President's new plan for Iraq founded on delusions

January 17, 2007|By Trudy Rubin

PHILADELPHIA -- All the angst in Washington over President Bush's plan for a troop surge in Iraq is obscuring this reality: There is no "surge."

A surge, according to Webster's dictionary, is a "sudden, strong increase." But the president is sending only a trickle of extra U.S. troops to Baghdad this month and next month. The number is not 21,500, as has been widely reported, but 7,000, according to congressional testimony last week by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Four thousand more will deploy to Anbar province.) An additional 10,500 may come in installments over the next several months - if the Iraqi government delivers on its promises, such as ending the sectarian violence. The likelihood of that is about as good as the odds that you or I will win the lottery.

In other words, even the trickle may soon be cut off.

If I thought a surge could stabilize Baghdad at this late date, and we had enough troops for the job, I would support it. But it won't, and we don't. The whole premise of a surge reflects a belated recognition that the United States didn't send enough soldiers to Iraq in the first place. The president finally admitted that "mistakes were made."

Yet Mr. Bush seems determined to keep on making similar errors. The president rightly notes the reason why previous U.S. troop surges failed: There weren't enough U.S. or Iraqi soldiers to hold areas that the Americans had cleared of insurgents. When U.S. troops left, insurgents returned and renewed the killing and intimidation of Iraqi civilians.

According to the Army's new counterinsurgency manual, you need 20 soldiers per 1,000 population to secure conflicted areas. By that math, 120,000 troops would be required to bring stability to Baghdad, a city of 6 million.

There are 24,000 U.S. forces in Baghdad, according to Mr. Pace, so even if 17,500 more U.S. soldiers dribbled in over five months, the numbers don't add up.

The president claims that Iraqi troops will take up the slack. But Iraqi forces have repeatedly failed to hold cleared areas. They fail to show up or fight, and have been penetrated by sectarian militias and death squads. Why should it be different this time?

It will be different, Mr. Bush argues, because his new plan was really proposed by Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who has promised this time to provide security for Baghdad. The Iraqi leader has also promised, according to Mr. Bush, that he will no longer prevent U.S. troops from entering neighborhoods controlled by Shiite militias.

I found it hard to believe that the president could make this claim with a straight face. This was not Mr. al-Maliki's plan, as Mr. al-Maliki has made clear. On the contrary, the prime minister wanted Mr. Bush to pull U.S. troops out of Baghdad and give Iraq's Shiite-led government carte blanche to go after the Sunnis.

Mr. al-Maliki never even showed up for an Iraqi government news conference last week on the Bush plan. His advisers stressed - contrary to Mr. Bush's claims - that Mr. al-Maliki would decide whether U.S. forces could enter Shiite areas. From my conversations with Iraqi government leaders, I am convinced Mr. al-Maliki will not take on the Mahdi militia of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr - a prime goal of the new U.S. plan.

Indeed, the new Bush plan is based on a series of delusions. A trickle is not a surge. Mr. al-Maliki is not on board. Iraqi leaders will not meet the president's benchmarks on providing security or pursuing reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis.

And Iraq, contrary to the president's claims, is engaged in a civil war. Such was not the case in 2003 and 2004, when more U.S. troops might have made a difference. But it is the case now.

The U.S. presence prevents the cycle of tit-for-tat ethnic violence from escalating to its full fury, but the small troop infusion has little chance of stopping the sectarian warfare.

The real question Americans should be debating, a question obscured by the fuss over the surge, is this: Do we still have a military role in settling Iraq's civil war, or should we let Iraqis settle their quarrel in their own way? This is a terrible choice for the Iraqis and us.

If we choose the latter option, we must confront the most crucial question of all: What kind of regional diplomacy is required to prevent Iraq's civil war from spilling over its borders and engulfing a region that produces much of our oil? Mr. Bush rejected serious regional diplomacy in his surge speech, ruling out talks with Syria or Iran. In fact, he hinted at outright confrontation with Damascus and Tehran.

Thinking Iraq can be stabilized by expanding the war is another delusion. Let's stop obsessing about the surge-that's-not, and start discussing how to contain the spillover from the Iraq war.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column usually appears Tuesdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is

Steve Chapman's column will return next week.

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