Monday, November 12, 2007

A Grand Don't Come for Free, Part III

80 Grand Don't Come for Free

Colin Kahl has responded to Brian Katulis' response here, and I wanted to, once again, jump in the middle to offer my pair of pennies. First, though, this excerpt from Ilan Goldenberg sets up the contrast nicely:

The problem with Kahl’s plan is that for it to work a tremendous amount would have to go miraculously well. If it doesn’t we will have wasted more American blood and treasure, still have 60K-80K American troops in Iraq and will not have gotten around to addressing other national priorities. For Katulis’s plan to work, everything will also have to go miraculously well. The difference is that if it fails we won’t have American troops in Iraq and will be in a better situation to try and get back to other security priorities such as Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, etc…

The comparative costs and benefits of the two approaches cannot, and should not, be ignored. However, Kahl has shown a penchant to ignore or downplay the enormous costs associated with the Iraq occupation despite the centrality of that variable to the decision making process (which, together with the potential benefits and probability of success, represents the three main pillars). We are talking about continuing an occupation that has already generated a price tag that will eventually top out in the trillions - with the requirements of ongoing activities burning through resources with a relentless consistency. This comes at a time when a plunging dollar, shaky economy and looming entitlement obligations require fiscal discipline to free up room for greater agility and fortification (leaving aside the budgetary demands that universal health care and infrastructure reinvestment will make).

Further, Kahl's plan necessitates the continuation of a military commitment that has already greatly degraded the readiness and efficacy of our armed forces - leading to remedial recruitment/retention measures that are compounding these problems and/or driving up financial costs. Not to mention the deaths and grievous injuries suffered by US military and civilian personnel that will continue to mount up, even if the pace is lessened.

In addition, dating back to the months before the invasion, and continuing today, our Iraq commitment has created a vortex that has greedily hoarded the eyeballs of this nation's leading diplomatic, military and intelligence policymakers (amongst many others) despite the ever growing list of serious foreign policy challenges that reside elsewhere. Some of those challenges, such as reducing the levels of anti-Americanism and improving our image in the world, are greatly hampered by the prolonged occupation of a Muslim country that, serendipitously of course, happens to rest on top of the second largest oil reserves on the planet.

And that is just the short list of costs, all of which will continue for years, if not decades, under the Kahl plan - a plan with long odds:

A key divide between Katulis and me is [our respective positions on] whether there is anything that the U.S. can do inside Iraq that can shape and shove the system into a stable decentralized equilibrium that is sustainable once we inevitably begin to leave. If one believes that there is zero or close to zero chance of achieving these objectives by keeping (any level of) U.S. forces in Iraq to influence events, and can demonstrate that the marginal costs of staying (at any level) outweigh the marginal benefits, then the Katulis/CAP “outside-in” position or a containment model makes a lot of sense. If, however, one believes the probability of managing the conflict from inside Iraq along the lines I suggested in my post are low but not approaching zero, then the magnitude of the interests involved suggest that we should try, using the Katulis/CAP position as the natural fall-back.

This passage is notable for at least three reasons. First, as mentioned above, Kahl reinforces the notion that his plan has a low probability of success. Second, Kahl makes no mention of the enormity of the costs of even attempting his plan. Finally, Kahl performs a bit of a rhetorical bait and switch by pondering the hypothetical marginal costs of staying in Iraq at "any level" when his own plan would require a rather sizable commitment. Here, Kahl informs the reader what "any level" really looks like:

However, assuming somewhat more permissive conditions facilitated by the bottom-up dynamics unfolding in Iraq at the moment, movement toward a residual force of 60,000-80,000 (including advisors, support, SOF, and quick reaction forces) in the timeframe sketched by CNAS (about 18 months) seems like a realistic halfway house to ensure our national interests on the path to a total withdrawal. [emphasis added throughout]

Got that? Kahl suggests that we may be able to move toward 60,000-80,000 troops over a period of 18 months if we assume that more permissive conditions will emerge over that time frame. That's a lot of "ifs" and caveats. This plan for contingent drawdowns should also sound familiar. It has been the public position of President Bush and the military leaders in charge of the Iraq campaign for some time. For years, literally, military and political leaders have been declaring that the goal is to drawdown forces as the situation on the ground allows (actually, that was the pre-war plan enunciated by Paul Wolfowitz - down to roughly 30,000 by Fall 2003). Ground level developments have not been, shall we say, overly cooperative.

But even if we assume that this will change, and that the situation will dramatically improve over a prolonged period such that we can safely protect a contingent as small as 70,000 troops by May 2009 (a contingent engaged in the operations outlined by Kahl), we would still have 70,000 troops in Iraq in May 2009 and beyond. That ain't cheap - nor, even then, would we necessarily be certain, or even likely, to stave off the negative outcomes that Kahl's plan seeks to address.

...a country that is not a safe haven for al-Qaeda, where the risks of humanitarian catastrophe on a genocidal scale are reduced, and the level of violent conflict stops short of a regional conflagration.

Each of those negatives would still be subject to the willingness and ability of a Shiite dominated government, that doesn't under Kahl's vision incorporate Sunni elements, to implement a scheme for the equitable distribution of oil revenue, as well as oversee the impartial command of a national-minded, non-sectarian Army. Without those accords, we would merely be delaying the inevitable by putting off our long overdue withdrawal - and possibly slowing down the pace of civil war related violence while we remain in-country.

It's not enough to suggest that a given plan (Plan A) has a better chance of leading to positive outcomes than another (Plan B) - which Kahl has, in my opinion, achieved to some degree. It must also be shown that Plan A is worth the costs compared to Plan B, and that the odds of success justify incurring those costs. Kahl has failed to make a persuasive case with respect to these last two questions, and that is a fatal shortcoming.

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