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Why the "surge" won't work

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Over three weeks ago, I said that the surge strategy was a "terrible idea", writing, in part:

As for the "surge" itself, it's not going to work (assuming that the goal is to pacify Baghdad). It happens to coincide with the time of the year when violence traditionally wanes significantly (see page 22), so unless the increase is a colossal failure (i.e., actually manages to reverse the usual trend of decreased attacks), we won't even know if it worked until summer/fall '07. But on the merits, an inflammatory troop presence that is overwhelmingly unwanted and reviled, even one that is overwhelmingly well-intentioned at the ground level, is not helped by an increase. [...] Not good. Even leading current generals have indicated such an effort would not be helpful.
I stand by that analysis, though it's worth explaining further exactly why additional troops are, at this point, bad for Iraq and bad for America.

Counterinsurgency strategy, and even just a stable occupation of a country, requires involvement (or infiltration, if you prefer) in the population. Any kind of policing, and especially any offensive operations, whether against criminals, insurgents, or terrorists, absolutely depends upon interaction with (and trust from and understanding of) the people. We simply don't have the ability to do that in Iraq. Our forces weren't trained to do peacekeeping, much less to differentiate the good guys from the bad. The overwhelming majority of U.S. forces don't know the language, culture, or history of the people and places. For missions the military was actually built to execute, such ignorance is fine. We're really good at destroying enemy armies, hitting specific targets, and even toppling governments, regardless of whether we speak the local language. But the fact that none of these are the mission in Iraq creates an impossible situation.

The reason why massive manpower can overcome these deficits is because, at least in theory, if you have a soldier on every street corner, bad people can't act without being quickly seen or reported, and they are therefore unlikely to get away with doing bad things. The number required to do something like that in Iraq is beyond our capability, and even more importantly, it's beyond our desires (i.e., if the administration was serious about such an effort, they'd call for a draft -- or, heaven forbid, actually ask people to join the military, which they have thus far been unwilling to do).

I usually find "thought experiments" irritating, but humor me for a moment: Imagine a U.S. state, say, Michigan, was embroiled in violence between Protestants and Catholics. Say the former were roughly 60% of the state, the latter 20%, and the rest a mix of Jewish, Muslim, and atheist people trying to avoid the bloodshed. And by bloodshed I'm talking about around 12,000 dead in the last year at least, and possibly closer to 50,000, keeping the proportions right (for reference, the actual number of murders in all of Michigan in 2005 was . . . 615). Now imagine that to solve this, we sent the NYPD into Michigan. Because that's the kind of proportionate numbers we're talking about in Iraq -- a state of 8 million being "stabilized and managed" by 37,000 people is just about the same as a nation of 30 million and a force of 140,000. Does anybody really think that the NYPD could pacify the entire state of Michigan if people who looked the same and talked the same and lived in the same neighborhoods were blowing each other up every day? Even knowing the language and having a similar culture, I think most reasonable observers would find such a proposition ridiculous. (And yes, I know the NYPD is different than the Army, but it's so hard for people to process how the numbers work, I think it's a useful way to look at it, even if not entirely analogous.)

In Iraq, we're not getting good intel, we're not getting good informants, and even if we were, there are very few people on the ground who would be able to tell. This administration, by constantly moving the goalposts and trying to rescue an already failed legacy, has created an impossible task.

Moreover, by launching this escalation at a time of year during which violence traditionally ebbs anyway, the decrease in violence may create the false impression that the new surge strategy is working (post hoc ergo propter hoc). The current mess in Iraq isn't the fault of the troops -- again, we're lacking in areas that are not the job of our troops -- but the troops are certainly paying for it. And after tonight, another 20,000 will continue to pay for hubris, arrogance, and incompetence.

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