government and outgoing U.S. military commanders seemed to converge on this approach. Should he embrace it, President Bush would have a good chance of achieving a broad consensus on Iraq policy, something that is desperately needed if U.S. involvement -- and the painful loss of American lives -- is going to continue. If he chooses escalation, Mr. Bush will have to work a lot harder than he has before to explain the mission that justifies the risk and to build support in Congress and with the public.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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