Pushing All the Chips In

When the history of the Iraq War is written, it may well be concluded that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will have proven to be an excellent manager, but a mediocre war-time leader. It may well be the consensus that Generals William Casey, Commander of Multi-National Force-in Iraq, and John Abizaid, Commander of Central Command, were  more talented as diplomats and administrators than as warriors.

At the outset of the Iraq War, there were two prevailing strategic theories to topple the Saddam Hussein regime, go in “heavy” or “fast.” Going-in-heavy meant the large systematic destruction of the Iraqi resistance using heavy armor and intense firepower. The upside of such an approach was a higher probability of military success with fewer US casualties. The disadvantage would be higher civilian casualties and greater destruction of Iraqi infrastructure. The strategy of going-in-fast relied more on speed, precision, and flexibility to reduce collateral damage, but at the cost of potentially increasing US casualties.

General Tommy Franks elected to go-in-fast and that gamble paid off handsomely. The war started on March 20, 2003. By April 9, Baghdad had fallen, and by April 15, the Saddam strong-hold of Tikrit also fell. The conventional part the war was effectively over with very few American casualties and minimum of collateral damage.

Although, Franks had proved that going-in-light was a wise strategy to win the war, there was no follow-up with large numbers of Coalition troops to secure Iraq post hostilities. Perhaps, because Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld wanted to minimize the costs of the war, perhaps because some advised that a large US footprint would irritate Iraqis, perhaps because some urged a political solution as opposed to a heavy-handed military presence, the US maintained a modest presence of under 200,000 troops, usually less than 150,000.

The strategy championed by Casey and Abizaid was to maintain modest troop levels. The goal was to seek first to implement a democratic government under the belief that after a political solution, the violence would decline. Perhaps, we should have noticed that the increased troop levels used to secure Iraq during the election periods were actually very effective in reducing violence.

The theory of keeping US troop presence at a minimum was an honest and plausible post-war strategy, but it has not succeeded in the way anticipated. In conflict, cutting corners is dangerous and does not convince either friends or adversaries of one’s commitment and strength.

Potential insurgents must never be allowed any success. Sources of power other than Coalition troops and the elected Iraqi government should never be allowed to exist. After initially quelling outbreaks by followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, militias loyal to al-Sadr have been allowed sanctuaries. Out of an effort to reduce stresses within the new Iraqi government, al-Sadr was given latitude. As a consequence sectarian violence has festered. In war, there is no substitute for victory and it must be complete.

Now it is possible that the proposed surge in troops in conjunction with different rules of engagement, and with the participation of Iraqi troops could change the momentum of the conflict. Most areas of Iraq, save Baghdad and Anbar province, are mostly secure. Focusing 20,000 troops in the correct places may work.  Karl von Clausewitz warned “that no military leader has ever become great without audacity.” The surge should not be timid attempt to regain security, but grand attempt to gain victory

From a distance it is not possible to determine if the proposed troop surge and the plan to use these troops are sufficient to overwhelm opposition. We may know in a few months. At the poker table of the Iraq War virtually all Democrats, who are only sitting at the table for fear of being left out, and some squishy Republicans have already folded their hands. President George Bush has pushed all his chips into the center. However, this is only wise if one has a sufficiently good hand to claim the pot.

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