Neocons Want a Mulligan on Iraq

And, it appears, President Bush may give it to them.  The LA Times reports:

military officials are taking a close look at a proposal advanced by Frederick W. Kagan, a former West Point Military Academy historian, to combine a surge with a quick buildup of the Marines and the Army. That could allow new units to take the place of the brigades sent to Iraq to augment the current force.

“It is essential for the president to couple any recommendation of a significant surge in Iraq with the announcement that he will increase permanently the size of the Army and the Marines,” Kagan said.

Kagan, who plans to release a preliminary report on his proposal Thursday, said he had discussed his ideas with people in the government. Although the military has had trouble meeting recruiting goals, Kagan said Army officials believed they could recruit at least an extra 20,000 soldiers a year. The Army missed its recruiting targets in 2005 but met this year’s goal.

This strategy faces a few obstacles, though.  First:

Only 12% of Americans support a troop increase, whereas 52% prefer a fixed timetable for withdrawal, a Los Angeles Times/ Bloomberg poll has found.

Indeed.  This echoes this recent USA Today/Gallup poll which revealed that 57% of Americans want U.S. troops out of Iraq within one year.  Also, there are deeper problems with the “more troops” strategy:

Kalev Sepp, an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School, said that the U.S. had demonstrated that many commanders simply did not understand how to mount effective, long-term counterinsurgency strategies.

Increasing the size of the force, Sepp said, will mean that U.S. forces continue to focus on killing insurgents, not training Iraqis. “That kind of approach is still tied to the idea that attrition, of just killing enough of our opponents, is going to get us to success,” Sepp said.

It’s disheartening in the extreme, almost to the point of being maddening, that President Bush continues to look to the folks who brought you the war in the first place for the way forward.  There are a few problems with the Kagan approach.

This surge of roughly 25,000 additional troops, at this stage in the conflict, is unlikely to even suppress the violence significantly in Baghdad.  Kaganites like to point to U.S. operations in Tal Afar as an analog.  In that instance, a population of (a guesstimated) 150,000 Iraqis was pacified by 3,800 U.S. soldiers, with Iraqi forces in tow.  Kagan protests, in response to those who say the forces don’t exist to replicate this strategy in the rest of Iraq or even Baghdad, that their opposition “rests on vague extrapolations of force ratios in Tal Afar to the entire population of Iraq or of Baghdad.”

But our extrapolations aren’t vague at all–they’re based on all the counterinsurgency literature out there.  Kagan’s plan doesn’t use the normal metrics for stability ops–he changes them completely.  He uses studies that are based on total population, but then decides, without much explanation, that only using the Sunni population for calculation is appropriate in this instance, since “it would be unnecessary and unwise to send coalition forces into Kurdistan or most of the Shiite lands.”

But force requirements in the literature aren’t based on hostile population or some sub-segment of the population, they’re based on total population.  Rarely can counterinsurgencies adequately quantify the number of hostile population.  So we use overall population for a metric.

Take this quintessential Parameters article by James Quinlivan of RAND.  Quinlivan points out that “From the start, practitioners of counterinsurgency have been clear in stating that the number of soldiers required to counter guerrillas has had very little to do with the number of guerrillas.”  You can’t slice the population the way Kagan does and then use the counterinsurgency literature for benchmarks.  It’s goalpost shifting.  Apples and oranges.

Discussing the more useful historical ratio, Quinlivan concludes that “Force ratios larger than ten members of the security forces for every thousand of population are not uncommon in current operations… . Sustaining a stabilizing force at such a force ratio for a city as large as one million … could require a deployment of about a quarter of all regular infantry battalions in the U.S. Army.”  The very study Kagan cites (.pdf) echoes this finding:

International troop levels should be at least 1,000 soldiers per 100,000 inhabitants and international police levels should be at least 150 police officers per 100,000 inhabitants, especially when there is the potential for severe instability.

And just to amplify that, the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board released a study (.pdf) in 2004 concluding that “The United States will sometimes have ambitious goals for transforming a society in a conflicted environment. Those goals may well demand 20 troops per 1,000 inhabitants … working for five to eight years.”

Sure enough, if you look at the U.S. troop to Iraqi population in Kagan’s example of Tal Afar, you come up with more than 20 U.S. troops per 1,000 inhabitants.  To get a 20 U.S. troops per 1,000 inhabitants ratio in Baghdad alone (population 6,000,000), you come up with 120,000 troops.  And as Kagan admits in his article, the approach to Tal Afar, which involved building a large sand berm around the city to isolate it, “may not be appropriate for a large city like Baghdad.”  Probably right.

Kagan also skirts the issue of force protection, the primary focus on which has kept U.S. casualties “low” at 3,000.  Kagan admits, without openly pointing to the resulting skyrocket in dead Americans, that “close interaction with the population and even with the enemy is essential.”

This all leaves on the table the problem of whether or not a lot of the troublemakers in Baghdad wouldn’t head for the hinterland when they saw such a force coming.  Senator John McCain, for all his faults, has this right when he worries about playing “Whack-a-Mole” across Iraq.

So then, what about cranking it up to 20/1,000 for all of Iraq?  You’d need 500,000 troops.

In short, Kagan’s plan appears in any light to be a recipe for compounding the disaster of the neocons’ policies in Iraq thus far.  But despite the history of the last four years, neoconservatives still have a tremendous amount of sway with the White House.  Sharing the same a priori commitment to an illusory “victory” in Iraq seems to be a precondition of getting the president’s ear.  It would be good if someone, at some point, would attempt to disabuse him of this idea, and confront him with the cold facts on the ground.  It’s been almost four years.

The upshot, it seems, is that the neocons are going to get a “do over” in Iraq.  And, unfortunately, it looks like the U.S. military is going to pay the price for their Mulligan.