Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Case for More Troops in Iraq

First Lieutenant Pete Hegseth, who served with the 101st Airborne in Iraq, makes the case for additional troops on the ground in Iraq in an essay today at the Wall Street Journal. Hegseth suggests that perhaps there's been a breakdown in communication up the ranks on the need for more troops, and that the U.S. is hampered by its shortage of personnel for the deployment:

After witnessing two national elections during three months in Baghdad, my Army unit moved north to Samarra, where we spent eight months sowing the seeds of progress. While we had success in uprooting the insurgency and building the local government, it wasn't enough. We had just enough troops to control Samarra and secure ourselves, but not enough to bring lasting stability or security. "Not enough" became the story of my year in Iraq.

The future of Samarra, and Iraq as a whole, ultimately lies in the hands of her people--their sympathies are the ultimate prize in this war. No matter how many insurgents we kill, city leaders we meet or policemen we enlist, it is all for naught if we cannot provide security and stability. Tribal sheikhs told us that even within Samarra--deep in the Sunni triangle--a vast majority of people just want peace and order and will side with whoever can provide it. Right now Samarrans rightfully question who that will be.

The end goal in Samarra is for Iraqis to do everything for themselves. But their government and security forces are not ready. Insurgents use death threats and murder to assert power over anyone working with the City Council or joining the police force. This atmosphere forces moderate Samarrans to keep their mouths shut, and their silence abets the insurgents who live and fight in Samarra. Despite killing scores of insurgents, we are unable to provide lasting security, and so the Samarran street slips away.

Two things are to blame for our predicament, one a corollary of the other. The first reason is that we did not have enough troops in Samarra. The skill and courage of 150 American soldiers prevented chaos, but was never enough to fully secure a city of 120,000 people or maintain the rule of law. The soldiers in the city were preoccupied with defending themselves and conducting night raids, and were therefore largely unable to regularly patrol during the day--thus giving insurgents reign to move freely and intimidate the local population. A visitor in Samarra on an average day would be hard-pressed to point out a single American humvee traversing local neighborhoods. The same is true for Baghdad.

Our four-vehicle civil-affairs patrol was often the only American presence deep inside the city and we were frequently greeted by locals with the question, "Where have you been?" Americans can't of course be omnipresent; but we should at least be there when it matters. When Americans are there, either the insurgents are not or they are on the losing side of a firefight.

Second, because of a lack of troops, American military leaders are forced to make a choice between mission objectives and self-preservation. Many of our leaders are opting to guard supply routes and coagulate on sprawling military bases, rather than consistently moving into dangerous areas and fighting the insurgency. In our case, we had 500 soldiers stationed outside Samarra who made infrequent trips into the city center. There is little reason why most of these troops were not stationed inside Samarra, canvassing every neighborhood with platoon-sized patrol bases and suffocating insurgent operations. Rather than take the risks necessary--like small patrol bases and frequent foot patrols--our unit opted to secure itself and its supply routes rather than commit resources inside the city. And while this approach is safer in the short run, it only prolongs mission accomplishment, ultimately endangering more troops. We often speculated our unit would be back next year, driving the same streets with even fewer guys.

In due time, the Iraqi Security Forces will take over Samarra, but they are not ready yet. If the Americans left today, the Iraqis would be co-opted by the insurgents--who are utterly ruthless, willing to kill family members of policemen or decapitate Iraqi soldiers to preserve disorder. It will take time. Both the Iraqi Army and Samarra Police need to get bloodied a bit and bounce back, proving their strength to the people. They will eventually be ready, but until then, security belongs to us.

I also understand calling for more troops is contrary to conventional thinking inside government and the military. Supporters of the current approach argue sending more troops would further inflame anti-American sentiment, incite more violence and retard independent progress. My experience suggests otherwise. American troops are tolerated, even welcomed when they effectively provide security; but their presence is cursed when it does not accompany progress. Violence persists not because American troops are present, but because our presence is futile. Many local leaders asked us, "How come the most powerful country in the world cannot defeat local criminals and thugs?" They suggested our failure was part of a larger conspiracy to keep the Iraqi people suffering.
Check out the entire commentary. Hegseth notes that he hasn't lost his optimism on making gains in the war, but he questions the current "bare minimum" approach to troop levels. I too have long worried that our deployment is too light. I still believe, though, that our goals are worthy in Iraq, and that American policy can be a force for good in the region. Yet we should stay the course only if we are willing to defeat the insurgency. Without progress against the rising violence and sectarian barbarism, success will fall further and further from grasp, and public support will continue a steady erosion, until a majority calls for an abrupt withdrawal from the country.

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