How Many Troops Do We Need?

Greg Djerejian argues that we need more boots in the ground in Iraq:

It’s easy to beat up on me, as Brad DeLong does, for not stating that the buck stops with POTUS. Except that Kerry would have been even worse–all but guaranteeing that Iraqi democratization would not have been seriously pursued (“wrong war, wrong place, wrong time”; troops out w/in 4 years, interim authority head but a “puppet”, the better to play into the insurgent’s propaganda and handbook). Between arguably underwhelming options in elections, sometimes, hard decisions have to be made. But what’s clear now is that it is in all of our interests that the Iraq project not flounder. This would prove the biggest American foreign policy disaster since Vietnam, perhaps worse even. It would allow radical jihadists to renew their momentum, render risible talk of Middle Eastern democratization, and make America appear a paper tiger again (as during the abdication-of-global-leadership-ridden Clinton years). These are critical times. Rumsfeld, if we’re stuck with him, needs to be persuaded to rotate more troops into theater. It’s not only Chuck Hagel and John McCain who need to raise the pressure. Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh, on the other side of the aisle, should consider doing so to. Better safe than sorry. Force matters. The Powell Doctrine is not dead. Rumsfeld must snap out of denial and get back to basics. Quickly.

I wholeheartedly agree that a stable and free Iraq is now vital to our national interest. If we pull out of Iraq, it will be beyond disastrous. However, the question then becomes "how do we fight this war effectively?" I’m not entirely positive that more boots on the ground is the way to do that.

First of all, we have to understand our limitations. We can’t be at every street corner in the country. We can’t have armed troops at every polling place in Iraq in the upcoming elections — in fact, that would be a rather bad idea. We could have half a million troops in Iraq and still not be able to do that. If our goal is to have sufficient manpower to guard the Iraqi elections, that isn’t a reasonable goal. We can’t be everywhere.

That isn’t to say that the current plan to add more troops isn’t the right one. We may not be able to guard every polling place, but we certainly can and should try to protect as many as we can, especially in and around the Sunni Triangle and other areas of concentrated violence.

Furthermore, boots on the ground are only good if they have intelligence that makes them effective. Right now our intelligence inside Iraq is better than it has been before, but we still don’t know all that much about the terrorist groups operating inside Iraq. Without solid intelligence, additional troops just become additional targets. We need to increase our ability to predict and prevent future attacks before we can guarantee that additional troops would be more effective.

There is also the issue of logistics. More soldiers require more food, more ammo, more fuel, and more supplies. All of those have to be trucked through Iraq in convoys that are the most frequent targets of terrorist attack. Increasing the number of troops requires more troops to operate and guard those lines of supply, which creates a kind of law of diminishing returns. If we’re devoting more resources to guarding our supply lines, we’re not attacking the terrorists as we should.

The conventional wisdom is that we need more boots on the ground. However, we’re not fighting in a conventional conflict. Unconventional conflicts require unconventional tactics.

A better solution is to use what we have more effectively. The offensive against the terrorist strongholds in Fallujah was a good start — we have to continue to take the fight to the enemy. If additional troops free more resources towards that end, then adding additional troops would be a sound policy. However, we cannot nor should we be a replacement for Iraqi police. Our soldiers are not traffic cops, they’re trained and effective warriors. We need them to do the job they were assigned.

For places like Mosul, we have a solution waiting for us to call upon. The Kurdish peshmerga are effective and well-trained soldiers who know the area, know the language, and could provide valuable security assistance. However, we’ve been unwilling to use them until recently. Our first priority must be to restore security, and if that means playing the ethnic division in Iraq to our advantage, so be it. The Sunnis have an opportunity to come to the table in the new Iraq — however, so long as the Sunni Triangle remains the epicenter of terrorism in Iraq, we have to do whatever it takes to diminish the threat.

It seems as though the assessment of the situation in Iraq gets better rather than worse the closer one gets to it. The Iraqi people and the coalition troops are far more optimistic about the situation in Iraq than the media or the American public. The people that spend every day in Iraq and see the whole picture understand that despite the violence, the situation in Iraq is not nearly as bad as it has been made out to be.

This is a question of resolve — so long as our resolve remains greater than that of the terrorists, we will win. However, the terrorists understand our weaknesses and will do whatever they can to reduce support for the war again. The enemy is playing to the Vietnam playbook — it is beyond imperative that we do not follow their lead.

One thought on “How Many Troops Do We Need?

  1. More boots on the ground in Iraq will merely bring about more flag-draped coffins returning to America. A post-election pullout would appear all but inevitable since American public opinion is unlikely to stomach continued troop presence there after one of two things happen….the new Iraqi government is in place and wishes to lay a framework without significant U.S. input…or civil war breaks out. Few serious people are expecting anything less than a civil war in Iraq, but even if your pollyanna predictions come true and “everything turns out okay”, I’d still be surprised if America has any substantial troop presence in Iraq by this time next year.

    Then, of course, it’ll be onto the next pre-emptive war in against those nasty thugs in oil-rich Venezuela. Halliburton has to make up some money after losing their court battle to cheat workers out of agreed-upon health care benefits.

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