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Today's Big Story

Surging Generals

Bush's plan for 20,000 more troops faces a cold welcome.

By Richard Warnica 9 Jan 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Richard Warnica is a senior editor at The Tyee.

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At least 50 people died this morning as US gun ships and warplanes backed Iraqi and American troops trying to root insurgents out of a downtown Baghdad neighbourhood, according to the Washington Post. Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph is reporting that more than 100 Shia civilians have been kidnapped and hanged from lamp poles and utility towers in recent days, presumably in revenge for the execution of Sadaam Hussein.

But the big news stateside is all about “the surge.” According to reports published, well just about everywhere, US president George Bush will announce a major escalation in the number of US troops in Iraq in a speech Wednesday.

There are literally thousands of stories floating about the announcement. But the fact is, there’s not much news. The plan is expected to feature an increase of 20,000 U.S. soldiers as part of what Slate’s Fred Kaplan calls a “classic strategy of clear, hold and build:” Sweep out the insurgents, hold the space and pour in money for infrastructure.  But the real meat of most stories is the reaction the plan is receiving – and the reaction is not good.

As I trolled for opinions this morning, I found it remarkable just how little goodwill the strategy had garnered. If you disclude the naked partisans like Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, most American opinion makers, from either end of the spectrum, dismissed the plan with a mix of angry vitriol and cold disbelief.   

For the former we have the Times’ Paul Krugman. “The only real question about the planned “surge” in Iraq,” Krugman wrote, “is whether its proponents are cynical or delusional.”

For the later there’s Krugman’s conservative colleague David Brooks, an early proponent of the war.

“If the goal is to create a stable, unified Iraq, the surge is a good policy three years too late,” he opined.  “For that surge to succeed now, it would have to accomplish the following tasks: compel the Maliki government to deliver public services in a nonsectarian way; convert the Shiite theocrats who now dominate the Iraqi government into ecumenical multiculturalists; persuade the rabid Sunni leaders to accept a dependent role in the new Iraq; induce the traumatized Iraqi people to hang together as the blood flows; sustain, over 18 months, American political support for an arduous policy that begins with a 17 percent approval rating. The odds that the surge can accomplish these tasks are vanishingly small.”

Krugman and Brooks are hardly unique. Their two tones: rage at the very notion of a troop increase on the one hand, casual dismissal of it’s prospects for success on the other, are echoed broadly. 

Again, for the former, here’s Bob Hebert: “All of the tortured, twisted rationales for this war… have vaporized, and we’re left with just the mad, mindless, meaningless and apparently endless slaughter.” And for the later, Nicholas Kristof: “A surge in the number of troops in Iraq might have helped in 2003 or early 2004. But in 2007, President Bush’s plan seems to represent a warmed-over variant of approaches that have already been tried and mostly failed.”

Even Donald Trump (The Donald?!) took time off from slagging Rosie O’Donnell to jab Bush in an interview with Maureen Dowd.  The Commander in Chief is, in Trump’s words “a president who has destroyed the lives of probably a million people.”

Slate’s Fred Kaplan offered the most sustained critique of the strategy itself.  The plan is to be carried out by the new top general in Iraq, David Petraeus. Petraeus, in a more junior role, had the most success winning local hearts and minds in the initial stages of the invasion, according to Kaplan. He later wrote the military’s new strategy manual for combating counter insurgencies. 

But as Kaplan points out, an extra 20,000 troops doesn’t come close to the number Patraeus himself says are necessary to win the war. The clear, hold and build strategy requires, says Kaplan “at minimum, 20 combat troops for every 1,000 people in the area’s population. Baghdad has about 6 million people; so clearing, holding, and building it will require about 120,000 combat troops.

“Right now, the United States has about 70,000 combat troops in all of Iraq (another 60,000 or so are support troops or headquarters personnel). Even an extra 20,000 would leave the force well short of the minimum required—and that's with every soldier and Marine in Iraq moved to Baghdad.”

The big question ahead of Bush’s speech Wednesday is How will he sell the plan? The Washington Post’s Dan Froomkin posted an exhaustive list of the challenges inhenrent in the task on his blog today. But his colleague William M. Arkin went one further.

 “The only way the President will get what he wants is to put the troops in the middle of a tug of war,” Arkin writes. “Bush will show, amidst commander-in-chief pomp and the requisite hooah's that the military is neither exhausted nor finished. Congress will thus be trapped in the position where it will have to undermine and dishonor the American military to implement the will of the American people.”  [Tyee]

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