Sunday, June 03, 2007

If the Old Guard Still Offend, They Got Nothing Left on Which You Depend

It is said that neurosis is a pattern of behavior where one repeats the same destructive acts, yet expects different results. In the realm of foreign policy, a variation on this theme would be to listen to the same pundits, dispensing the same advice yet expect, again, different results. Iraq war booster Fred Hiatt provides a useful case study in his effort to chart out a more "sustainable" Iraq policy - one that will enable us to maintain a sizable troop presence in Iraq for decades:

The Korea analogies of last week and other recent statements by the president are encouraging signs that rather than fight another battle with Congress Mr. Bush may, as he put it during his last news conference, try to "find common ground with Democrats and Republicans" on "a kind of long-term basis" for stabilizing Iraq.

The best formula for that consensus is well known: It is the Baker-Hamilton plan, which calls for the gradual withdrawal of most U.S. combat troops and the refocusing of the mission on training the Iraqi army, fighting al-Qaeda and defending Iraq from incursions by its neighbors. The administration is reportedly considering plans for reducing the number of American combat brigades next year, which could cut the overall troop level from more than 150,000 to 100,000 or less. Troop withdrawals must be connected to developments on the ground: U.S. commanders will try to hand off authority in Baghdad to Iraqi forces so that the gains of the surge will not be lost. But the sooner the American force is reconfigured for training and rapid reaction, the more likely it is that mission will attract support from Americans and from Congress.

Got that? Hiatt envisions a reduction of forces from 150,000 to 100,000 troops, with a slight reconfiguration away from combat missions - but only should developments on the ground permit such a shift to non-combat duty and ultimate drawdown. Supposedly, this revised posture is going to be far more attractive to the American people. I'm not so sure.

A force of that size would still strain the deployment capacity of our all-volunteer force considerably, perpetuating the need for stop-gap remedial measures that degrade our ultimate readiness and ability, such as: increasing the duration of tours in Iraq, reducing the downtime for returning soldiers, waiving behavioral infractions that would have previously precluded service and lowering the requirements on entrance level aptitude tests. Wear and tear on equipment would continue to create shortages and readiness issues as well. The hospitals that serve active duty soldiers and veterans would still be overtaxed.

Further, the economic costs associated with maintaining such a robust presence would continue to hemorrhage - at a time when greater fiscal flexibility is needed to address a national healthcare crisis and funding needs for entitlement program made more pressing given the impending retirements of the baby boomers. The other intangible costs of the Iraq war would also continue to plague us: the recruitment, training and propaganda value derived by al-Qaeda, the diplomatic costs incurred by the US, as well as the further neglect of important issues (foreign policy and otherwise) that have gone unaddressed, losing eyeballs and brain power to the vortex of the Iraq war.

What Hiatt hopes to accomplish by making such a change is also unclear. The best hope would be a possible reduction of US casualties - should all go according to plan, and our troops be able to stay in remote areas such that they could avoid contact with the enemy. With supply lines still stretching throughout the country, and part of Hiatt's redefined mission (al-Qaeda interdiction, training/embedding missions) still requiring activity outside the wire, it is dubious that such a quarantine is possible.

Beyond that, the mission itself is deeply misguided. For one, training the Iraqi army is making the problem worse, not better. The Iraqi armed forces do not serve some exalted notion of "Iraq" that transcends communal thinking. Quite the opposite: the forces we are training are by and large infiltrated by militia members and partisans, and are being led by a government that is very much implicated in the ongoing civil wars. We are merely making for better and stronger civil war combatants. Even worse, we are training our own enemies:

Staff Sgt. David Safstrom does not regret his previous tours in Iraq, not even a difficult second stint when two comrades were killed while trying to capture insurgents. [...]

But now on his third deployment in Iraq, he is no longer a believer in the mission. The pivotal moment came, he says, this past February when soldiers killed a man setting a roadside bomb. When they searched the bomber’s body, they found identification showing him to be a sergeant in the Iraqi Army.

“I thought, ‘What are we doing here? Why are we still here?’ ” said Sergeant Safstrom, a member of Delta Company of the First Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division. “We’re helping guys that are trying to kill us. We help them in the day. They turn around at night and try to kill us.”

The argument that we need 100,000-plus troops in Iraq to defend "Iraq from incursions by its neighbors" is also transparently weak. Which of Iraq's neighbors would we supposedly be deterring? Most of Iraq's neighbors (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria) do not possess a military capable of seizing foreign territory - or an economy that could handle conquest. And in case no one noticed, the Iraqis don't seem to take to kindly to foreign interlopers. Are we really to believe that where the US military has failed in terms of establishing a sustainable presence, the Jordanian Army will succeed?

One possible rejoinder would be that Iran could attempt such an aggressive annexation, and that it's military might have the muscle to succeed. Aside from the fact that a cash-strapped Iran could ill-afford the expense, we can dissuade such an act by sending a very clear message that any foreign power (save us, natch) that tries to infringe upon Iraq's territorial integrity would receive a healthy dose of shock and awe.

The only other credible military threat would be the Turks, who might feel pressed to cross Iraq's northern border to take on the Kurds eventually. Our presence, however, is not preventing the Turks from doing so, nor would our absence invite such a move. Either way, the Turks know that we will not get into a shooting war with a NATO member that has a modern military. At least not over the Kurds.

As for fighting al-Qaeda, there is a very real possibility that the Sunnis themselves will take care of an al-Qaeda presence that has greatly outlived its utility. Their effort and motivation would both be bolstered by a complete withdrawal - contra Fred Hiatt. Assuming the Sunnis decide that al-Qaeda could still serve a purpose post-US withdrawal, or are otherwise unable to uproot al-Qaeda, we can run more effective counterterrorism operations from a distance. In addition to air strikes that can be launched via aircraft carriers or Turkish air bases, we could attempt to establish small bases in Jordan (pdf) - kept largely out of view - from which special operations missions can be conducted. Such a light footprint would incur considerably fewer costs - and draw less ire - than 100,000 troops kept in Iraq.

It is well past time that we withdraw from Iraq - entirely. Beware of any plans to keep a smaller military presence in country - even if just to protect that enormous embassy complex that doesn't really serve typical embassy functions (at least not for Iraqis). The plans are either poorly thought out, or a means of concealing the intention to simply perpetuate a large scale operation - but with a product packaging that they hope will prove easier to swallow. Any contingent of troops left behind in Iraq will require force protection, support and re-supply - which translates into tens of thousands of soldiers.

Those soldiers will continue to die, and suffer grievous injury, for little to no return. See, those unrepenting buzzards want your life. And they got no right. As sure as you have eyes, they got no right.

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