Wednesday's edition of USA Today has a long "cover story" on the Bush Administration's initial rejection of the strategy that's made Iraq safer. According to the paper, a number of experts (mostly outside the government) urged the administration to implement a counter-insurgency plan in Iraq, based on occupying--and holding--terrorist strongholds, and targeting the bomb-making networks behind spiraling IED attacks.
The USA Today article is based heavily on interviews with Peter Krepinevich, the West Point grad who now runs a Washington-based think tank, and Dr. Fredrick Kagan, a military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute who later emerged as one of the architects of the current surge strategy. Krepinevich recommended a counter-insurgency approach in a speech to top Army generals in 2005, and a 2006 meeting with Lewis "Scooter" Libby, then Vice President Cheney's Chief of Staff.
In both cases, the advice was rejected, and the administration continued to focus on training Iraqi security forces (as a prelude to an eventual U.S. withdrawal), and funding high-tech systems to deal with the IED threat. Ultimately, the failure of joint security operations, the slow pace of Iraqi training and rising U.S. casualties created a "perfect storm" that opened the door for the surge strategy, which has been a resounding success by any measure.
The policy decisions outlined in the USA Today article are anything but revelatory, and the fits-and-starts of the counter-IED fight have been detailed by other reporters, most notably Rick Atkinson of the Washington Post. So, there's little new in the story, other than the paper chastising the Bush Administration for refusing to pursue the surge strategy years earlier.
And, there's no slight irony in the paper's editorial slant. In early January, after Mr. Bush unveiled plans for the troop surge, USA Today dismissed its prospects for success.
For the sake of those soldiers, the war on terrorism and other U.S. interests in the world, it's important that the president's new approach succeeds where other plans have failed. But wanting it to work is not the same as having confidence that it will. A hard look at the facts suggests that the prospects for success are slim.
As is evident from the daily carnage, two previous pushes to secure the violence-ravaged city failed. Sectarian violence actually increased soon after the Phase I offensive began in July. It got worse through a Phase II infusion of 9,500 U.S. and Iraqi forces that began in August.
The significant difference for Phase III is a dramatic increase of 17,500 additional U.S. troops. Another important change: the Shiite militia-ridden section of Sadr City, a chief source of the stepped-up sectarian violence, will no longer be off-limits.
Whether that will be enough to make the critical difference and turn the war around is questionable. The first revision of the Army's counterinsurgency manual in 20 years, overseen by the new commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, recommends a ratio of 20 soldiers to every 1,000 residents for any successful counterinsurgency operation. That would require about 120,000 troops in Baghdad, a city of six million.
The United States can't muster anywhere close to that number for an extended period without reinstituting the draft, a political non-starter. Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has promised 18 Iraqi Army and Police brigades, around 63,000 men. But in Phase II of the Battle for Baghdad, with a smaller surge of U.S. and Iraqi troops, many Iraqis simply didn't show up.
Another 4,000 new U.S. troops will be sent to Anbar province in the west, the center of the Sunni and al-Qaeda insurgency. Last September, Col. Pete Devlin, the senior intelligence official in Anbar, was reported as saying that the security situation in Anbar would continue to deteriorate without substantially more U.S. troops. It is unclear if 4,000 will be enough.
And, barely two months later, the paper was supporting efforts for a phased withdrawal:
So here's a suggestion: Trying to end the war instantly is futile, so zero in on ending it over the next year, which also happens to be the wiser course.
Much of the groundwork for this is already in place.
Bush has set benchmarks for the Iraqi government, including taking primary responsibility for security throughout Iraq by November. Further, commanders have suggested that they'll know if the surge is working by late summer.
Perhaps most important, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group has defined a compelling plan for redeployment and phased withdrawal of most troops by March 2008. Bush increasingly is adopting other aspects of the group's plan, and by fall, with an election looming and the surge's outcome clearer, it wouldn't be shocking if he adopted the rest.
By starting now to put in place plans for what will follow the surge, the United States would increase chances that it can exit on its own terms, not be driven by events.
In April, when members of Congress suggested that the surge was showing signs of progress, USA Today scoffed at the idea:
Legislators gush over ‘normal’ market, but their visit [in Baghdad] was hardly normal.
That helps explain why Americans were treated to a bizarre spectacle last weekend, when some of Bush's congressional allies went to Baghdad's largest open-air market, didn't get shot, and declared that was evidence the surge might be starting to work.
In comments that rival some of the war's other signature lines, such as "mission accomplished" and "bring it on," Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., said the Baghdad market was just "like a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime."
If so, visitors to Indiana might want to pack a little heat. Pence, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and their colleagues were wearing bulletproof vests, arrived in a convoy of armored vehicles and were protected by sharpshooters on rooftops, attack helicopters overhead and 100 heavily armed American troops on the ground.
Writing in May, the paper's editorial board warned that "if ominous trends continue, the already potent argument for a phased withdrawal will look overwhelming." Three months later, USA Today cautioned that "victory remained distant," citing recently-released reports from the intelligence community and Government Accountability Office, which cautioned that violence remained high in Iraq, and (in the case of the GAO analysis) questioned claims of military progress.
In fact, we didn't find a USA Today editorial that touted the surge as a clear success until last week, when the publication observed that the revised strategy "holds the chance to seize the moment in Iraq." That (rather) reluctant admission came after months of increasingly upbeat reports from the war zone, many of them from military bloggers and other members of the new media.
Today's article--and that string of editorials--are another example of a MSM outlet that wants to have it both ways. Clearly, mistakes were made in our Iraq strategy, and there's plenty of blame to go around. What's missing from USA Today's coverage, both on the front page and in the editorial section, is that elusive thing called credit, for making a tough decision and seeing it through, with little regard for the political consequences.
Lest we forget, about this time last year, pundits of various stripes (including the paper's editorial writers) were calling for the U.S. to cut and run. Instead, Mr. Bush and his military advisers adopting a far riskier approach, sending more troops to Iraq and aiming their campaign at the heart of the insurgency. That strategy was widely ridiculed by Congressional Democrats and the MSM--"doomed to fail," as they put it.
At the end of 2006, the situation in Iraq is vastly improved, thanks to the heroic efforts of our troops, their commander and a commander-in-chief who rejected the counsel of so-called "wise men" like the Baker-Hamilton Commission and the USA Today editorial board. As a result, Iraq is a much different place than it was one year ago. It's nice to see the paper finally acknowledge our progress on the ground; it would be even better if they would give credit for that success to it's rightful authors, including Mr. Bush.