War Stories

Mission Impossible

Bush’s smart new general can’t save Iraq.

Gen. David Petraeus

George W. Bush has named a new man to take charge in Iraq as a prelude to his announcement of (allegedly) a new strategy. Will either make any difference?

The new commander, Lt. Gen. (soon to be promoted to simply Gen.) David Petraeus, is probably the smartest active-duty general in the U.S. Army today. Late last year, he co-authored the Army’s field manual on counterinsurgency—its first in over 20 years. During the early phase of the Iraq occupation, as commander of the 101st Airborne Division, he was one of the very few American officers who understood how to win over the populace, not just bash down their doors. In those halcyon days of the summer of ‘03, commanders had free access to Saddam Hussein’s captured slush funds, and Petraeus used the money shrewdly to build local projects and to build trust with local leaders. It may be no coincidence that things started going to hell in northern Iraq, the 101st Airborne’s area of operation, when the commanders’ fund dried up—and no further funds poured in.

Alas, Petraeus is in much the same situation he found himself back then—loaded with enormous responsibility, the right skills, but not enough resources, either in money or, especially, in troops.

The big talk this past week, and probably the centerpiece of Bush’s announcement (to take place Wednesday night), is the “surge”—20,000 additional U.S. combat troops to be deployed to Baghdad, as part of a classic strategy of “clear, hold, and build.” This means swooping a lot of troops into a particular area (a town, a village, a neighborhood, whatever), clearing it of insurgents (i.e., killing or capturing them), and leaving behind enough troops or police to maintain order so that reconstruction can take place—while other troops move on to clear, hold, and build in the next troubled area on the list.

Petraeus and his co-authors discussed this strategy at great length in the Army’s counterinsurgency field manual. One point they made is that it requires a lot of manpower—at minimum, 20 combat troops for every 1,000 people in the area’s population. Baghdad has about 6 million people; so clearing, holding, and building it will require about 120,000 combat troops.

Right now, the United States has about 70,000 combat troops in all of Iraq (another 60,000 or so are support troops or headquarters personnel). Even an extra 20,000 would leave the force well short of the minimum required—and that’s with every soldier and Marine in Iraq moved to Baghdad. Iraqi security forces would have to make up the deficit.

In the short term, then, say for a year or so, enough troops might be concentrated in Baghdad if troops now deployed in Iraq have their tours of duty extended, troops due for redeployment to Iraq are mobilized several months ahead of schedule, nearly all these troops are transferred to Baghdad, and enough Iraqi troops can be mobilized to make up the remaining slack.

Meanwhile, how will Petraeus be able to keep Baghdad’s insurgents from simply slipping out of town and wreaking havoc elsewhere? This is what happened in Fallujah when U.S. troops tried to destroy the insurgents’ stronghold in that city.

In the one successful counterinsurgency campaign, in the northern town of Tal Afar, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment surrounded the town with a 9-foot-high wall to isolate the city. This was in addition to other counterinsurgency techniques—maintaining a high troop-to-population ratio, dealing in a civilized manner with local authorities, and so forth. (Tal Afar slid back into chaos when the 3rd A.C.R. was redeployed to another hot spot—another indication that clear and hold, much less clear, hold, and build, requires a lot more troops than the United States has ever had in Iraq.)

Will Petraeus wall off neighborhoods in Baghdad? (The U.S. Army in Iraq does have a lot of concrete.) Is such a strategy feasible in a city of 6 million, as opposed to a town of 60,000 like Tal Afar? Moving in the bulldozers and the berms may be a dramatic first step. But then what?

Even on the level of troop deployments, the issue is as much quality as quantity. Petraeus’ field manual notes that counterinsurgency is very different from normal combat and that successful operations “require soldiers and marines at every echelon” to possess a daunting set of traits, among them a “clear, nuanced, and empathetic appreciation of the essential nature of the conflict … an understanding of the motivation, strengths, and weaknesses of the insurgent,” and a knowledge of local culture. [Italics added.] Are there enough such soldiers and Marines at every echelon who have these traits? If there were, this field manual would not have been necessary. Beyond this, the field manual notes that combat leaders, down to the company level, must be “adaptive, self-aware, and intelligent.”

The purpose of an Army field manual is to lay down the requirements of combat—in the case of this field manual, a type of combat that the U.S. Army hasn’t focused on for decades. It generally takes years, if not decades, for a new culture—which this field manual calls for and outlines—to take hold of any military. Petraeus is a brilliant officer, but it’s questionable whether even he can force-feed a new culture in just a matter of months.

If he manages to succeed in Baghdad, how will he be able to “hold” it while proceeding on to Iraq’s other troubled cities? (Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, who came up with the “surge” strategy, proposes expanding the Army’s ranks by 30,000 combat soldiers over the next two years. The problem is, well-placed officers calculate that, even if enough recruits can be found, the Army could support an expansion of just 7,000 combatants per year.)

Then there are the more political considerations. Nothing will work, even under otherwise ideal circumstances, unless the Iraqi government supports the effort, orders Iraqi battalions to take part, and agrees to let the counterinsurgents go after all militias, including the Mahdi Army controlled by Muqtada Sadr, a key faction of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s power base. The Iraqi government would also have to devise some power-sharing arrangement—for instance, a formula to share oil revenues with Sunni regions—to deal with the causes of insurgency (or at least the causes of the insurgents’ popular support or tolerance). While an area is being secured, the U.S. and other governments would also have to pour in massive funding for reconstruction projects, well beyond the $1 billion that President Bush is expected to request for urban job creation. In other words, a surge—even if it proves successful on its own terms—will mean nothing, in the medium to long term, unless it is part of a broader political and economic strategy. Does Bush have such a strategy in mind? We’ll see on Wednesday. If he does, will the Iraqi government be willing or able to go along? We’ll see in the next few months.

But security is the prerequisite, and to achieve enduring security, the hard arithmetic indicates that Bush needs to send in a lot more troops than 20,000. The problem is, he doesn’t have them, and he won’t be able to get them for many years, under the best of circumstances. (Even if he reimposed the draft—a sure way to convert popular disenchantment with the war to rioting-in-the-streets opposition—it would take a few years to get the Selective Service System running and to mobilize, train, and equip the draftees.)

One widespread, and plausible, theory is that the surge constitutes a last-ditch effort at success. The thinking goes like this: Maybe this will work; and if it doesn’t work, the United States can cut its losses and pull back without making the retreat seem like too disastrous a debacle. “We gave it our all,” the president could say; “don’t blame us that it fell apart.” And, since Kagan and other surge-advocates are saying the plan would take about two years to succeed or fail, the next president—not Bush—would be the one who orders, and takes all the heat for, the retreat.

I am not one who likens the Iraq war to Vietnam, but there is an eerie parallel to a memo that John McNaughton, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s closest aide, sent to him on March 24, 1965, after it seemed clear that the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign was producing scant results. “The situation in Vietnam is bad and deteriorating,” McNaughton wrote. The important aim now is to “avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor).” Therefore, it is essential “that the U.S. emerge as a ‘good doctor.’ We must have kept promises, been tough, taken risks, gotten bloodied, and hurt the enemy very badly.”

One month later, on April 21, McNamara and McNaughton met in Honolulu with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other top leaders. They concluded, as McNamara summed up in a memo, “that it will take more than six months, perhaps a year or two, to demonstrate VC [Viet Cong] failure in the South.” (Both documents are reproduced in Volume 3 of The Pentagon Papers.)

It took another decade and 50,000 American lives to concede what McNaughton (who, soon after that meeting, died in an airplane crash) had realized just one year into the fighting. In the quite likely, lamentable event that Bush’s surge doesn’t work, let’s hope that today’s leaders accept the reality more quickly.