Monday, August 20, 2007

Death by a Thousand Gradual Cuts

Iraq has become our perennial summer horror film. The plot is more or less the same as the years go by, as are the characters, and the monster never quite dies. The only thing that changes is the title, and that seems to be enough to keep us coming back for sequel after sequel after sequel.

From a Saturday New York Times article titled "White House to Offer Iraq Plan of Gradual Cuts" we learn that administration and military officials are planning a "new strategy" of troop reductions in Iraq to quell concerns of congressional Republicans whose constituents are fed up with the war. Scratching the surface of this new strategy, however, reveals it to be little more than Son of Stay the Course.

The Horror

Steven Lee Meyers and Thom Shanker of the Times tell us that "Many Republicans have urged Mr. Bush to unveil a new strategy, and even to propose a gradual reduction of American troops to the levels before this year’s troop increase--about 130,000--or even lower to head off Democratic-led efforts to force the withdrawal of all combat forces by early next year."

Let's get serious here. Reducing troop levels back to about 130,000 wouldn't be a new strategy. It would better be described as Return of the Status Quo. As for reducing the force size in Iraq below 130,000, don't bet a big tub of popcorn on it. General David Petraeus, top U.S. commander in Iraq, is making an assessment of the situation and is expected to present a "wide range" of force size options, but we've already seen enough of the Petraeus production to have a pretty good idea what kind of "option" he'll come up with. Last week he told reporters "…everyone understands that, by about a year or so from now, we've got to be a good bit smaller than we are right now. The question is how do you do that . . . so that you can retain the gains we have fought so hard to achieve and so you can keep going."

Petraeus will want to keep as many U.S. troops in Iraq as the force can sustain. Even with the surge fully in place, he doesn't have enough troops to hold everything he's supposedly gained. We're already playing Whack Another Mole as it is, and now we're seeing coming attraction trailers for The Bride of Stand Up/Stand Down. Petraeus says that the post-surge U.S troop levels will depend in part on " the capability of the Iraqi security forces," which means we'll need to keep as many U.S. troops in Iraq as we possibly can because the Iraqi forces are no more capable or trustworthy today than they were when Petraeus was in charge of training and arming them in 2004 and 2005.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Surge

The "new strategy" of "gradual cuts" is little more than a low budget comedy, the same tired gags we've been hearing for four years plus. The strategy isn't new and the troop levels aren't being cut. Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, Petraeus's second in command, has been saying from the outset that the surge couldn't be sustained beyond April 2008, which is, coincidentally enough, when the gradual cuts of the new strategy will begin.

Amazingly, the Bush administration isn't even bothering to make a pretense of what it's up to any more. An administration official told Myers and Shanker that the goal of announcing a new strategy is "to try to win support for a plan that could keep American involvement in Iraq on 'a sustainable footing' at least through the end of the Bush presidency."

Hence, the new strategy is part of a two-pronged scheme to keep the war in Iraq going long enough that it will be "not won" on someone else's watch. From one direction, the administration scares the American population with boo noise about all the evildoers we'll be fighting in the streets of Saint Louis, Missouri if we pull out of Iraq. From the other direction, it dangles a fairy plum vision of victory, that elusive, impossible to define thing that just might make all the trouble and all the deaths and casualties and all the national treasure and credibility expended on this God-forsaken excursion seem worthwhile.

Administration officials involved with drafting the new strategy say the White House will argue that the surge has succeeded on "…several levels in providing more security [and has] established the conditions for a new approach that would begin troop cuts in the first half of next year."

Keep in mind, please, that those troop cuts the surge supposedly enabled had to begin in the first half of next year regardless of how the surge went. Also note that not everyone agrees that the surge has provided "more security."

Sunday's Times contained an op-ed piece authored by seven non-commissioned officers of the 82nd Airborne Division who are near the end of a 15 month tour of duty in Iraq. Of the numerous cogent points they make in the editorial, these are perhaps the most pertinent:
The claim that we are increasingly in control of the battlefields in Iraq is an assessment arrived at through a flawed, American-centered framework. Yes, we are militarily superior, but our successes are offset by failures elsewhere…

…we operate in a bewildering context of determined enemies and questionable allies, one where the balance of forces on the ground remains entirely unclear…

…The ability of, say, American observers to safely walk down the streets of formerly violent towns is not a resounding indicator of security. What matters is the experience of the local citizenry and the future of our counterinsurgency. When we take this view, we see that a vast majority of Iraqis feel increasingly insecure and view us as an occupation force that has failed to produce normalcy after four years and is increasingly unlikely to do so as we continue to arm each warring side.

Our military superiority gains us nothing in a conflict like the one we face in Iraq. Our enemies are inextinguishable and, in large part, indistinguishable from our friends. The perception of increased security in Iraq is one primarily manufactured by publicity stunts featuring pro-war members of Congress, reporters and other media personalities, and local men's league soccer teams. The Iraqi people see us as the cause of their security problems, not the solution to them. The longer we stay on our present course, which the Bush administration is bound and determined to have us do, the surer it becomes that Iraq will erupt into a Hobbesian nightmare, a civil war of annihilation that has more sides than the Pentagon, all of which we have armed to the teeth.


Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at ePluribus Media and Pen and Sword. Jeff's novel Bathtub Admirals (Kunati Books, ISBN: 9781601640192) will be available March 1, 2008.


  1. Okay, Jeff, it's your weekly "this war sucks and these people do, too" column, but what's the remedy? Enough with the gripe sheets already!

  2. WEll, YS, I see it's your turn to haunt me. I've said it before, Jack Murtha proposed the remedy in fall of 2005.

  3. I'm not here to haunt; I'm here to see if you've put that war college education to use and fleshed out anything. Murtha didn't offer a plan, he just offered a couple of ideas. If you've got a link to something, just send me an e-mail.

  4. ozebloke1:05 AM

    Great to see you back on deck Commander.

    Sad to see the pinheads who want to keep digging the hole deeper.

    Here in OZ we'll be dumping our Prime Minister in the next couple of months - Bush's 'Man Of Steel's time limit is definitely up.

  5. What strikes me about this "new" strategy is how very similar it is to Nixon's "Vietnamization" plan to end American involvement in Vietnam. If anything, the ARVN could at least claim to have taken a significant part in the conflict with some hope of success. On this basis, Nixon's plan had more chance of success than the "W"s.

    What is fatal to both plans is the gradual application and then withdrawal of combat power. Given that the surge has been inadequate to achieve our stated goals, the only likely outcome of a gradual draw down is that available combat power on the ground will reach a "tipping point" after which the many forces on the ground who opposes will feel emboldened to engage the remaining troops on a higher tempo.

    In other words, American Army and Marine soldiers will sacrifice even more blood more rapidly so that the "W" can claim that he wasn't "Dunkirked." Maybe someone should point out to "W" that Dunkirk at least preserved the man power of the British Expeditionary Force to fight another day.

  6. American soldiers and Marines I think are sensitive to letting things get too violent, but I think they're given a mission they can't possibly execute: enforcing the peace. They certainly can't do it forever and if we let them do it too long we're just substituting one authoritarian model for another, albeit a less pervasive authoritarianism.

    What is truly fatal to the current plan is there's too much focus on resolving differences through the barrel of a gun within the internal factions in Iraq and the meddlers in the region.

  7. William Bollinger7:54 AM

    Why, I guess Yankee Sailor is on our side here, all willing to admit that Bush sent them on a mission that was poorly planned and doomed to fail, and now he wants to help us figure out how to solve it.

    Here's a suggestion. When a toilet is plugged up, you need to get rid of the shit before you do anything else. Bush's policies are the shit in this plumbing.

  8. As pointed out here, the British exiting their area is probably bad news. It is high time Murtha's plan was re-introduced to the great debate and fleshed out.

    For anyone who has yet to read Nemesis by Chalmers Johnson, I recommend it.

  9. Fascinating read on Main and Central. How DoD expects to ever meet even 33% of its recruiting goals if the "W" orders 18 month combat tours is beyond me. Of course, my father's tours in Vietnam were both 18 months each, but we had a conscription Army back then. Has anyone bothered to remind Cheney?

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