Fred Barnes expects President Bush to authorize a “last ditch” effort to “defeat the Sunni insurgency and establish a sustainable democracy in Iraq.” The likely plan, according to Barnes, consists of adding 50,000 American troops with which, in the first instance, to secure the mixed Shia-Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad. Once the neighborhoods are “cleared,” American and Iraqi troops would try to “hold” them by remaining behind and living day-to-day among the population. The hope is that, safe from retaliation by terrorists, residents would begin the cooperate with their government. After securing Baghdad, we would make a full-scale drive against al Qaeda and other insurgents in Anbar province.
I hope I’m wrong (and may very well be wrong, since this isn’t my area of expertise), but I confess to being skeptical that this plan ultimately will succeed in turning the tide in Baghdad. The first part, temporarily securing certain neighborhoods, presumably can be accomplished with a large enough force. But faced with overwhelming force, I imagine that the various militias will melt back into the population and/or set up shop in other neighborhoods. Barnes doesn’t say how many American troops would remain behind to “hold” the neighborhoods we have secured, but it doesn’t seem possible to sustain a massive presence for very long. Thus, we would have to rely on Iraqi forces. I have confidence in the ability of Iraqi troops to maintain order in many parts of the country, but I question whether they are ready to do so in the worst neighborhoods of Baghdad. Moreover, it is in these “mixed” neighborhoods that issues of divided loyalty among Iraqi forces come into play. The plan also seems to depend on the cooperation of the Iraqi government, and I question its commitment to defeating Shiite militias in Baghdad.
I also worry about the political sustainability of this approach. If the war continues to lose support, then sooner or later the Democrats will probably be determining its course. The war will continue to lose support if, as happened in the fall, we launch a major operation in Baghdad that results in a spike of American casualties without demonstrably positive results. The initiative Barnes describes seems quite likely to produce the spike. And it’s far from clear that, even in the short term, Americans will see calm return to Baghdad. I fear that the city is simply too big, and what’s required to blow things up and kill civilians too minimal, to enable the mission to be perceived as a success.
Therefore, I would prefer to see the adminisration focus on Anbar province, where real U.S. enemies are there to be defeated. It is true, as Barnes suggests, that full victory in Iraq requires a stable and much less violent Baghdad. But if I’m right about the feasibility of obtaining that victory in the present envirionment, then we might be better off winning some victories against al Qaeda and eshewing a strategy that might well cause the war to become even less popular.
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