More U.S. troops to Iraq: a surge, or just a trickle?

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All the angst in Washington over President Bush’s plan for a troop “surge” in Iraq is obscuring this fact – there is no plan.

And there is no surge.

A surge, according to Webster’s dictionary, is a “sudden, strong increase.” But the president is sending only a trickle of new U.S. troops to Baghdad this month and next month. The number is not 21,000, as he stated, but 7,000, according to congressional testimony on Wednesday by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

An additional 10,500 may come in installments over the next several months – IF the Iraqi government delivers on its promises, such as ending the sectarian violence. The likelihood of that is about as high as the odds that you or I will win the lottery.

In other words, the president’s plan is based on thin air.

The whole premise of a surge reflects a belated recognition that the United States never sent enough soldiers to Iraq in the first place. The president finally admitted “mistakes were made” (although he just gave a medal to Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary who refused to send sufficient troops).

Yet Bush seems determined to keep on making similar errors. The president rightly notes the reason that previous U.S. troops surges failed: There weren’t enough U.S. or Iraqi soldiers to hold areas that the Americans had cleared of insurgents. When U.S. troops left, insurgents returned and renewed the killing and intimidation of Iraqi residents.

But, according to the army’s new counterinsurgency manual, you need 20 soldiers per 1,000 population to secure conflicted areas. By that math, 120,000 troops would be required to bring stability to Baghdad, a city of 6 million.

There are 24,000 U.S. forces already in Baghdad, according to Pace, so even if 17,500 more U.S. soldiers dribbled in over five months, the numbers would hardly be sufficient.

The president claims that Iraqi troops will make up the slack. But Iraqi forces have repeatedly failed to hold cleared areas in the past. They fail to show up or fight and have been penetrated by sectarian militias and death squads. Why should it be different this time?

It will be different, Bush argues, because his new plan was really proposed by Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has promised this time to provide security for Baghdad. The Iraqi leader has also promised, according to Bush, that he will no longer prevent U.S. troops from entering neighborhoods controlled by Shiite militias.

I found it hard to believe that the president could make this claim with a straight face. This was not Maliki’s plan, as Maliki himself has made clear. On the contrary, the prime minister wanted Bush to pull U.S. troops out of Baghdad and give Iraq’s Shiite-led government carte blanche to go after the Sunnis.

Maliki never even showed up for an Iraqi government press conference on the Bush plan on Thursday. His advisers stressed – contrary to Bush claims – that Maliki will decide whether U.S. forces can enter Shiite areas. From conversations with Iraqi government leaders, I am convinced Maliki will not take on the Mahdi militia of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr – a prime goal of the new American plan.

Indeed, the new Bush plan is based on a series of delusions. A trickle is not a surge. Maliki is not on board. Iraqi leaders will not meet the president’s benchmarks – on providing security or pursuing reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis.

And Iraq, contrary to the president’s claims, is now engaged in a civil war. Such was not the case in 2003-2004 – when more U.S. troops might have made a difference. But it is the case now.

The U.S. presence prevents the cycle of tit-for-tat ethnic violence from escalating to its full fury, but the new, small, troop infusion has little chance of stopping the sectarian warfare.

The real question Americans should be debating, a question obscured by the fuss over the surge, is this: Do we still have any military role in Iraq, or should we let Iraqis settle their quarrel in their own way?

If we choose the latter option, we must confront the most crucial question of all: What kind of regional diplomacy is required to prevent Iraq’s civil war from spilling over its borders and engulfing a region that produces much of our oil? Bush rejected serious regional diplomacy in his surge speech, ruling out talks with Syria or Iran. In fact, he hinted at outright confrontation with Damascus and Tehran.

Thinking Iraq can be stabilized by expanding the war is the greatest of delusions. Let’s stop obsessing about the surge-that’s-not, and start discussing how to contain the spillover from the Iraq war.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her e-mail address is: trubin@phillynews.com.

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