Tomorrow, President Bush will formally announce his plans for fixing the situation in Iraq. Depending on events, I will try to liveblog the President’s speech. However, I’ve been asked what my plan in Iraq would be. Now, I’m not an expert on the US military. I fully admit that I’m an armchair general who may have an informed opinion, but I make no pretense of being an expert. However, since being a blogger is all about uninvited opinion, here’s my take anyway.
I generally concur with Gen. Jack Keane’s plan for a “surge” in Iraq. I think we have to take a look at the situation in the harsh light of pragmatism. We’re winning what engagements we’re choosing to make, but we’re not engaging enough to make a difference. Ultimately the Iraqis must come up with an appropriate political solution, but that cannot happen until the anarchy in Baghdad is ended.
At the very minimum, Baghdad must be reinforced with an additional four combat brigades — approximately 20,000 troops. That number is almost certainly too low — to account for the inevitable need to change battle plans, the number should be closer to 30,000. It would be ideal to have even more – another four combat brigades for a total of 40,000 more troops, but it is unlikely that the military as it is could sustain that number for the time required.
These four brigades should be charged with actively smashing the insurgency. Small groups of US troops should be assigned to various parts of Baghdad. Each of them should make contact with locals, establish trust, and secure individual neighborhoods against attack. An emphasis should be placed on neighborhoods in mixed Sunni/Shi’ite areas of Baghdad — those where the death squads operate. As much as possible, these soldiers should “go native” — our goal is to become part of the neighborhood, and build trust. Arabs are fanatical in their sense of hospitality, and they will protect anyone who enters their homes. As much as possible, individual soldiers should actively be encouraged to spend time with Iraqis, listen to their concerns, eat what they eat, and gather intelligence on what forces are operating in that neighborhood. Remember, these people are justifiably afraid. They don’t trust us because we haven’t been helping them. We can’t operate out of forward operating bases and expect to win an insurgency. Instead, we have to become “insurgents” as much as possible.
These neighborhood patrols would then wait for the next death squad to arrive. The second they do, that death squad should be terminated. The goal should be to identify, find, and terminate the “leaders” of the insurgency — the recruiters, financiers, bomb-makers, and other key nodes in the terrorist network. We should use whatever tactics we need to do so — if it means getting trusted Iraqis to pose as terrorists and sell them IEDs set to explode in the terrorist’s faces, we should.
When fighting an insurgency, you have to fight dirty. The question should be how to make the terrorists feel afraid for a change. What would it do to the insurgency if they knew that any cell phone they use could end up having enough plastic explosive in it to blow their heads off? If the next arms shipment they got wasn’t booby-trapped to go off? If the neighborhood informant that was telling them about the Sunni families living near Sadr City wasn’t leading them straight into a US airstrike?
Put that kind of pressure on a terrorist group and you don’t need to kill all of them — they’ll start killing each other. You destroy the feeling of invincibility these thugs will have, and the whole game fails. We’re dealing with thugs rather than fanatics — they’ll say that they’re fighting for Islam, but only a small percentage of the “insurgency” really wants to kill themselves. The rest are mainly thugs and criminals — what would happen if every prisoner in America ended up on the streets with access to all the guns and weapons they have.
This isn’t just about killing the bad guy. Each patrol should have a significant reconstruction reserve fund. If a neighborhood needs a new generator, they’ll get one courtesy of Uncle Sam. If they need fixes to their water system, the patrol should have the ability to get it done. If Iraqis need jobs, the patrol should coordinate them. Forget about the Iraqi government at the top — democracy is by nature a grass roots affair. Where we’ve been the most successful is in building a grass-roots democracy in Iraq, and where our biggest failures have been is in trying to set up a federal government. We need to rebuild Iraq by the ground up, not the top down.
That requires a dramatic reshaping of our strategies in this war. At the same time, it’s what has worked in countless counterinsurgency operations in the past. Our soldiers are smart enough, tough enough, and resourceful enough to pull it off. They just need the clearance to do it. To be honest, I have a hell of a lot more trust in a 20-year-old private on his second tour in Iraq than I do in former Secretary of State Baker. Chances are, that kid probably knows more Arabic, knows more about Iraqi culture, and knows more about the enemy than any of the Washington pencil-pushers groping the dark for a strategy. Forget the Joint Chiefs, the people in the military who win our wars have always been the NCOs in the foxholes. Let’s let them do their job. They’ll do it with honor as they have for over two centuries.
Iraq is not unwinnable — but it will be if we don’t have the guts to stay on and we don’t have the guts to stop trying to micromanage everything from the top. Our military wins wars because our NCOs have more authority than most other military’s officers. Likewise, the Iraqi government is corrupt and secular. Nouri al-Maliki has failed to restore order, and we have to learn who we can trust and who we can’t. You can’t learn that from 30,000 feet or the comforts of an American city plunked down into the heart of Baghdad.
This war requires a fundamental reorganization of the way we’ve treated the situation. We must fight the enemy in a new way — and that requires building the same kind of networks of trust that they do. Our soldiers have been doing this organically on their own for some time now — and in that way having our troops coming in from previous tours in Iraq is actually to our advantage.
This strategy isn’t without risks — it will take time for natural suspicion to be overcome. At the same time, one has to think like an Iraqi. If you’re a Sunni family living in Baghdad, who will protect you from the next visit by a Shi’ite death squad? The people don’t trust the police to protect them. The military has done a better job, but even they haven’t be able to beat back the tide of violence. What if you could have someone who lived in your neighborhood, ensured that you were safe, gave you a chance to get a stable job, brought you electricity, brought you clean water, and when the death squads came, ensured that they would never harm you again? Wouldn’t you trust them? Wouldn’t you be more willing to cooperate with them and help them rebuild your country?
We can sleep safely in our beds here in America. We have no idea what it’s like for the average Iraq — having to live in constant fear of attack, worrying that every trip to the market would require dodging a sniper’s bullet. Our first priority must be in restoring order to the lives of the average Iraqi. A democratic republic must be born from the people, and unless the people of Baghdad feel secure, Iraq will remain a failed state. Our interests do not allow that, and we have this one last chance to do what it takes — we dare not falter, and we dare not fail.