War Stories

In Search of Plan B

Future Iraq strategy, same as the old Iraq strategies.

I’m sorry. What is our strategy in Iraq?

Here’s the latest wrinkle (or, actually, sharp crease and fold), reported by David Ignatius in today’s Washington Post:

President Bush and his senior military and foreign policy advisers are beginning to discuss a “post-surge” strategy for Iraq that … would focus on training and advising Iraqi troops rather than the broader goal of achieving a political reconciliation in Iraq, which senior officials recognize may be unachievable within the time available.

This sounds a lot like the pre-surge strategy. The main elements of the plan, according to the Post: train Iraqi security forces to be self-sustaining; continue Special Forces operations against al-Qaida and other terrorists; maintain Iraq’s territorial integrity; keep supporting efforts at reconciliation among the ethnic-political factions.

That sounds like not only the pre-surge strategy but the congressional Democrats’ withdrawal proposal (which never envisioned a complete U.S. pullout).

It’s unclear how real this development is. Ignatius notes that Bush’s advisers are “beginning to discuss” these ideas, not that they’ve reached a conclusion, much less made a decision. The exercise, he further writes, may be “a trial balloon” aimed at testing the bipartisan support for the proposals of the Baker-Hamilton report, which Bush once dismissed but which “senior administration officials” say he “now supports.”

Either way, it appears that at least some high-level factions within this desperate, fractured administration are scrambling to piece together the long-elusive “Plan B,” in case the surge comes to naught.

And how is the surge doing? Critics say not so well; supporters say it’s too soon to tell; both claims amount to pretty much the same thing.

The surge got under way in February. Data compiled by the U.S.-led military command in Iraq (summarized in a chart here) indicate that the number of attacks went up slightly in March, then down slightly in April. There is yet no clear pattern.

Of the five combat brigades ordered to surge into Baghdad, only three are on the ground now (owing to the low readiness rates of the war-worn Army); all five will be on the ground by July. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, has said that he and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will assess the situation—and report on the likelihood of the surge’s success—in early September.

This coincides, whether by chance or design, with the de facto deadline set by anxious politicians in Washington—not least the 21 Republican senators up for re-election in 2008 who fear defeat if, by then, there’s no clear path to victory or withdrawal.

The proper measure of success or failure is less military than political. The key question, as nearly everyone recognizes, will be not how many insurgents are killed or neighborhoods cleared, but whether the Iraqi government can govern. That will depend, in good part, on whether the parliament passes a law that lets the Sunni provinces share oil revenues and that loosens restrictions on ex-Baathists’ eligibility for government jobs.

As Gen. Petraeus has pointed out several times, the main purpose of the troop surge is to reduce violence and create a “breathing space” of stability so that the Iraqi government can take those sorts of measures and emerge as an effective, unifying, legitimate entity.

This is the “political reconciliation” that, according to Ignatius, senior Bush officials think may be “unachievable” in the time left on their watch.

And so, at least some of these officials are reassessing the strategy in place for much of last year, when commanders were winding down America’s direct involvement in the war. Most troops were retreating from street patrols to settle in the large “forward operating bases.” The main missions were training the Iraqi security forces; providing logistics, intelligence, and air support; helping to defend certain borders; and going after terrorists.

The surge changed all that. President Bush took another stab at victory. He decided to push forward with higher troop levels and a return to counterinsurgency, which meant active street patrols. He appointed, as commander, Gen. Petraeus—who had just supervised the writing of the Army’s first field manual on counterinsurgency in a quarter-century—and told him to put his ideas in motion.

Some of the calculations in Petraeus’ field manual would suggest that he doesn’t have enough troops, even with the surge, to succeed at this mission. That may be what’s driving the sudden search for a Plan B. Realistic commanders (and politicians) know that if you lack the means to accomplish your goal, you should either boost the means or scale back the goal. We don’t have the military means (the Army is already stretched to its limits), so the alternative is to scale back the goal.

They’re calling it a new strategy—a “post-surge” strategy. Let them—anything to put common sense back on the table.