Iraq Surge Is a Slippery Slope

Remember January 10, 2007?

That was the night that President Bush told the American public, in effect, to stop complaining about the fighting in Iraq. As the “decider-in-chief,” he was “surging” an additional 21,500 troops – five army combat brigades and four Marine regimental combat teams – to cut the high daily death totals and provide stability and security in Baghdad and al-Anbar province.

“Surge” suggests swift and assured action over a short space of time. A common use of the word in our high technology age refers to instantaneous burning or frying, as in an electrical surge. Another, older use that had very real day-to-day effects (actually twice per day) is the tidal or coastal surge caused by the moon’s gravitational pull on the earth’s oceans. Although most often a concern for ship captains, such surges can also seriously affect waterfront properties, especially when the tidal surge comes on top of a storm surge from winds blowing on-shore. (In 20th century warfare, one of the best known occasions when a tidal surge dictated the timing of amphibious operations was the landing by two U.S. divisions at Inchon, Korea where the tidal surge was 22 feet.)

Riptide

Hardly was the U.S. surge in Iraq proclaimed before it hit the first slippery slope that, like a riptide, diffused the surge’s power until it dissipated. While advance cadres were already en route, the first major army combat units would not arrive until mid-February. Moreover, the last of the army units would not be in place until June. The Marines were positioned to react a little more quickly by shifting the 2,200-strong expeditionary unit afloat in the Persian Gulf into al-Anbar, but this also required early deployment of a brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division to reconstitute a reserve force in the war zone. On top of this, commanders in the field were voicing the need to maintain elevated troop levels well into 2008, much longer than the new commander, General David Petraeus, had intimated during his confirmation hearing.

By mid-March, the 21,500 had grown to more than 28,800, as the generals asked for and received 2,200 military police, a 2,600-strong combat aviation unit, 125 troops who would reinforce provincial reconstruction teams, and 2,400 other support troops.

These forces were added to the 52,500 troops in 15 brigade combat teams and supporting forces (a combined total of 135,000 to 140,000) that were the “steady state” level of in-theater, troops whose tours were suddenly extended (causing a surge of adverse emotion) by three months. Some units on notice for deployment in the autumn were told they would go earlier and remain longer.

But more was to come. In late May, with 20 brigade combat teams in Iraq, the Pentagon confirmed a report in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that rotation orders were such that in December 2007 or January 2008, as many as 98,000 combat troops might be in Iraq and a total in theater exceeding 200,000. That would be more than at any time since the end of “major combat” on May 1, 2003 when the U.S. presence was 255,000 troops.

Other Surges

Increased troop numbers creates another “surge” – logistics. Food, fuel, water, and ammunition needs are met largely by the army of civilian contractors, estimated at about 126,000 by The New York Times – a quantum increase over the 9,200 that supported U.S. troops in Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990-1991. Other sources estimate that armed security guards alone may total 100,000. What is known is that at least 917 U.S. contractors have been killed in Iraq since the invasion, with 16% of these fatalities coming in the first three months of 2007 – the deadliest three months of the war.

Combat fatalities among U.S. military forces have also surged – 377 since January 1, 2007. According to the Pentagon, 70% of these casualties were from IEDs – improvised explosive devices – with each succeeding month showing more IED fatalities than the previous month. And, now, with more foot patrols as part of the effort to maintain a coalition presence in volatile regions and the hunt for the three U.S. soldiers taken prisoner last weekend, soldiers are encountering a new variation of the vehicle-borne or individual carrying an IED: a homemade IED planted along footpaths and trails to act as an anti-personnel landmine. This variation is sure to add to the overall IED toll as troops on foot have no protection for their lower extremities.

Perhaps this probability accounts for the name given these weapons: dismounted improvised explosive device – abbreviated DIED… which is what happened to the White House promises about the effectiveness of the surge.

Until the White House launches a “surge” in integrity, the continuing offensive posture of coalition forces in Iraq will prolong the diversion of attention and resources away from the redevelopment of Iraq’s economy, institutions of governance, and social structures. This is primarily work for the Iraqis, with the U.S. military in the role of training an expanded Iraqi army, an expansion announced by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The United States should also stage and sustain a major “surge” by the State Department to draw as many regional powers and international organizations as possible into a long-term (multi-year) rebuilding of Iraq’s infrastructure while also re-integrating the government and the economy into appropriate regional fora.

The current surge isn’t helping Iraq. We already know what has to be done politically and by whom. Congress and the president need merely to set “Plan B” into motion by setting a withdrawal timetable that will permit a reasoned and orderly transfer of real power – and full responsibility – to the Iraqis.

Dan Smith is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus (online at www.fpif.org), a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Email at [email protected] or blog “The Quakers’ Colonel.”