Failure–more than just an option

by Peter

23 October 2006, 1806 EDT

Last week, we were treated to a stunning admission from the head General in Iraq. What he said was not all that stunning–anyone who has been paying attention could see that things in Iraq were getting bad– but stunning in that he actually said it. As reported in the WaPo:

A two-month U.S.-Iraqi military operation to stem sectarian bloodshed and insurgent attacks in Baghdad has failed to reduce the violence, which has surged 22 percent in the capital in the last three weeks, much of it in areas where the military has focused its efforts, a senior U.S. military spokesman said Thursday.

The assessment by Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV followed a 43 percent spike in attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces in the capital since midsummer that has pushed U.S. military fatalities to their highest rates in more than a year.

The operation “has not met our overall expectations of sustaining a reduction in the levels of violence,” Caldwell said Thursday at a weekly news briefing. Violence has risen in the areas where the U.S.-Iraqi operation has focused, because of counterattacks, he said.

“We’re finding insurgent elements, the extremists, are pushing back hard. They’re trying to get back into those areas” where Iraqi and U.S. forces have targeted them, he said. “We’re constantly going back in and doing clearing operations.”

Its a pretty dire picture. Several months ago, aware that a) they did not have enough forces in country to conduct necessary operations everywhere and b) Baghdad was the lynchpin to the whole country, US forces in Iraq set out to concentrate in and around Baghdad in a effort to Clear, Hold and Build. Clear an area from insurgents, hold the territory, and build it up as a functioning entity, allowing Iraqi forces to take over and run a “clean” bit of space. Repeating the process, the idea was to slowly spread US influence in Baghdad’s most troubled neighborhood.

As it turns out, the strategy isn’t working. As Caldwell and Casey have admitted, violence and killings in Baghdad are up, not down, and the US can’t seem to hold any of the territory it clears. The increase in troop strength is having the opposite of its intended effect–instead of helping clear out insurgents, the additional forces are targets for increased attacks, leading to the significantly higher death rate this past month.

Its become a rather dire situation. As Michael Gordon notes in today’s NYT:

But military commanders here see no plausible alternative to their bedrock strategy to clear violence-ridden neighborhoods of militias, insurgents and arms caches, hold them with Iraqi and American security forces, and then try to win over the population with reconstruction projects, underwritten mainly by the Iraqi government. There is no fall-back plan that the generals are holding in their hip pocket. This is it.

Dire indeed. We’re on our last major initiative, and its not working. Meanwhile, the Administration refuses to contemplate any strategy changes other than “victory.” Over the weekend, the two top Generals in Iraq, Abizaid and Casey, met with Bush and his national security team at the White House, and they didn’t discuss any major changes to what is now admittedly failing.

Now part of this might be partisan posturing until the election. If (when?) Democrats take over part of Congress, they could very well force a new Iraq policy on the Administratoin, which, coupled with Baker’s Iraq Study Group, could provide Bush the political cover to begin some sort of pull-out from Iraq.

What are our options? Stay the course? Well, the course is not going well. Add more troops? One of the instructive things that the Baghdad approach shows is that at this point in the nascent civil war, more American troops don’t help unless or until we’re willing to take sides against one of the militias. But, that only works if our Iraqi partners can and are able to consolidate the tactical combat victories we hand them. Pull out? A time-table and phased withdrawal might be the only way to get Maliki to take ownership of the major mess we’ve made for him.

As Gordon ends his analysis, so will I:

“Part of our problem is that we want this more than they do,” General Thurman said, alluding to the effort to get the Iraqis to put aside sectarian differences and build a unified Iraq. “We need to get people to stop worrying about self and start worrying about Iraq. And that is going to take national unity.”

“Until we get that settled I think we are going to struggle,” he added.

And we’re a long, long way from that point.

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