Well, the speculation is over: George Bush outlined his second-to-last plan for victory in Iraq. I say second-to-last because even he admits that it might not work, that it's only "our best chance" right now. He has also said told reporters, off the record, that he won't talk about the plan for if this plan fails until it becomes obvious that it has. I suspect it may actually come to what I said, namely sending in another couple of hundred thousand troops, no matter how long that takes, because he did make it explicitly clear that he truly believes that anything short of total victory in Iraq means permanent al Qaeda bases in Anbar province which means more major attacks on American cities against which he believes we'd be powerless to stop them.
So I'm trying to give him the benefit of the doubt here for just a moment and seriously ask, can his plan work?
The plan amounts to sending one combat brigade into Anbar province to hunt al Qaeda. It also calls for bringing the Baathists back into the political process, persuading them to lay down arms, by doing three things: allowing all but the top ranking members of Saddam's government to go back to their government jobs, funding a couple of billion dollars worth of construction projects in Sunni neighborhoods under a new, State Department appointed anti-fraud and anti-waste supervisor, and defeating the Mahdi Army. That last one's the highest hurdle, obviously. That part of the plan calls for sending 18 Iraqi military brigades and 5 American military brigades house to house to disarm the whole capital city, to slaughter anybody who isn't in the Iraqi army's or police's uniform who insists on keeping a gun. As each neighborhood is cleared, some squad or platoon sized unit from those American brigades will be left behind, stationed in the local police precinct, to back up the cops in keeping the neighborhood from re-arming.
Since we're talking Baghdad, and since the Mahdi Army and the Iraqi Army have been working hand in hand these last couple of weeks to slaughter the last remaining Sunni militias inside Baghdad proper (and for that matter, most of the Sunnis who refused to move if they lived in Shiite-majority neighborhoods), that almost entirely means defeating the only truly organized, large-scale resistance left in Baghdad: President al Maliki's up-until-now ally Moqtada al Sadr, head of the Mahdi Army. The most optimistic estimate I've heard for his organized, armed, and combat-ready troop strength is 60,000, from the Baker-Hamilton report. At least one book written by a journalist who investigated the subject on the ground estimates that it's closer to 120,000. Sadr claims it's 140,000. And just a few minutes ago, President al Maliki made official what the rumors had been saying all day: he has given al Sadr the final ultimatum, disarm those however-many militiamen or face the combined military might of the Iraqi Army and the US Army and Marine Corps.
Now the question that al Sadr has to ask himself is, are we bluffing?
23 combat brigades is, by my math, about 80,000 troops. We were able to win the second battle of Fallujah with, depending on your estimate of the Iraqi Resistance's then troop strength, as little as 3 to 1 or 4 to 1 numerical superiority, that is to say, at least 3 to 1 in our favor. But we were only able to do that by being willing to lob bombs, and more importantly rocket propelled grenades and tank shells, into any building we thought we were under fire from. This time we won't have 3 to 1 numerical superiority. We'll have, at best, a little better than even troop strength, going up against a fortified enemy. And that might be insanely optimistic. In the past, Moqtada al Sadr has repeatedly gone over President al Maliki's head to their mutual spiritual leader, Iraq's (Shiite, obviously) Supreme Ayatollah ali Sistani. Sistani has always so far vetoed any plan to disarm the Mahdi Army by force, on the grounds that it is unlawful for Shiites to wage war on other Shiites. Maybe this time Maliki can persuade Sistani that Sadr's Mahdi Army is the one that started the war, by disobeying lawful orders. It hasn't worked before, though. So if the Grand Ayatollah puts out the word that any Iraqi soldier who obeys the order to open fire on the Mahdi Army is going to hell, how many of those 18 combat brigades will be there alongside the 17,500 troops we're sending into Baghdad? Any? Are we going to try to capture roughly 1/3 of a huge metropolitan area despite an entrenched, trained, and heavily armed resistance that outnumbers our troops by more than 4 to 1?
If al Sadr decides not to back down, and ali Sistani refuses to condemn him for this, this could turn into a meat grinder in a hurry. If, on the other hand, al Sadr does back down, or if al Sadr inexplicably loses on the urban battlefield and his troops are slaughtered, then combined with the massive economic bribes to the Sunnis to return to the political process, it just might be possible to salvage multi-sectarian democracy in Iraq, for at least a little while.
I am, however, deeply nervous about Bush's remarks about Iran and Syria in that speech. Maybe more about that tomorrow, when things look a little clearer. Because I'd hate to think that he's thinking of repeating Nixon's Vietnam mistake.