Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Musings about the Military

One of the assumptions that grounds much of the thinking about Iraq is that more troops will create more stability. The point is central to the lucid and well-cited Brookings' strategy paper. The authors, including the eminent Ken Pollack, advocate 20 security personnel for every 1,000 Iraqis (excluding Kurdistan). By their calculations, this requires an army of 450,000, which is double the current level of Iraqi and Coalition forces.

But do more "boots on the ground" bring greater stability? At first it seems that this must be the case. More troops provide greater surveillance. It's soldiers will catch Zarqawi and are detaining insurgents. These forces are finding weapons caches before they fall into the hands of the enemy.

However, troops and especially Coalition forces have the potential to alienate large portions of the population. There's a story I heard from an ex-serviceman about a convoy in Kirkuk. Some MNF vehicles were lingering beside a market. An old man walked up to one of the humvees and dropped a grenade in the door. He didn't flee while it detonated, killing himself and several Americans. Why? His family's house was searched a few days earlier, and his wife was frisked. The fellow had no ties to the insurgency. The anger that resulted from the humiliation boiled over. His story, while unusual, is not unique. Many of my Iraqi friends have shared similar hostility against Coalition troops that mistreated them.

Clearly, there's a tradeoff here. Troops gather intel and capture insurgents, saving lives and bringing stability. But there's a cost in the numbers of Iraqis that are alienated, which leads to more insurgent attacks and greater instability. One factor that's never mentioned in this calculation is that American troops in downtown Baghdad are an affront to Iraqi pride. Moderate Iraqis - my project's staff - don't feel secure when they see an American tank on the street. The reaction is better characterized as resentment. Fortunately, they're level-headed enough that it would take alot of aggravation to push them towards violence. From what I can tell, this hostility does not exist towards Iraqi troops to the same degree. The Brookings' paper advocates protecting the civilian population as the key to stability, but because of the tradeoff it cannot be done effectively with foreign troops.

What would happen if non-Iraqi troops were taken off the streets? This is not a suggestion for withdrawal, but an arrangement similar to what the US maintains in Saudi Arabia or Turkey, where there are large numbers of troops among a less-than-friendly population. If the Saudi monarchy were threatened and their own forces were inadequate, the US would probably call on the resources at these bases. Otherwise, the troops stationed there sit tight. Though most Saudis detest the US presence, because the troops never appear on the streets of Riyadh, there is little overt animosity and few attacks.

Similarly, what would happen if the US never left its bases in Iraq unless there was something that was absolutely critical to the future of the Iraq? Unearthing a new weapons cache or finding a safe house is important, but its not critical to the future of Iraq. Critical is something that would overthrow the government or cause a large portion of the country to come under insurgent control. If that happens, the US would emerge from its base and bring its firepower. Otherwise, the troops would sit back in Camp Victory or wherever and let Iraqis do the dirty work.

Someone who's served with the US Army in Iraq has pointed out that this wouldn't work for several reasons. First, Iraqi troops aren't ready. Second, you need American troops to gather intelligence (psyops, as he put it). Third, unless you have regular patrols, large parts of the country would fall under insurgent control.

I won't contest the perception that most Iraqi troops are ill-prepared and poorly trained. But these small tasks - going door to door, gathering intel, finding weapons caches - seems like an excellent way to build their skills. Perhaps these Iraqi troops can also do "psyops," or this skill can be taught from the safety of a US base without ever having US troops leave their base. There is reason to doubt the effectiveness of these operations, anyway. Eventually, the Iraqis will have to do these tasks on their own, and its better that we start now with duties that are not mission critical.

Regular patrols are necessary to ensure that areas stay safe and free from insurgent control. Iraqis can do this, too, though not as well as foreign troops. But Coalition forces are not completing this task perfectly, anyway. Certain parts of Baghdad are still "no go" and have a large insurgent presence. Key cities - Fallujah, Ramadi, Baqubah, etc. - have come under insurgent control despite these patrols. Again, these regular coalition patrols may be one of the reason the population in these places would harbor insurgents in the first place.

And another comment I received after I made this suggestion: The US doesn't back down. This is a silly point. Surely accomplishing our objectives and bringing stability to the country is more important than misguided displays of machismo. At best, keeping troops on the bases would reduce the number of US casualties, decrease civilian support for the insurgents, and increase the capacity of the Iraqi army. At worst, this would increase the turmoil and the level of violence, though the country may be heading in that direction anyway.


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