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Friday, April 14, 2006

The Military Has it Wrong

Ever since the historic elections in Iraq last December, the former Baathist state has steadily descended into an inferno of sectarian violence and increasing power of thuggish militias. Despite frequent claims to the contrary, the regression in progress does not display the futility of nation building in Iraq. In fact, the large majority of Iraqis have acted patiently and heroically during the recent renewal of violence. The sober truth is the blame for Iraq’s regression lies not with the Iraqis but with ourselves.

While there were many honest disagreements about the number of troops needed to properly secure Iraq both before and after the 2003 invasion, it has become increasingly clear that we do not have enough troops on the ground. The key number of American troops needed to properly secure Iraq has consistently been 150,000. Whenever we hit that mark, such as during last December’s elections, the situation stabilizes and the insurgency cools down. However, just as the situation calms down, the military invariably announces troop reductions, bringing troop levels down to about 120,000-130,000. Following the reduction of ground forces, things inevitably heat up and the political situation in Iraq gets progressively worse until we once more raise troop levels.

One would think that the military would eventually catch on and stay at the 150,000 mark. The problem is that the military has fundamentally misconstrued the nature of American power in Iraq, and the military’s underlying thesis is setting America up for disaster. The military thinks that American troops are the underlying cause of the insurgency. According to their line of thinking, whenever American troops raid a village looking for insurgents or deploy in a Baghdad neighborhood, they create resentment among the population, which consequently drives people to resist the American presence through support for the insurgency. Thus, according to the Pentagon Brass, America should pursue a “light footprint” strategy and let Iraqi troops do the majority of the maneuvering, as Iraqi troops will not attract the level of hostility that American troops will.

This logic is absurd on three levels. First and foremost, Iraqi troops aren’t as capable as American forces. While they are certainly progressing, we cannot expect to fight and win a war relying on second-rate troops. We have the best and most expensive army in the world—we need to take advantage of it. Every time that Iraqi troops don’t quite complete a mission as well as American troops could have, one more terrorist escapes or one more car bomb goes off. Attacks that could have been prevented hurt our image in Iraq and further give strength to the insurgency.

Second of all, letting the Iraqis do the heavy lifting makes sectarian strife worse. The Iraqi army is largely Shiite and the areas where the insurgents live are Sunni. When Shiite troops raid Sunni settlements, they are setting the stage for reprisal killings and ethnic hatred. If American troops went in instead, the Sunnis would get mad at America. That is perfectly fine, because Americans don’t have to live with the Sunnis—the Shiites do. It is far better to have America hated, rather than the Shiites, because when the Sunnis get mad and retaliate, they will attack American forces instead of Shiite civilians. While our army is fully prepared to handle such attacks, innocent civilians stand no chance of defending themselves. This loss of life leads to bitter resentment and hatred amongst the Shiite population, which in turn retaliates by killing yet more Sunnis, and the cycle continues.

The third harmful effect is that the Iraqi forces are largely unwilling to curb the growing power of Shiite militias. These militias are trained and financed by Iran, and are rapidly becoming a far greater threat to a democratic Iraq than the largely Sunni insurgency. The militias act with near impunity in the Shiite south and demand protection money from local villages, using violence and coercion to subtly take over political and social institutions. Iran used this strategy with resounding success in 1980’s Lebanon and they are getting away with it again. The military has until now refrained from taking decisive action to destroy these militias, and this inaction is a terrible mistake. We cannot afford to lose the Shiite street to the Iranian-backed militias; even if we pay a political price with the Shiites by combating the men who provide social services and welfare to poor urban areas, the long-term cost of inaction is incalculable.

Unfortunately, the military is continuing to follow its “light footprint” philosophy. In fact, it is growing ever more determined to do so. The new commander of ground forces in Iraq, Lt. General Peter Chiarelli, aims to cut back even more on the activity of American troops. This strategy not only means less frequent confrontation of the militias, but also that we will more likely refrain from engaging mosques filled with insurgents or take other similarly aggressive measures. While aggressive American action would probably result in short term unpopularity, in the long run, it would win the war and provide a better quality of life for Iraqis. Short sided, poll-oriented strategy is a recipe for disaster and will not only cripple our troops on the ground, but pave the way for civil discord and unending sectarian strife. The military needs to engage in total war against all insurgent factions and Shiite militias in an effort to secure the nation. Three years of public relations-minded quasi war have accomplished little—we need to finally get serious.