The Magazine

The Army We Have

From the December 27, 2004 issue: It's too small.

Dec 27, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 15 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DONALD RUMSFELD declared, "You go to war with the Army you have. They're not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time." The callousness and irresponsible buck-passing of this statement need no further elucidation. Its deeper irony, however, requires a little spelling out.

Donald Rumsfeld has been secretary of defense for four years. He has been an extremely active SecDef, molding the military service agendas, including manpower and materiel policy, with almost unprecedented meticulousness. The American Army in Iraq is very much Rumsfeld's Army. Its relatively small size reflects his belief in the superiority of air power over ground forces. Its lack of armor reflects his conviction that "lightness" is a virtue. The hesitation to have it engage in rebuilding a shattered state reflects his understanding of war as an activity separate from politics and nation-building. The result: The military measures and manpower policies guiding the current deployment in Iraq do not sufficiently reflect the gravity of the security situation or the political stakes of ensuring a successful transition to democracy.

In the past several weeks, the Bush administration has taken two steps it should have taken six months ago: It destroyed insurgent safe havens in Falluja and elsewhere, and it announced an increase in troop strength to prepare for Iraqi elections in January. U.S. policy will pay a price for the tardiness of these actions. Fallujans will go to the polls, if they feel safe enough, with the vision of American attacks and rebel resistance green in their memories. There may not be time for things to settle down in that war-torn city, a major center of Iraqi Sunnis, prior to the elections. Nor will the limited increase of American forces over the coming weeks have as much impact as would be desirable on the security situation in time for those elections.

The overall manpower situation of the American military, too, is grim. By increasing troop strength primarily by extending the tours of duty of American forces already in Iraq, and by steadfastly refusing to consider increasing the size of the Army in any meaningful way, the administration has committed itself to a risky policy. It effectively assumes that one of three things will happen after the Iraqi elections: (1) The violence and resistance to the establishment of secular democracy will suddenly and dramatically diminish; or (2) the American Army will be able to withstand indefinitely unprecedented strains and hardships; or (3) Iraq will somehow cease to be an American military problem once a democratically elected government has taken power in Baghdad. The first two possibilities are wishful thinking; the third is terrifying.

There is little reason to imagine that insurgent attacks will suddenly and dramatically cease with the election of a democratic Iraqi government. The insurgents are not fighting simply to drive the United States out of Iraq, but to prevent the formation of precisely such a government. For some insurgents, in fact, only a government based on a radical interpretation of Islam can be legitimate. The period after the elections may well see attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces on a par with those we've seen in recent months.

It is quite possible that the insurgents will begin to shift their attacks away from U.S. forces and onto Iraqi forces and leaders, but Americans should take no solace from such a scenario. The nascent Iraqi state will not be able to defend itself for many months, perhaps years, after the election. Until then, it will be vulnerable to insurgents who can play on difficulties in the economy and on the inevitable hiccups that attend the formation of any new democracy. It is highly probable that if U.S. forces do not continue to defend democracy in Iraq, then democracy in Iraq will perish.

The consequences may well be disastrous should democracy fail in Iraq. When the United States invaded Iraq with the intention of establishing the first Arab democracy, it placed democracy itself on trial in the Middle East. Many in the region, and outside as well, declared that Arabs could not have democracy, or, more ominously, that democracy was inappropriate for Muslims. If the United States oversees the first real elections in a modern Arab land and then sits idly by as radical insurgents destroy the government, we will have set back the cause of democracy in the Middle East immeasurably. We will also have created excellent conditions for terrorists to reestablish bases and training camps in the heart of the Muslim world. The only way forward for America now is through success in Iraq.