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The Smart Surge: Diplomacy

By Wesley K. Clark
Monday, January 8, 2007

The odds are that this week President Bush will announce a "surge" of up to 20,000 additional U.S. troops into Iraq. Will this deliver a "win"? Probably not. But it will distract us from facing the deep-seated regional issues that must be resolved.

The administration views a troop surge of modest size as virtually the only remaining action in Iraq that would be a visible signal of determination. More economic assistance is likely to be touted, but absent a change in the pattern of violence, infrastructure enhancement simply isn't practical.

Yes, several additional brigades in Baghdad would allow for more roadblocks, patrols and neighborhood-clearing operations. Some initial successes would be evident. But how significant would this be? We've never had enough troops in Iraq. In Kosovo, we had 40,000 troops for a population of 2 million. That ratio would call for at least 500,000 troops in Iraq; adding 20,000 now seems too little, too late.

Further, U.S. troops so far have lacked the language skills, cultural awareness and political legitimacy to ensure that areas "cleared" can be "held." The key would be more Iraqi troops, but they aren't available in the numbers required. Nor are the Iraqi troops reliable enough for the gritty work of dealing with militias and sectarian loyalties. Even if militia fighters in Baghdad can be temporarily suppressed, they could redeploy to continue the fight in other areas.

What the surge would do is put more American troops in harm's way, further undercut the morale of U.S. forces and risk further alienating elements of the Iraqi populace. American casualties would probably rise, at least temporarily, as more troops appeared on the streets -- as happened in the summer when a brigade from Alaska was extended and sent into Baghdad. And even if the increased troop presence initially frustrated the militias, it wouldn't be long before they found ways to work around the neighborhood searches and other obstacles, if they chose to continue the conflict.

Other uses for troops include accelerating training of the Iraqi military and police. But vetting these Iraqi forces for loyalty has proved problematic. So neither accelerated training nor adding Iraqi troops to the security mission can be viewed as though a specified increase in effort would yield an identical increase in return.

The truth is that the underlying problems are political, not military.

Vicious ethnic cleansing is underway, as various factions fight for power and survival. In this environment, security is unlikely to come from smothering the struggle with a blanket of forces -- and increasing U.S. efforts is likely to generate additional resistance, especially from Iraq's neighbors. More effective action is needed to resolve the struggle at the political level. A new U.S. ambassador might help, but the administration needs to recognize that the neoconservative vision has failed.

Well before the 2003 invasion, the Bush administration was sending signals that its intentions weren't limited to Iraq; "regime change" in Syria and Iran was often discussed in Washington. Small wonder then that both countries have worked continuously to feed the fighting in Iraq.

Dealing with meddling neighbors is an essential element of resolving the conflict in Iraq. But this requires more than border posts and threatening statements. The administration needs a new strategy for the region, before Iran gains nuclear capabilities. While the military option must remain on the table, America should take the lead with direct diplomacy to resolve the interrelated problems of Iran's push for regional hegemony and nuclear power, the struggle for control of Lebanon, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Isolating our adversaries hasn't worked.

Absent such fundamental change in Washington's approach, there is little hope that a troop surge and accompanying rhetoric will be anything other than "staying the course" more. That wastes lives and time, bolsters the terrorists and avoids facing up to the interrelated challenges posed by a region in crisis.

The writer, a retired Army general and former supreme allied commander of NATO, is a senior fellow at UCLA's Burkle Center for International Relations.

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