The Magazine

Enter the Triangulators

Legislating a "middle way" is legislating defeat.

Sep 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 01 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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The case for cutting and running from Iraq has become untenable in recent months not just substantively but politically as well. Polls show that Americans increasingly believe not only that the surge is working, but also that permanent success in Iraq is possible. So the more intelligent opponents of the war have shied away from the explicit defeatism of Senator Harry Reid's statement earlier this year that the war is lost. Instead, Democrats like Senators Carl Levin and Jack Reed are seeking to triangulate between the strategy of General David Petraeus and a complete withdrawal. The armchair generals in the Capitol want to find a course that reduces U.S. forces in Iraq rapidly but that (so they claim) does not assure defeat. Triangulation may be harmless in symbolic matters of domestic politics, but it can be dangerous, even fatal, in war.

The triangulators' strategy? Pull American forces out of active combat operations as soon as possible, reduce the overall American presence dramatically, and leave behind a much smaller force to fight al Qaeda and to train and assist the Iraqi security forces. A force level in the range of 40,000-80,000 American troops is supposed to be sufficient for these tasks. Supporters cite several reports, ranging from that of the Iraq Study Group last December to one this summer from the Center for a New American Strategy (CNAS), as the basis for their new approach.

There are two fundamental flaws in the logic of these proposals: There is no evidence that imposing a timeline for withdrawal will "incentivize" the Iraqi government to make hard choices--and much evidence to the contrary. And there is no evidence that reducing the American "footprint" will reduce violence in Iraq--and much evidence to the contrary.

But the real-world problems of pursuing a politically tempting "middle way" run even deeper. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) recently conducted an exercise to evaluate the military feasibility of the most detailed and thoughtful middle way strategy--that of CNAS. The CNAS report advocates the removal of American forces from active combat and the rapid drawdown of overall forces in Iraq to 60,000 by January 2009, along with expansion of advisory support for the Iraqi Security Forces and maintenance of a small number of combat units in Iraq to serve as "quick reaction forces." The AEI exercise concluded that the plan simply could not be executed. The margin of failure wasn't close--adding 10,000 or even 20,000 soldiers to the CNAS target wouldn't make it work.

The basic problem is that the Iraqi Security Forces, as the Jones Commission explained last week, are almost entirely dependent on the American military for logistics, artillery and air support, communications, intelligence, and many other key functions. Iraqi soldiers are fighting well and fighting hard, but they can do so only because of the large American presence in Iraq. Not only is there no Iraqi logistics system that could sustain the ISF if we were to draw down dramatically, but there is no American logistics system now designed to support the ISF without the presence of American combat brigades in partnership with Iraqi units. Although the Jones Commission rightly noted that Iraq's ability to sustain its own forces will grow dramatically in the coming 18 months, any rapid drawdown of American forces now would lead almost certainly to the immediate collapse of the Iraqi military.

Moreover, there are now around 25 American and allied combat brigades in Iraq--perhaps 75,000 combat soldiers. The Iraqi army numbers around 150,000. Pulling coalition combat forces out of the front lines would leave a hole half the size of the entire Iraqi army. The capability of that force is growing daily, but who could possibly imagine that it could take responsibility overnight for the fighting and patrolling now conducted by 75,000 American, British, Polish, Georgian, Australian, and other soldiers?

There are many other problems with the middle-way proposals, but the key point is that "middle way" approaches are based on magical thinking, not military reality. They are offered--explicitly in the case of both the CNAS and the Iraq Study Group--not as strategies for prevailing in Iraq, but as ways to achieve "bipartisan consensus" in Washington. As Senator Ken Salazar, who wants to write the ISG strategy into law, said: "There is a general feeling that people would like to pull something together that would have bipartisan support." No doubt. But you can't run a war based on "a general feeling." And you can't win by triangulating. Achieving bipartisan support for a militarily infeasible "middle way" would be simply another way of legislating defeat.

--Frederick W. Kagan, for the Editors