“Surge”: A Bad Idea By Any Name

So all the indications are that in his speech tonight, President Bush will propose a "surge" of 20-25,000 troops to Iraq to attempt to tamp down the violence there.

I’ve read "Choosing Victory", the American Enterprise Institute presentation in which the "surge" idea was first put forward, and given some thought to its proposals. Allow me to explain the reasons why the surge won’t work.

First, the "new" troops won’t really be new.  "Choosing Victory" proposes increasing the total number of troops in Iraq by simply holding back the troops who are already there from leaving, while continuing to rotate in the units that were due to replace them. So the "new" troops will really be troops who’ve already spent a year there and are worn out and ready to go home. What troops are new will be drawn from the already depleted National Guard and Reserve, or transferred from other theaters to Iraq. This would have substantial negative effects on morale for units that are already weary of battle, and weaken our efforts in other theaters, like Afghanistan, where we are also in the process of losing.

Next, the word "surge" is misleading.  It implies that the increase would be temporary — a short-lived spike in activity. But counter-insurgency doctrine says that clearing out a region or neighborhood isn’t enough — you have to hold it after clearing it, so that the insurgents don’t come streaming back in when you leave. The plan for the "surge" is to put all but 4,000 of the "new" troops into Baghdad, to try and quiet the violence there.  Assuming that can be accomplished, what happens afterwards?  The insurgents will just disperse into the other areas of the country — that’s what insurgents do, they don’t get into stand-up fights to the finish. Do we take the troops out of Baghdad to pacify the other areas?  If so, isn’t it likely that Baghdad will simply flare up again, while we’re off dealing with Anbar Province, or some other flash point? 

Since the troops "surged" in are likely to be there for some time, a better term for the Bush plan would be "escalation". But he doesn’t want to call it what it is — he’d rather try to spin you by selling it as temporary.

Finally, the number of "new" troops simply is not enough.  There are examples of successful counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq — here’s one. But they are very manpower-intensive. In the case I just linked to, an entire armored cavalry regiment — about 5,200 soldiers — was tasked with pacifying one city, Tall Afar, with a population of about 250,000. Baghdad has a population of about 7 million. That means to replicate the same tactics that worked in Tall Afar in Baghdad, you’d need 146,000 troops Just in Baghdad.

(Just for reference, that’s about as many troops as we have right now in all of Iraq.)

President Bush knows that there’s no way to come up with 146,000 troops by cooking the books, shuffling troops around and delaying homecomings. He’d have to renew the draft — or make enlisting dramatically more attractive than it is today. For whatever reason, he lacks the guts to do what it takes to bring his policies in line with his rhetoric, so we get this deck-chair-shuffling "surge" instead. It’s foreign policy, Enron-style.

And that, in the end, is the most pathetic thing about this proposal. We can expect to hear bromides from the President tonight about how we all need to sacrifice, how the task is hard but worthy, and so on. But if actions speak louder than words, the President’s cowardice is practically deafening.

If Iraq is so important — if it is truly "the front line in the war on terror", the "generational conflict" that he has been touting it as, year after year — then ante up, Mr. President. Tell us what the true cost of your little adventure is going to be. Otherwise, it’s shameful to continue to put the lives of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians on the line just because you can’t admit you’re in over your head.


Oscar M

January 10, 2007
10:02 pm

2 thoughts –
What makes you think that the number of troops needed is linearly correlated? Just a though, not that I disagree with you but my intuition nags at me.
Secondly, think of this scenario. Bush proposes a surge in troops as a means to victory. But, the blasted Democrats undermine the surge effort, by not funding it, etc. (Hmm, actually can they undermine it – i think they can, but outside of the budget what can they influence). So, the surge doesn’t happen or is scaled back (in size and/or duration). 2008 rolls around and the Republican could turn around and blame the democrat for not letting them get the job done in Iraq.
Is that believable?


January 10, 2007
10:04 pm

Your comment filter ate my italics tags…

Jason Lefkowitz

January 10, 2007
10:26 pm

re: the number of troops — the linear projection was just a rough estimate. Probably in reality the number would be slightly different from city to city in Iraq, depending on all sorts of local factors. I think the larger point still stands, though, that the only escalation that could actually make a difference on the ground would require a much bigger commitment than this President is willing to make — on the level of an order of magnitude more troops. Just throwing a few thousand in won’t accomplish much.
As to the politics of it — yes, that kind of “stab in the back” theory is certainly plausible. Already, though, Republicans who are up for reelection in ’08 are running away from the President — Senators Sam Brownback and Chuck Hagel, who are both likely GOP Presidential candidates, have said flat out that they think the “surge” won’t work. The only one who has truly embraced it is John McCain.
On the other side of the aisle, I have heard talk that some Democrats who might otherwise oppose the escalation are willing to go along with it to hoist McCain by his own petard. McCain has been calling for more troops for a while; it’s speculated that he made that call thinking that Bush would use the Iraq Study Group report to provide political cover for withdrawal, leaving McCain to claim that “we could have won if we’d done it MY way”. Only now we ARE doing it McCain’s way, so the success or failure of the “surge” will be something tied to McCain’s bid no matter what.

Jason Lefkowitz

January 10, 2007
10:32 pm

One follow-up on the number of troops issue. A 2003 RAND Institute study ( http://www.rand.org/publications/randreview/issues/summer2003/burden.html ) looked at various successful and unsuccessful nation-building projects over the last fifteen years or so, and found that, on average, successful ones involved 20 troops deployed per 1,000 population. For Baghdad, that would mean 140,000 troops — roughly the same as my projection based on the Tall Afar experience.
For reference, in the last big operation to pacify Baghdad, this summer’s Operation Together Forward, there were about 8,000 US troops involved.


January 11, 2007
3:32 pm

very cool – thanks for digging up the numbers.


January 12, 2007
12:00 am

Is there any support for this in the world at all, anywhere, that might help us a little more with troops? Even if it’s just to prevent Iraq from spiraling into a failed state terrorist haven?
I know most countries around the world disagreed with us going in in the first place, and probably feel like we should clean up our own mess, but a failed state situation in Iraq is a threat to everyone, not just the U.S.
Are we just not asking for help? Or are other countries actively refusing to?
Sorry, personal tangent not terribly related to the post…

Jason Lefkowitz

January 12, 2007
9:25 am

“Is there any support for this in the world at all, anywhere, that might help us a little more with troops? Even if it’s just to prevent Iraq from spiraling into a failed state terrorist haven?”
No. Even the UK, the only country that has reliably supported the US in Iraq to date, is saying that they are still planning to reduce their troop numbers in Iraq over the next few months, despite the US “surge”.


January 14, 2007
1:32 pm

There is a scenario in which what Bush has done is 100% on the money, but it’s hideous. PNAC’s plan is compatible with throwing the Middle East into turmoil, destroying governments of countries surrounding Israel and leaving no opposition capable of resisting a grab by oil companies of the fields. Everybody else is busy killing each other. Things have progressed to that point in Baghdad.