Why More Troops Isn’t Always Better

Thomas Ricks has an extremely critical piece in The Washington Post on the post-war planning in Iraq and how American actions may have spurred on the Sunni insurgency:

Exacerbating the effect of this decision were the U.S. Army’s interactions with the civilian population. Based on its experience in Bosnia and Kosovo, the Army thought it could prevail through “presence” — that is, soldiers demonstrating to Iraqis that they are in the area, mainly by patrolling.

“We’ve got that habit that carries over from the Balkans,” one Army general said. Back then, patrols were conducted so frequently that some officers called the mission there “DAB”-ing, for “driving around Bosnia.”

The U.S. military jargon for this was “boots on the ground,” or, more officially, the presence mission. There was no formal doctrinal basis for this in the Army manuals and training that prepare the military for its operations, but the notion crept into the vocabularies of senior officers.

For example, a briefing by the 1st Armored Division’s engineering brigade stated that one of its major missions would be “presence patrols.” And then-Maj. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, then the commander of that division, ordered one of his brigade commanders to “flood your zone, get out there, and figure it out.” Sitting in a dusty command tent outside a palace in the Green Zone in May 2003, he added: “Your business is to ensure that the presence of the American soldier is felt, and it’s not just Americans zipping by.”

The flaw in this approach, Lt. Col. Christopher Holshek, a civil affairs officer, later noted, was that after Iraqi public opinion began to turn against the Americans and see them as occupiers, “then the presence of troops . . . becomes counterproductive.”…

Few U.S. soldiers seemed to understand the centrality of Iraqi pride and the humiliation Iraqi men felt in being overseen by this Western army. Foot patrols in Baghdad were greeted during this time with solemn waves from old men and cheers from children, but with baleful stares from many young Iraqi men.

There may be something to this argument. I disagree that disbanding the Iraqi Army was necessarily a bad idea – there wasn’t much an an Army left to disband, and given that the military was Saddam Hussein’s primary method of suppressing Shi’ites, Kurds, and other minorities, keeping around the old military may have placated the Sunnis while causing dire problems with the other 70% of Iraq.

Would a less blatant US presence have helped in Iraq? It’s quite possible, although I have my doubts. I’m not sure that we could fight a successful counterinsurgency in Iraq without the help of the Iraqi people – and that requires us keeping close relations with the people. The successes we’ve had have been in places where we have solid cooperation between our troops and the locals. It’s really a Catch-22 situation: being on patrol can increase resentment, but if we don’t patrol we can’t develop intelligence and we can’t stop the kind of lawlessness that’s tearing Iraq apart right now.

It’s another reminder that counterinsurgency isn’t about “good” options – it’s all about tradeoffs. Had we kept the Iraqi military in place and former Ba’athist officials in government, it may have alleviated the Sunni problem, while ensuring that the majority Shi’ites were alienated from government. Adding more troops would have helped us deal with the lawlessness problem in the early days of the war, but would have meant more money, and stretched our logistical lines thinner – leading to more casualties. What the critics of this war continually fail to understand in their zeal to attack the Administration that launched this war is that the decisions that were made were made in the fog of war, and dealing with an incredibly fluid situation. It’s easy for some to play armchair Clausewitz, but it’s another thing to try to determine what the best course of action is in the heat of the Iraqi sun.

Still, many of the criticisms in the Post article are valid ones. Iraq is in many ways a laboratory to understand what works and what doesn’t – because the type of war we’re fighting in Iraq will be the type of war we’ll be fighting in the future. What matters is less about the mistakes we made in the fog of war three years ago, but the way in which we’re adapting our doctrines to fix those mistakes in future conflicts.

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