Dear Power Line: A year ago I was with the 101st near Tikrit, as you might remember. I watched the 15 December elections from up close, and it was an awesome display of a people’s desire for something better – 11 million of 26 million went to the polls.
Now we seem to be losing our nerve. It is sheer nonsense to say that the US can be defeated militarily. The US can lose its domestic will to fight, and just quit, which would be equal to a strategic political defeat. GEN (ret) McCaffrey recently pointed out that only the armed forces and the CIA are at war, but the rest of the “interagency” and the country are not at war. We can choose to lose, but we cannot be defeated.
Without the US restraining the Shia, the new Shia-dominated Iraqi Army assisted by the Shia death squads will wreak revenge on the Sunnis for the Saddam era and for 4 years of bombings. Such a move would expand the Baghdad-Anbar bloodbath to the entire region, and likely result in a direct Iranian intervention to defend the Shia south, a Turkish intervention to strike a blow at the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan, and Saudi and Syrian intervention to support the Sunni Arabs.
Moreover, how would the US bug out of Iraq? Pull back to Kuwait, where al-Qaeda and the car bombers will likely follow? To Qatar, where CENTCOM Forward is located? To Murtha’s preferred position in Okinawa? When conducting a fighting withdrawal, a general normally has successive defensive lines prepared in his rear, hoping to stop the rearward movement at some point. Once we leave Iraq, we might as well leave the Middle East unless we have some piece of terrain we’re willing to hold.
If we avoid our own internal, self-induced political collapse, then we must focus on the real military tasks. The battle really is only in the Baghdad-Anbar axis. Kurdistan remains pacified and booming economically. In the four years since the occupation began, the Coalition has lost less than 180 troops in the Shia-dominated provinces. The US certainly has the troops available, with 34 combat brigades just in the National Guard, but only active duty troops or those Guardsmen already mobilized can be sent in the short-term. The skeptical generals are right, in my opinion, to think that more troops will not help if the reinforcements postpone the required political settlement among the Iraqi parties. The US main concern has to be fighting the al-Qaeda affiliates and their allies, most of whom have settled in Anbar. The sectarian strife, on the other hand, must be settled by the elected government. Remember, sectarian attacks until mid-2006 had been almost entirely large Sunni bombs used to attack Shia crowds. After the bombing of the Samarra mosque, though, the Shia militias began counterattacking Sunnis in the mixed neighborhoods, using assassination. We have not yet seen large Shia car bombs or suicide bomb used to attack Sunni gatherings. As for the Sunni insurgency, the US fights this defensively, since the insurgents are clearly not strong enough to re-impose Baathist rule even in their home provinces.
More troops will increase the US casualty rate, as 20% of all of our deaths are related to accidents. More troops means more accidents, and more targets for the enemy. More troops, though, will buy the Baghdad government some time, and will weaken al-Qaeda and the insurgents as we wipe out cells. This will only matter if al-Maliki takes the supremely difficult decision to turn his new Army against the Shia militias, and deal with the inevitable Sadrist response. Whether we cut-and-run, or stand-and-fight, more bloodshed is inevitable.
I prefer doing more to doing less, but only with a healthy dose of realism.
Sao Paulo, Brazil
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