19 January 2007

My take on "the surge"

The proposed change in tactics is probably more important than the increase in troop numbers, though both are crucial. Should we do it? That depends on the key point: Will it work? If there is any realistic hope of defeating the insurgency and stabilizing the country, it’s worth trying. If there’s no hope of that, then it serves no purpose to keep any troops there at all. A US withdrawal at this point would probably lead to an intensified civil war ending in brutal subjugation of the Sunni minority and rule by an authoritarian Shiite regime. The only question then would be whether we could prevent that regime from aligning with Iran. If we could, then as bad as this result would be, it would still be better than the situation under Saddam, and probably the best we can hope for.

I've managed to reconcile myself to such an outcome. But I don’t think we should give up and let that happen if there is any real hope that “the surge” would lead to a better result. That’s something I can’t judge, and I don’t believe the average man in the street — or the average Congressman — can judge it either. I certainly don’t trust Bush’s judgment on the subject. I supported the Iraq invasion and still think the original strategy was a good one. But the administration’s hideously inept planning and execution have brought an operation that might have worked to the brink of failure.

Most likely the best people to judge whether Bush’s new plan has any hope of success are the generals — and they aren’t in a position to state openly what they think.

So what makes me think that there is some real hope of the new plan being successful?

(1) The stated willingness to get confrontational with Iran and Syria if they keep stirring things up (and I hope the same warning has been delivered, if privately, to Saudi Arabia).

(2) The assertion, if true, that the Maliki government is ready to follow through and not treat the Shiite terror groups with kid gloves. Some people have gone so far as to claim that Maliki’s government is a mere puppet of men like Muqtada al-Sadr. If this is not the case, now is the time for him to prove it.

(3) The assertion, if true, that the extra 17,500 troops in Baghdad will be able to hold and police urban territory after it is cleared of insurgents. I frankly doubt the increase will be enough, but I am no military expert.

(4) 4,000 Marines to Anbar province will make a difference if the gloves come off and they can really fight. Anbar is the heart of the insurgency.

My gut feeling is to try. I can’t stomach the thought of abandoning Iraq when we might have had a chance to win.

Bear in mind that it has always been the appearance of Western weakness that has emboldened jihadism. This is what worries me about the idea of withdrawing without winning. Bin Laden’s own writings before the Sept. 11 attack always emphasized the idea of the US as a “paper tiger” — he dwelt on the US retreats after the Beirut Marine barracks bombing and the Mogadishu fiasco. He argued that a sufficiently bold attack would lead to a moral collapse and total retreat of the US. Hence the Sept. 11 attack. Our tough military response proved him wrong and bought us a few years of respite with no further attacks, while Europe, which never hits back militarily, continued to suffer them. But if we pull out of Iraq in what is perceived as a humiliating defeat, many jihadists will argue that bin Laden was right after all — and the danger to our own territory will increase drastically. If there is any chance of avoiding this outcome, we must pursue it.

(Note: I originally wrote this in the comments thread here, and the whole discussion is well worth reading. But I thought it deserved its own posting.)

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