The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight


April 25, 2007

Last August, Senator John McCain famously used the phrase “whack-a-mole” to describe and criticize the Pentagon’s “old” strategy in Iraq.

What I worry about is we’re playing a game of whack-a-mole here. We move troops, it [insurgency] flares up, we move troops there.

Based on that metaphor, McCain concluded that the US needed more troops in Iraq. The logic is simple: more US troops can whack more insurgent moles and reduce the places in Iraq safe for them to appear.

Putting more troops in Iraq also theoretically means creating larger-and-larger zones of security in Iraq. Indeed, McCain now defends President Bush’s troop “surge” as counter-insurgency strategy that could work. Potentially, the surge begins to implement the so-called “oil spot” strategy, which is named for the gradual expansion of safe spots on the map — winning the “hearts and mind” of local populations as it succeeds.

Is this realistic?

Well, to begin, McCain certainly isn’t the only — or first — person to describe the insurgency in Iraq as a whack-a-mole problem. Many foreign policy and military analysts employ the term and some argue that no strategy based simply on establishing small geographical security zones can work. Unless the US floods Iraq with troops, these skepitcs argue, insurgents can still too readily pop up almost anywhere else in Iraq.

Think of the obvious parallel. Hamid Karzai has long been considered merely the “mayor of Kabul” because that city is essentially the only secure part of Afghanistan — after five and a half years. There are too few troops in Afghanistan to accomplish much more.

Last September 6, ABC News’ Senior Foreign Correspondent Jim Sciutto blogged critically about what was then the latest Pentagon strategy in Iraq:

Operation Together Forward, the main thrust of the new strategy, involves establishing pockets of security in select neighborhoods and then slowly adding more. These latest numbers add substance to fears Together Forward creates a whack-a-mole effect: that is, secure one area and the violence will pop up somewhere else.

Sound familiar?

The latest “surge” strategy in Iraq, designed essentially to secure Baghdad neighborhoods, is built around the exact logic as last year’s failed strategy.

Does the latest Iraq strategy amount merely to an even grander version of whack-a-mole?

For answers to empirical questions about the war, I turn to the “Iraq Index,” produced by Michael E. O’Hanlon and Jason H. Campbell of the Brookings Institution.

The April 23, 2007, Iraq Index report includes a section entitled “EFFECTS OF OPERATION FARDH AL-QANOON ON AREAS OUTSIDE OF BAGHDAD AND AL-ANBAR PROVINCES” (caps in original):

There has been roughly a 30% increase in offensive actions and attacks in Diyala province (March 9, 2007)…Over the past five months, attacks on U.S. and Iraqi troops have increased 70% in Diyala province (April 16, 2007)

The Pentagon is responding by sending more troops to Diyala.

Is this a repeat of whack-a-mole?

Some journalists report that violence in Tal Afar is up as well.

Given this data, why is President Bush already claiming partial victory?

Yet the first indicators are beginning to emerge — and they show that so far, the operation is meeting expectations. There are still horrific attacks in Iraq, such as the bombings in Baghdad on Wednesday — but the direction of the fight is beginning to shift.

All of the data about the surge is tentative, of course, as even President Bush acknowledges. Iraq commander General David Petraeus told Bush “that it will be later this year before we can judge the potential of success.”

If the surge fails, don’t expect some better strategy down the road.

President Bush to interviewer Charlie Rose
, yesterday: “The Plan B is to make Plan A work.”

One early forecast: several hundred thousand US troops on the ground in Iraq.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.