Waiter, There's a Surge in My Soup
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Proponents of escalation cite the example of Tal Afar, a town in northwestern Iraq. U.S. forces there have met some genuine success since September 2005 with the 'clear, build and hold' strategy that Mr. Bush apparently now favors for Baghdad.
But Tal Afar is only about one-thirtieth the size of Baghdad, and it isn't even Arab: its people are mostly members of the Turkmen minority. Trying to replicate that (limited) success in Baghdad is a fool's errand.
In Tal Afar, there was one U.S. soldier for every 40 residents. Using the same ratio in Baghdad would require 150,000 troops, sustained for more than a year. That's impossible. -- Nicholas Kristoff, New York Times
I was in Tal Afar, Iraq's "genuine success" story, over the summer. It was such a success story that the city's neurotic, hand-wringing mayor, Najim Abdullah al-Jubori, actually asked American officials during a meeting I attended if they could tell President Bush to stop calling it a success story. "It just makes the terrorists angry," he said. At the meeting he pointed to a map and indicated the areas where the insurgents held strong positions.
"Here," he said. "Oh, and here. And here. Here also..."
After that meeting the unit I was with -- MPs from Oklahoma on a personal security detail, guarding a Colonel who was inspecting police stations in the area -- went to a precinct house in one of Tal Afar's "safe" neighborhoods. There I found five American soldiers huddling in a room about the size of a walk-in closet, hunched over a pile of MRE wrappers and Play Station cassettes.
They seldom ever left that room, they explained. Occasionally they would have to go out and fight whenever someone started shooting at the police station (a regular occurrence, they said); sometimes they'd even round up the aggressors, only to have some Iraqi army creeps come by later and insist on the attackers' release, telling the soldiers they had the "wrong guys." The Iraqi army units and the Iraqi police in the town were constantly at odds and the soldiers there spent a lot of their time breaking up violent outbreaks between the two groups. In short, Tal Afar was a total fucking mess, a violent chaos, and yet Tal Afar is still upheld as the Iraqi success story -- and an example of the "impossible" standard of a 1-soldier-per-40-residents security paradise that even a liberal columnist like Nicholas Kristof dismisses as a hopelessly optimistic fantasy, saying such a wonder couldn't be replicated in Baghdad.
This whole sales campaign designed to pitch a new troop increase -- hilariously called a "surge" in the new "Iraq Policy Mark IV" that President Bush is planning to announce with a straight face -- is one of the more outrageous media deceptions in the history of an Iraq war that has been rife with them. President Bush is going on TV this week and tell the American people that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is somehow going to make a difference in the security situation. He is going to be aided in this effort by a legion of knucklehead editorialists who entered the New Year pimping a preposterous new creation story about Iraq, one that argues that the Iraqi-American Eden was spoiled only by arrogant generals and Pentagon officials who tried to secure an occupied country on the cheap.
This absurd interpretation of events, pitched hardest by (among others) Washington's reigning power-worshipper/professional Crate and Barrel shopper David Brooks, pins the blame for the Iraq mess on such persons as Don Rumsfeld, George Casey and John Abizaid, all of whom sold Bush on a "light footprint" strategy for occupying Iraq. "Casey and Abizaid are impressive men, and Bush deferred to their judgment," Brooks wrote last week. "But sometimes good men make bad choices, and it is now clear that the light-footprint approach has been a disaster."
According to Brooks and a lot of other people in Washington (our possible next president, John McCain, among them), everything in Iraq would have been okay from the start, if we'd only had enough troops.
Coming to this realization now -- three and a half years late, as it were -- gives all these people a chance to argue one more time for a troop increase. They're going to get that increase now, and if history is any guide, they'll patiently give that troop increase another few years to work. When it doesn't, bet on it, they will come back once again and say that what they got was not a big enough increase, that what was needed was a full-blown commitment, a "Super-Marshall Plan," etc. And then we will be in Iraq until 2011 or 2012, just like everyone in Iraq (who's seen the huge embassy complexes we're just now breaking ground on) already knows we will be.
The whole idea that "more troops" are needed in Iraq is absurd on its face. They sell this idea in America as though our soldiers are being sent to patrol the streets like New York City cops policing Malcolm X Boulevard on foot -- spreading goodwill, talking to shopkeepers, collaring the occasional fare-jumper, and scaring off the odd stick-up kid by their very presence.
That's not at all the way it works in Iraq. For one thing, the majority of the troops in a place like Baghdad never leave the massive, seemingly Manhattan-sized walled-in Forward Operating Bases (FOBs). Battle-hardened soldiers derisively describe army personnel who live in the FOBs as "Fobbits" and it is roundly accepted in Iraq that Fobbits make up a clear majority of our deployed military men. For soldiers who actually have to go out and risk getting blown up in patrols, Fobbits are a vile contagion, like malarial mosquitoes -- amazingly numerous and deeply annoying. One soldier laughed when I asked if he thought we needed more guys in Iraq. "Not more troops, but fewer Fobbit-motherfuckers," he growled.
It seemed to me that the reason there were so many guys on the base was that the army higher-ups on the ground in Iraq had made the decision to limit as much as possible the exposure of Americans to the Iraq outside the wire. They did this not out of cowardice or a reluctance to engage the enemy (who takes on different faces in different regions), but out of a realization that there is almost no way for our troops to actively engage insurgents. You could send more men and women out of the base, but where are you going to send them?
As it is, a great many of the outside-the-wire activities are artificial, self-justifying exercises without any immediate hope of engaging armed antagonists -- "show of force" tours around certain neighborhoods, visits to Iraqi police stations, etc. The prophylactic value of these exercises seems minimal, and many soldiers privately grumbled to me that their main purpose seemed to be to give insurgents something to shoot at.
When I was in Iraq, commanders seemed to recognize this, and even units who did go out on patrols did so on an extremely limited basis, not more than one hour out of 24 or 48. And even during that one hour, they never got out of their Humvees -- never even slowed down their Humvees. The rest of the time they spent on the FOBs, tending to their equipment, watching DVDs, chatting on the net with anxious girlfriends back home, and getting bossed around by Fobbit captains and lieutenants.
Even those road patrols now seem far more likely to add to the violence than prevent it, since 43 percent of American fatalities last year came as the result of roadside bombs called IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). That's up from 16 percent in 2003. The insurgents plant the bombs at night; the American kids then go out in Humvees during the day and drive in circles hoping not to get blown up. I would like to see David Brooks explain to me how that cycle of madness improves the general security situation.
Then there is sectarian violence. I knew one soldier whose job involved escorting a morgue truck around Baghdad every morning. Each morning, his unit would drive around and pick up the covert assassination victims who had been tortured, mutilated, and left on the street overnight. They'd toss the bodies in the truck, then unload the bodies at the morgue later. Later that night, while the vast majority of American soldiers slept on FOBs or in police stations, the rival Sunni and Shia gangs would sneak back and forth across town and leave more bodies for the soldier's unit to find the next day. There are no American soldiers in between the gangs and their victims. We come in at the end, when it's too late.
The soldiers have all been trained to fight and they want to help, want to make a difference -- but there's no offensive mission for them. So what they spend most of their time doing is working to sustain their own presence. More than one soldier commented to me that the mission seemed mainly to be to keep the FOBs running.
I wasn't in Iraq very long, and I wouldn't presume to say that I know everything or even very much about how the war is being conducted. I'm just bringing this up because this whole debate about troop levels is being conducted under a number of assumptions that I'm not sure aren't absurd fictions. The argument for more troops assumes that the troops we have there already are actively engaged in making Iraq secure, only there aren't enough of them.
What I saw was that our troops were mostly engaged in keeping themselves secure -- and even that was a very tough job. The Iraq war has gone so wrong that it is no longer an occupation, no longer even a security mission. It's just a huge mass of isolated soldiers running in place in a walled-off FOB archipelago, trying not to get shot or blown up and occasionally firing back at an enemy over the wall they can't see. It's lunacy. Adding more guys to it just means more lunacy. But our government has a high tolerance for that sort of thing, and I wouldn't bet on it ending anytime soon.