Go Heavy or Go Home

That’s a slogan you often see on shirts in lifter gyms. It apparently sums up the options for changes in our Iraq policy now being weighed by the Pentagon. The Washington Post has gotten leaks from “sources who have been informally briefed on the review.” The Post says that a Pentagon group headed by two colonels from the Army and one from the Marine Corps has been examining options for changes in our approach to the Iraq conflict:

The Pentagon’s closely guarded review of how to improve the situation in Iraq has outlined three basic options: Send in more troops, shrink the force but stay longer, or pull out, according to senior defense officials.
Insiders have dubbed the options “Go Big,” “Go Long” and “Go Home.”

But the “go heavy” option–which would include, say, a tripling of the U.S. force in Iraq–has been rejected as beyond the current capabilities of both American and Iraqi armed forces. It is also, I think, politically unfeasible. The “go home” option, likewise, is a non-starter for obvious reasons. That leaves a “hybrid” variation on the “go long” concept:

The group has devised a hybrid plan that combines part of the first option with the second one — “Go Long” — and calls for cutting the U.S. combat presence in favor of a long-term expansion of the training and advisory efforts. Under this mixture of options, which is gaining favor inside the military, the U.S. presence in Iraq, currently about 140,000 troops, would be boosted by 20,000 to 30,000 for a short period, the officials said.
Under the hybrid plan, the short increase in U.S. troop levels would be followed by a long-term plan to radically cut the presence, perhaps to 60,000 troops.

To me, this sounds like an inconsequential variation on our current policy. Aren’t we already training Iraqi soldiers and policeman as fast as we can? That has been the administration’s strategy for a long time: withdraw our troops as the Iraqis become capable of replacing them. And what is the significance of a short-term increase in troop levels by 15 to 20 percent? It’s likely to be marginal at best.
If the Post’s article really does sum up the current state of military thinking, it shows two things: one, how little merit there is to the idea that the reason for the problems in Iraq is that the administration has somehow been approaching the conflict in the wrong way; and two, how little control we ultimately have over Iraq’s success as a nation.
I don’t doubt that a large majority of Iraqis want the violence to end so they can live normal lives. I also don’t doubt that most would like the present democracy to succeed. But a minority, sizable enough for the purpose, is bent on causing enough violence to discredit the government by creating chaos. Sadly, I doubt that there is any way for U.S. troops to make this level of violence impossible. If it were a matter of winning battles, we would win the battles. But it isn’t. I don’t think there is any number of soldiers, within reason, that could prevent fanatics from blowing themselves and others up, or carrying out enough shootings and kidnappings to sow terror and disorder.
If there is a solution, it lies with the Iraqi people. A large enough majority have to believe strongly enough in democracy and the current Constitution to isolate, discredit, undermine and ultimately destroy the radical elements in their respective communities. If that doesn’t happen soon, it’s hard to see how Iraq’s democracy can be sustained. One serious problem in this regard is Iraq’s Muslim culture. Islam doesn’t necessarily preclude democracy, as the example of Turkey shows. But the theology and traditions of that religion are relatively friendly to violence and political extremism. It may be that because of Iraq’s Muslim culture, the kind of overwhelming consensus against violence that the government needs to survive will never develop. If that’s the case, I don’t think any amount of tinkering with U.S. troop levels will make much difference.
PAUL adds: I hope that the difference between the “go long” strategy and the current approach is that under “go long” we would scale way back on our policing efforts. We’d continue to train and we’d continue to conduct military operations against our enemies. But we’d pull back from trying to reduce sectarian strife, particularly in Baghdad. Either the Iraqis would do this work or it wouldn’t get done, and the situation would sort itself out over time based on the outcome of turf wars.
Given the problems and probable political unsustainability of the alternatives, I advocated giving this approach strong consideration here. Some of the shortcomings of the approach were noted here.

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