Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A surge in wishful thinking

Robert Gates's comments on being sworn in as Secretary of Defense yesterday suggest that the hope some people had invested in him as an independent voice who would help to lead the Bushlet out of the Iraqi sandtrap was misplaced. He said the usual stuff about how disastrous it would be to leave before the job was done without specifying just what the job was.

The latest hope for snatching a semblance of something that could be spun as victory in Iraq is the idea of “surging” the number of U.S. troops in the country on a temporary basis. Send in an extra 20,000 to 50,000 troops for six months or so to clean out the nests of insurgents and extremists in Baghdad and elsewhere, goes the theory, and the struggling Iraqi government just might have a chance to stabilize itself and be in a position to handle security in the near future.

According to leaks from the deliberations, civilians in the White House are pushing for a “surge” and the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously oppose the idea. The Pentagon, according to the Washington Post, warns that a short-term mission “could give an enormous edge to virtually all the armed factions in Iraq.” More troops could lead to more attacks – or the well-armed Shia militias could simply melt back into society for a while and reemerge, perhaps more formidable than before, when the temporary build-up ends.

If a temporary increase were really temporary, designed as a face-saving prelude to substantial withdrawal of U.S. troops, it might be worth supporting. And, as Ted Carpenter, vice president for international studies at the libertarian Cato Institute points out, it could be spun as a success. “Every year so far violence has declined during the winter months, only to surge, so to speak, when summer comes. If a decline in violence coincides with an increase in U.S. troops, that might offer a way for the U.S. to declare victory and come home,” he told me today on the phone.

Pentagon officials may be influenced by the latest Pentagon assessment of the security situation in Iraq. The quarterly report, mandated by Congress, shows that attacks against American and Iraqi targets were at their highest level since the reports began. There were an average of 960 attacks a week against American and Iraqi forces in the August-November period, a 22 percent increase over May-August.

An increase in U.S. forces in Baghdad proper during that period at first had some success in reducing the number of attacks. But sectarian death squads quickly adapted, focusing on neighborhoods where the U.S. had not yet established a presence. And the Pentagon report noted that “Shia death squads leveraged support from some elements of the Iraqi Police Service and National Police,” hardly an encouraging development.

It is long past time to acknowledge that the U.S. invasion has not brought democracy in Iraq and that the U.S. is unable to pacify a country deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines.
In the context of the worldwide struggle to cope with al-Qaida and other terrorists, this is a setback, not a defeat. The United States will remain the most formidable force on the planet, perhaps made wiser by having attempted too much in one region on the basis of faulty intelligence.

Admitting a mistake and cutting our losses should strengthen us for other aspects of the long-term effort to neutralize the appeal of Islamic extremists and their ability to do damage to the U.S. and its friends and allies.

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