The tribulations of America's soldiers lead many to the conclusion that there are simply no more troops available to send to Iraq, even if we decided that that was the right strategy. Strictly speaking, this conclusion is not true. There are 650,000 soldiers in the active duty Army and Marine Corps, with an additional several hundred thousand in the National Guard and Reserves. There are now 170,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. If more were needed to avoid defeat in a war that was vital to America's security, they would surely be found. When pressed, officers and analysts who claim that there are no more troops point out that it is impossible to "sustain" higher levels of forces in Iraq on any sort of reasonable "rotational" basis--that is, to be able to bring troops out of the country after their year-long tour and replace them with an equivalent number of fresher troops. They point out that extending tours or sending soldiers back after very brief periods home would destroy morale in the force and break the Army--beyond its current state of brokenness, of course.
Placing greater burdens on America's soldiers probably would erode morale further and advance the collapse of the ground forces. But the corollary is not true: Relieving the burdens on the ground forces by withdrawing all or part of them from Iraq would not improve morale or delay or avoid the collapse. It would probably be far more devastating.
Advocates of withdrawal, either gradual or complete, rarely consider in any detail what that action would look like. It is worth painting a few mental images. First, U.S. troops would pull back to their forward operating bases, ending patrols in Iraq's towns and cities. In places like Ramadi, this would mean abandoning the city completely, since the coalition forces there cannot be secure without continual raids and other combat operations. American units in towns like Tal Afar, where a precarious peace still holds more than a year after the last major clear-and-hold operation, would also pull out, abandoning the Iraqis, who put their faith in us, to fend for themselves. Before long, the only American troops in Iraq outside of the FOBs would be the small teams embedded in Iraqi units. The enemy would then return and brutalize the decent Iraqis who pressed for reconciliation and peace, as has occurred following previous coalition withdrawals from cleared areas.
The pullback of U.S. forces to their bases will not reduce the sectarian conflict, which their presence did not generate. It will increase it. Death squads on both sides will become more active. Large-scale ethnic and sectarian cleansing will begin as each side attempts to establish homogeneous enclaves where there are now mixed communities. Atrocities will mount, as they always do in ethnic cleansing operations. Iraqis who have cooperated with the Americans will be targeted by radicals on both sides. Some of them will try to flee with the American units. American troops will watch helplessly as death squads execute women and children. Pictures of this will play constantly on Al Jazeera. Prominent "collaborators," with whom our soldiers and leaders worked, will be publicly executed. Crowds of refugees could overwhelm not merely Iraq's neighbors but also the FOBs themselves. Soldiers will have to hold off fearful, tearful, and dangerous mobs. Again, endless photographs and video footage of all this will play constantly. Before long, it will probably prove necessary to remove the embedded U.S. troops from the Iraqi military units. The situation will become too dangerous; the Iraqis will increasingly resent the restraint the embeds place on their actions; and the U.S. military will become fearful of being implicated in death-squad activity. It is a matter of chance whether the embedded troops are pulled before any are kidnapped or taken prisoner by Iraqi military units turning bad or being infiltrated by radicals.
What will be the effect of all this on American soldiers? The result could be worse than what we suffered in Vietnam. There will be no "decent interval" here during which we withdraw in reasonably good order--the withdrawal itself is likely to occur in the midst of rising violence. Instead of pictures of Americans on the embassy roof in Saigon, we will see images of Iraqi death squads at work with U.S. troops staying on their bases nearby. And let us not forget that in the world of Al Jazeera, we will be accused of encouraging those death squads. The overall result will be searing and scarring. The damage to the morale of the military could be far greater than what will result from burdening soldiers with longer or more frequent tours of duty in a stepped-up effort to achieve vic tory. Those who are concerned about the well-being of the Army should fear defeat of this type more than anything.
The only question that matters is: Can we still do anything to improve the situation in Iraq? The answer is yes. We can and must restore basic security to Baghdad and to the key cities and towns of the Sunni Triangle. In the past, I have recommended beginning with the outlying areas along the upper Tigris, Euphrates, and Diyala river valleys, both because clearing and holding smaller towns is easier and in the hope that success upon success in the heart of the Sunni Arab areas would demoralize the remaining fighters in Baghdad. That approach is no longer feasible. The U.S. and Iraqi governments have made it clear that the war will be won or lost in Baghdad.
Operation Together Forward, the recent joint Iraqi-American operation to pacify the capital, failed for a number of reasons. First, for lack of resources, it proceeded too slowly from neighborhood to neighborhood. Second, again because of resource constraints, there were not enough American troops left behind in neighborhoods that had been cleared--with the result that insurgents slipped rapidly back into those areas and destabilized them again. The price for conducting the operation was high--forces had to be drawn from al Anbar province, the hotbed of the Sunni Arab insurgency, and the situation there has been deteriorating as a result.
The lessons of the U.S. military program in Iraq are reasonably clear by now. American forces, working with Iraqis, can clear areas dominated by terrorists and insurgents. The efforts to do so lead initially to an upsurge in violence as the insurgents resist, but then to greater calm. In places like Tal Afar, Al Qaim, and other small towns along the Upper Euphrates River valley, Sadr City in 2004, and even Falluja (in the second battle in 2004), clearing operations have succeeded. In many of these cases, however, the U.S. command left inadequate American forces behind to help the Iraqi troops hold the area, with the result that insurgents gradually infiltrated and began to destabilize these regions once again. The lack of any coherent plan to move from one cleared area to another, moreover, often meant that stabilized towns were islands in a tumultuous sea.
The failure to hold cleared areas results in part from inadequate U.S. troop levels, but primarily from a strategy mistakenly obsessed with the irritation the American presence causes. The presence of U.S. combat forces is without doubt an irritant in Iraqi society. But so is the U.S. failure to assert control. When sectarian chaos recently engulfed Balad, local Iraqi leaders wondered loudly where the Americans were. In parts of Baghdad, local leaders warn their people to interact with Iraqi Police formations only if Americans are present. Increasingly, Sunni Arabs who fear the rise of Shiite death squads see U.S. troops as potential protectors as well as occupiers. The issue is not so much the presence of U.S. troops, but whether they provide the essential service the Iraqis most need--security. To the extent that American forces bring security, resentment of their presence will be mitigated by relief from fear. It won't be perfect. Attacks will continue and radical imams will preach blood-curdling sermons. But it will be much better.
One of the factors eroding morale in the U.S. military and throughout the country is the apparent ingratitude of the Iraqis. American soldiers feel, rightly, that they have liberated the country from a vicious dictator and are laying down their lives every day to protect Iraqis from each other. Yet radical clerics, government leaders, and local leaders constantly attack us. They will continue to do so, even if we change our approach and work to pacify the capital and the country. Why sacrifice for such people? Because it is in our interest to do so. We didn't ultimately invade Iraq to make the Iraqis happy, to make them like us, or to be popular in the Middle East. We haven't stayed in Iraq for any of those reasons either. We are in Iraq because it is a matter of our national interest for that country to be stable and well-governed lest it become a center of terrorist training and the eye of a regional hurricane. The gratitude of the Iraqis is not the point, nor is the rhetoric of their leaders.
Baghdad can still be pacified, but it will require a change of approach and more troops--probably on the order of 50,000, most of them deployed to the capital. The aim would be to clear and hold the Sunni Arab neighborhoods, in the first instance, both to prevent violence within them and to protect them from attacks from their Shiite neighbors. After each operation, we would need to leave behind significant numbers of U.S. troops to preserve the gains, along with such Iraqis as are available. The population to be thus pacified is about 4 million people (Sadr City, the Shiite area of about 2.5 million people in northeastern Baghdad, would need to be treated late in the process and in a different way). Historical norms from operations in this war and in previous peacekeeping operations suggest that forces of between 40,000 and 80,000 (Americans and Iraqis) or so would be needed to conduct these operations successfully. Such numbers are by no means unattainable with the deployment of additional U.S. forces to Iraq and the concentration of American and Iraqi forces within the country.
Assuming that such a procedure could get the violence in the Sunni areas of the capital to reasonable levels, it would then be possible to expand the operation to areas such as Ramadi, Balad, Baquba, and elsewhere along the upper Tigris, Euphrates, and Diyala river valleys. Putting a lid on the Sunni Arab insurgency would also reestablish American leverage with the Shiite leadership. The Sunni insurgency has been the primary justification advanced for the rise in Shiite militias. It should be clear by now that the Shiite leadership will not heed our calls for disbanding these militias until the Sunni insurgency is better under control.
This approach is by no means a panacea. The Iraqi government must still undertake painful and difficult political bargaining and must support the disarmament of militias. It will be necessary to pressure Iran and Syria to stop supporting violence in Iraq. Regional Iraqi governments must be developed, long-delayed provincial elections held, rule of law established, corruption brought under control in the ministries, and a fair and equitable division of the country's oil resources agreed upon. Pacification will not inevitably usher in any of these outcomes. Failure to control the violence, however, will ensure the failure of the entire project.
It is quite true, as the American leadership often says, that there is no military solution to the problem in Iraq. That is true of any counterinsurgency--at the end of the day, the solution will have to come from the political process. But it is also true of almost every counterinsurgency that there is a military component necessary for political success. The American civilian and military leadership has consistently downplayed and shortchanged this military component. We are coming up on what will probably be the last window of opportunity to regain control of the situation in Iraq and stop the slide toward chaos and defeat. Considering the likely consequences of such a defeat for the region, our nation, and our armed forces, we would be derelict if the effort is anything less than all-out.
Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Finding the Target: The Transformation of the American Military (Encounter).