By George Friedman
U.S. President George W. Bush is preparing a new strategy for Iraq. According to reports being leaked to the media, the primary option being considered is a "surge strategy," in which U.S. troop levels in Iraq would be increased, particularly in the Baghdad region. The numbers of additional troops that would deploy — or that would not be rotated home — are unclear, but appear to be in the low tens of thousands. This "surge" strategy is interesting in that it runs counter to general expectations after the midterm elections in November, when it appeared that the president was tied to a phased withdrawal plan. Instead, Bush seems to have decided to attempt to break out of the military gridlock in which the United States finds itself. Therefore, the questions now are why the president is considering this strategy and whether it will work. As we have discussed previously, the United States appears to have four strategic options in Iraq: 1. Massively increase the number of troops in Iraq, attempting to break the back of both the Sunni insurgents and the Shiite militias and create room for a political settlement. 2. Begin a withdrawal process that allows the Iraqis to shape the politics of the country as they will — and that leaves a huge opportunity for Iran to fill the vacuum. 3. Abandon attempts to provide security for Iraq but retain forces there, in a redeployed posture, with the goal of blocking any potential Iranian moves toward the Arabian Peninsula. 4. Attempt to reach a political accommodation with Tehran that concedes Iraq to the Iranian sphere of influence, in order to provide guarantees against Iranian expansion southward. This diplomatic option is compatible with all others. Each of these options has strengths and weakness. The first option, the surge, rests on the assumption that the United States has enough troops available to make a difference on the ground in Iraq; it also would decrease the strategic reserve for dealing with other crises around the world. The phased withdrawal option eliminates the need for Iraqi Shia and Iran to engage in political discussion — since, given time, U.S. forces would depart from Iraq and the Shia would be the dominant force. The blocking strategy puts the United States in the position of protecting Saudi Arabia (a Sunni kingdom that doesn't want to appear to be seeking such protection) against Iran — a Shiite state that could, in that situation, choose the time and place for initiating conflict. In other words, this option would put U.S. forces on a strategic defensive in hostile areas. The fourth option, diplomacy, assumes some basis for a U.S.-Iranian understanding and a mechanism for enforcing agreements. In short, there are no good choices — only a series of bad ones. But, for the United States, doing nothing is also a choice, and the current posture is untenable. The president appears to have chosen a variation on the troop surge. But it is a variation with an important difference. He has not proposed a surge that would increase the number of troops in Iraq by an order of magnitude. Indeed, he cannot propose that, inasmuch as he does not have several hundred thousand troops standing by — and to the extent that forces are standing by, he cannot afford to strip the strategic reserve completely. It is a big world, and other crises can emerge suddenly. The surge the president is proposing appears to be on the order of around 10,000 troops — and certainly no more than 20,000. Even at the upper limit, that is not so much a surge as a modest increase. It is, however, the best that can be done under the circumstances. The Political Logic
The president's logic appears to be as follows: While it is impossible to double the size of the force in Iraq — for reasons of manpower, logistics and politics — it is possible to massively increase the force available in the key area of Iraq: Baghdad. If this increase were to include a reshuffling of forces already in-country in a way that would double the number deployed to Baghdad, it might be possible to achieve a strategic victory there, thus setting the stage for a political settlement that would favor American interests. Behind this thinking is a psychological assumption
. Over the past year, it has become conventional wisdom that the U.S. strategy in Iraq has failed and that it is simply a matter of time until U.S. forces withdraw. Under these circumstances, the United States has been marginalized in Iraq. No one expects Washington to be able to threaten the interests of various parties, and no one expects meaningful American guarantees. The Iraqis do not see the United States as being a long-term player in Iraq, or as relevant to the current political crisis there. Iran, Iraq's powerful Shiite neighbor, seems much more relevant and important. But the Sunnis, not viewing the Americans as a long-term factor in Iraq, cannot turn to the United States for protection even if they fear the Iranians and the Iraqi Shia. The conventional wisdom is that the United States has failed, knows it has failed and is out of options. Unless the Americans are prepared to simply walk away, the assumptions of the players in and around Iraq must change. From Bush's standpoint, the United States must demonstrate that it does have options, and that the president's hands are not tied politically in Washington. If he can demonstrate that he can still shape U.S. policy, that the United States has the ability to increase forces in Iraq — confounding expectations — and that it can achieve victories, at least on the local level, the psychology in Iraq and Iran will change and the United States will at least be able to participate in shaping Iraq's political future instead of being simply a bystander. If the president can increase the forces in Iraq and not be blocked by the Democrats, then the assumption that the Republicans' political defeat in November cripples Bush's power on the larger stage would be dispelled. Therefore, surge the forces. The Military Perspective
The plan has come under sharp attack, however — particularly from the Army and apparently from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The plan is primarily political in nature: It would use U.S. forces as a lever to achieve a psychological shift and create a particular political environment. Viewed from a strictly military standpoint, however, it makes no sense. Now, war is about politics, but from the Joint Chiefs' standpoint, the military weakness of the plan obviates potential political benefits. The generals appear to have made the following criticisms:
- The size of the surge cannot achieve any meaningful military result. Even a surge of hundreds of thousands of troops would not guarantee success in a counterinsurgency operation. This surge is too little, too late.
- The United States already has surged forces into Baghdad, and the operation was regarded as a failure. Counterinsurgency operations in an urban setting are difficult, and the Americans are dealing with multiple Shiite militias, Sunni insurgents, criminal groups and hostile neighborhoods in the capital. Achieving military success here is unlikely, and the strategy would lead to casualties without victory.
- Surging fresh troops into Baghdad would create major command-and-control problems. The entire structure of areas of responsibility, intelligence distribution and tasking, chains of command and so on would have to be shifted in a very short period of time for the president's strategy to work. Transitioning new troops — who are not familiar with the area for which they would be responsible — into a counterinsurgency operation in a city of about 5 million would create endless opportunities for confusion, fratricide and failure. A "surge" connotes "fast," and this transition should not be undertaken quickly.
- The U.S. Army in particular is stretched to the limit. Failure to massively increase the size of the Army has meant that the force that existed in 2003 has had to carry the load of this war through multiple deployments. The president's strategy necessarily would increase the duration of several deployments for Army and Marine forces. Between concerns about morale and retention, maintaining equipment in the theater and simple effectiveness after long periods of deployment, the United States is at the limits of what it can do. Surging forces in an operation that is unlikely to succeed creates failure throughout the military system. No increase in U.S. forces generally, if committed to now, would impact the system for months or even years.
- There is little or no reserve available in practical terms. A 10-division military force, deployed the way it is, means that five divisions are in Iraq at any given time, and the other five are either recovering or preparing to go there. The United States is already vulnerable should other crises crop up in the world, and a surge into Iraq now would simply exacerbate that condition.
What we have here, therefore, is a divergence between political reality and military reality. The Upshot
Politically, the Americans cannot leave Iraq unless Washington is prepared to allow Iran to assume dominance in Iraq and the region. That is politically unacceptable. A redeployment under the current circumstances would create a hostage force in Iraq, rather than a powerful regional strike force. The United States must redefine the politics of the region before it can redeploy. To do this, it must use the forces available in one last try — regardless of the condition of the forces or even the improbability of success — to shift the psychology of the other players. Too much is at stake not to take the risk. Militarily, even a temporary success in Baghdad is doubtful — and if it can be achieved, the gains would be temporary. They also would come at substantial cost to the force structure and the American strategic posture. Any political success in Iraq would be vitiated by the military cost. Indeed, the Iraqis and Iranians have a sophisticated understanding of U.S. military capability and will understand that the Americans cannot sustain a "surged" posture (and likely would pursue their own strategies on the basis of that understanding). Thus, the U.S. operation at best would lead to a transitory military improvement; at worst, it would inflict substantial casualties on U.S. forces while actually weakening the U.S. military position overall. If the military argument wins, then the United States must select from options two through four. Politically, this means that Iraq would become a Shiite state under the heavy influence of Iran. If the political argument wins, it means the United States will continue with military operations that are unlikely to achieve their desired ends. Neither option is palatable. The president now must choose between them. He appears to have chosen a high-risk military operation in hopes of retrieving the United States' political position. Given what has been risked, this is not an irrational point of view, even if it is a tough position to take. It is possible that the surge would lead to perceptions that the United States is an unpredictable player that retains unexpected options, and that discounting it prematurely is unwise. The strategy could bring some Shia to the table as a hedge, or perhaps even lead to a political solution in Iraq. Even if the probability of this happening is low, the cost is bearable — and given what has already been invested, from Bush's standpoint, it is a necessary move. Of course, the problem every gambler has when he is losing is the fear that if he leaves the table, he will lose his chance at recouping his losses. Every gambler, when he is down, faces the temptation of taking his dwindling chips and trying to recoup. He figures that it's worth the risk. And it could be. He could get lucky. But more frequently, he compounds his earlier losses by losing the money for his cab ride home. We can divine the president's reasoning. Nothing succeeds like success and, indeed, he might pull the winning card. If the strategy fails, the United States will have added to its military weakness somewhat, but not catastrophically. But the question is this: Will the president be in a position to get up from the table if this surge fails, or will he keep pulling chips out of his pocket in the hope that he can recoup? That is the question this strategy does not answer.