Sunday, January 07, 2007

50,000 more US troops can save Iraq

By John Keegan
President George W. Bush is about to launch a final push in Iraq with a large reinforcement of American troops in the hope of crushing the insurgency before America embarks on a large-scale withdrawal of force from the country.

The size of the force is commonly set at about 40,000-50,000 troops. The aim of this surge will be to inflict severe damage and loss on the problem-making elements within Iraq, including both Shia and Sunni militias, and to increase training of the Iraqi security forces under American supervision.

The arguments against the surge are that it might exacerbate the violence without deterring the perpetrators from persisting in their attacks and that it might result in a sharp increase in American casualties with no observable gain. The arguments for trying a surge are that it is defeatist to concentrate on withdrawal from Iraq without attempting a final effort to make military force work.

A major consideration is where the troops are to be found. Some formations of the regular American army and some national guard formations remain within the United States, but much has already been deployed to Iraq and it may prove difficult to find the necessary soldiers. Also problematic is the task of transporting them and their equipment to the fighting zones. How are they to be moved and where are they to be based?

Despite the deployment to Iraq already made and the number of units and formations elsewhere in the world (specifically in Afghanistan), the US Army and Marine Corps still maintain a large deployable reserve in America. There should be no difficulty in finding a regular or national guard army division or a marine division.

Its equipment could be transported in the designated huge transport vehicles of its C-lift reserve fleet, while the personnel could be flown by the vast fleet of C-5 transports. The obvious point of entry is Kuwait, from which the invasion of Iraq was launched in 2003.

Military logic requires that any reinforcements should contain a sizeable number of armoured vehicles. Insurgents, though they have had some success in attacking tanks and armoured fighting vehicles, are not properly equipped to resist a heavily armoured enemy.

The object of the surge deployment should be to overwhelm the insurgents with a sudden concentration, both of numbers, armoured vehicles and firepower with the intention to inflict severe losses and heavy shock. The Mahdi Army in Sadr City should prove vulnerable to such tactics, which would of course be supported by helicopters and fixed-wing aviation.

Hitherto most military activity by coalition forces has been reactive rather than unilateral. Typically, units have become involved in fire fights while on patrol or on convoy protection duties. During the surge, the additional troops would take the fight to the enemy with the intention of doing him harm, destabilising him and his leaders and damaging or destroying the bases from which he operates.

The cost of such tactics is likely to be high but not unbearable if enough armoured vehicles are used to protect the attacking troops. The advantage of committing recently arrived troops to such operations is that they will come to operations fresh and enthusiastic. Though there is the disadvantage that they may not be familiar with local conditions or topography, this need not be a disqualification since the purpose of a surge strike would be to create a shock effect, not to alter local conditions by informal action.

The British contingent recently demonstrated that such overwhelming tactics have their effect. After their surprise move into Basra with massed columns of fighting vehicles and Challenger tanks, they succeeded in dominating the chosen area and evoking respect from the local militias.

In any case, the sending of such force will be a necessary preliminary to any reduction in strength, since it would be necessary to cover the withdrawal. Retreat is a complicated operation of war which paradoxically always involves far more troops if it is to be brought off successfully. The reason for that is that the spectacle of withdrawal tempts the enemy to interpret the time of withdrawal as an indication of weakness, and so risks infliction of passing shots and the launching of farewell attacks. It is vastly important to have additional troops on hand at such a time.

The surge reinforcements may therefore have a dual purpose to cover the reduction and also to deal final blows at the source of the disorder prior to departure. American commanders certainly will not wish to leave Iraq, tail between legs. We may therefore confidently expect to see the number of American troops in the theatre increase suddenly from 150,000 to 200,000, if only for a short time.

An important side effect of the surge for which Western leaders will hope is that it will increase the size and capability of Iraqi security forces, which it will be vital to include in the operation.

For it is upon them that the stability of Iraq and its elected government will depend when the size of Western involvement is reduced.

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