December 16th, 2006

Voted for Dean

"How to Win in Iraq"

When the Iraq Study Group report came out, I was expecting the Left to ream it a new hole. What I wasn't expecting was for the Right to hate it even more. In particular, hearing all the neo-cons call it a "surrender document" boggled my mind for several days, because when I read it, it seemed obvious to me that it was a document by people who were still convinced that there was some way to win in Iraq. Eventually the neo-cons pounded into my head what they hated about the document. While it talks about somehow propping up some kind of stable and survivable and nominally anti-terrorist government in Baghdad, the terms "human rights" and "democracy" are scarcely and only dismissively mentioned. To the neo-cons, including the President, anything short of a non-sectarian effectively secular American-style democracy with a deregulated World-Bank-approved Milton Friedman fantasy economic system is "failure."

The President is dragging his feet because, we know at this point from leaks and hints, he knows what he wants to do. The in-house name for the strategy is "doubling down," as in blackjack. It proposes sending enough additional troops into Baghdad and points west of there that, with Iraqi Army volunteers providing the cannon fodder for them, they can defeat the Mahdi Army, the Badr Brigade, the Sunni anti-government insurgents, and Al Qaeda in Iraq all simultaneously, killing them all. Having killed all of the freelance militias, the Iraqi elected officails would then be free of the pressure from them to set up a Hezbollah-approved or al Qaeda-approved jihadist government, the US fantasy of a free market capitalist democracy will be free to flourish. The President thinks this can be done with as few as 30,000 troops; the generals on the ground are telling John McCain that it couldn't be done with fewer than another 120,000. Given that the estimated troop strength of those four opposing forces totals is around 200,000, you can see where that range of numbers comes from. When an American soldier drives his armored Humvee into al Anbar or Sadr City, how many Iraqis will there be with him, fighting enthusiastically alongside of him? And given their clearly inferior equipment, armor, and training, how many of them will it take to be equivalent to one American fighting man?

Unfortunately, the argument over whether to send another 30,000 or another 100,000 is moot. As Army Chief of Staff, General Peter Schoomaker, testified on Thursday, what we have, total, is 10,000. 15,000 if we draw more heavily than we ever have on the Army Reserve. And, he pointed out, our total training capacity is 6,000 to 7,000 more per year. And that's given the optimistic assumption that we could successfully increase our recruiting quotas by 7,000 per year and actually meet those quotas. So if John McCain is right and we need another 100,000 soldiers in Iraq to win, the troops we have over there will have to hold on by the skin of their teeth for another 12 to 15 years while we train and equip their reinforcements. Um, yeah. Right.

If the American people really really wanted this, could we do it? If 50 million Americans were to swarm the recruiting stations tomorrow demanding to be given a chance to fight, because they believed that America was truly at risk? Absolutely. We've done it before. It'd take us a year or so to ramp up the training camps by spending that whole year training trainers, but we've done it before. And I know that George Bush believes that those 50,000,000 Americans ought to be doing just that. But for crying out loud, he hasn't even convinced his own family members, with whom he's in more or less daily contact, that America's safety is a stake and that this war is a matter of life or death; he hasn't even begun to seriously try to persuade the American people of this. Either that or he is that genuinely clueless as to how it's done. Which leaves him looking like a bad parody of Inigo Montoya standing there with a couple of holes in him, saying, "Hello. My name is George W. Bush. You tried to kill my father. Prepare to die." Like Inigo, he still thinks that he can win. Unlike Inigo, he just plain doesn't have what it takes.

Ironically, one guy who just died in Iraq seems to have had an idea that might yet be worth trying. The recently deceased Captain Travis Patriquin was, shortly before his death from an insurgent's bomb, circulating a cheap but effective PDF he made called "How to Win in Anbar," version 4. His plan? Give up completely on the Iraqi Army, which he says that the tribal sheiks and the Iraqi people are never going to support, for reasons he documents sardonically but plausibly in his presentation. Instead, send them home and train them all to be Iraqi police, reporting informally to their local tribal sheiks. Trust them to patrol their own neighborhoods, trust them and their sheiks to know who the murderers and assassins in their own neighborhoods are, trust them to destroy anybody who threatens the neighborhood's peace and prosperity by engaging in anti-government terrorism.

What fascinates me about his proposal is that it reminds me of some speeches that former Costra Rican President Oscar Arias gave after he won the Nobel Peace Prize for being the first, and even still almost the only, president in Latin America to actually successfully win the permanent civil wars that the Spanish left behind in all of their former colonies. How did he do it? By disbanding the military. The right, and the middle class, were horrified, and assumed it would mean that the leftists would all murder them in their sleep. Instead, it took the wind right out of the leftists' sails, and they all laid down their weapons and joined legitimate political parties by the end of the first week. Arias gambled that the leftist guerrillas were only able to recruit and maintain troops in the field because people felt threatened by the Army, and he was right; without the Army as an enemy to scare people with, the leftists who wanted to continue the revolution lost all support. What's more, even his relationships with neighboring countries improved.

Although everyone now admits that it has worked so far, few other countries have had the guts to echo Oscar Arias' experiment. But if we truly want peace and democracy and capitalism and non-sectarian political debate in Iraq, maybe we should honor Captain Patriquin's sacrifice (and his common sense) and suggest to them that they be the ones to try it next. It might not work. But unlike what the President is, by his own admission, trying to figure out "how to provide for," or John McCain's solution which violates important laws of physics, Captain Patriquin's plan has the virtue of being at least theoretically possible.