Thursday, April 26, 2007

Strategy and Casualties in Iraq

I think it's important to note that the new strategy in Iraq encompasses not only the the surge of U.S. forces in Baghdad, but also an increase of American forces in neighboring provinces, and a shift in how those forces fight the insurgency and Al Qaeda terrorists. Those changes have increased the vulnerability of our troops to attack, as Phillip Carter discusses:

In Iraq today, the U.S. military has adopted an increasingly risky strategy of pushing its forces out from large forward operating bases ("FOBs") into small combat outposts where they live, work and immerse themselves in the cities of Iraq. It is a risky strategy, as shown in Baqubah two days ago, because it exposes soldiers to greater risk by placing them right in the middle of the fight. But, as I explained on the NewsHour last night, it may be the best course of action:

[This attack occurred] because of the new way that the U.S. is postured. No longer is the U.S. simply occupying these massive super bases outside the city, but they're now pushing out into smaller outposts throughout the cities, the kind of things that might resemble a community policing substation in a housing area. We're talking small bases, with small-sized units, and they're much more vulnerable than the large bases outside of town.

However, there is a strategic risk for these combat outposts as well, one which the enemy is keenly aware of.

That risk of course being that the enemy will recognized the increased vulnerability of these troops, and attack them with increased ferocity. Carter goes on to say:

Over the last three years, concerns about efficiency and force protection have played an absurd role in determining U.S. strategy in Iraq. These concerns have animated the decisions to close bases, consolidate units, and pull back from cities. This strategic tectonic plate movement enabled insurgents and militias to have free reign in many parts of Iraq. We are now starting to reverse this trend, but we are doing so at great risk. There will almost certainly be more attacks like those in Baqubah and Tarmiyah, targeting our new combat outposts. But this part of the "surge" has neither been mentioned to the American people, nor explained, by America's political and military leaders

In other words, nobody-from President Bush on down-bothered to really explain that this surge was going to get more soldiers killed. Phillip Carter's implication is that if someone was honest with the American people about how many soldiers were going to die in this new approach, the American people could stave off disillusionment about increased casualty totals. While I understand the value of morale on the homefront during war, I simply can't agree. Expecting the Bush administration to be blunt and painfully honest about the cost of the surge is like expecting the Sun to suddenly rise at night; it's simply not part of the natural order of things. Second, even if the Bush administration had been bluntly honest three months ago before this plan was implemented, I'm not sure that it would have helped. The American people have watched more and more soldiers die as they were told again and again that stability in Iraq was just around the corner. If President Bush had come out and said "Look this is important, but it is likely more of our troops will die as a result" many people would've had said, quite naturally, "Then why the hell are we doing it?" believing, as most of us do, that there is no chance for peace in Iraq. That of course is exactly why President Bush did not say any such thing.

Mr. Carter does not imply that victory in Iraq is merely a matter of political will, as the more idiotic commentators in our country do. He knows that it isn't. But I think he might be overvaluing the potential effectiveness of this new approach, and overvaluing the worth of morale at home. While I agree completely that any effective counter-insurgency strategy must put more troops on the streets and in the line of fire, a new approach simply cannot make up for the fact that we don't have enough troops in Iraq to do the job.

UPDATE: I almost forgot this story that Adam sent to me, on how this new strategy also gets a lot of Iraqi civilians killed. That's kind of a downside when you're entire goal is to make Iraqi civilians feel safer.

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