Iraq Options: Go Big, Go Long or Go Home
WaPo fronts a piece by Thomas Ricks on the Pentagon’s long term strategic planning for Iraq.
The Pentagon’s closely guarded review of how to improve the situation in Iraq has outlined three basic options: Send in more troops, shrink the force but stay longer, or pull out, according to senior defense officials. Insiders have dubbed the options “Go Big,” “Go Long” and “Go Home.” The group conducting the review is likely to recommend a combination of a small, short-term increase in U.S. troops and a long-term commitment to stepped-up training and advising of Iraqi forces, the officials said.
“Go Big,” the first option, originally contemplated a large increase in U.S. troops in Iraq to try to break the cycle of sectarian and insurgent violence. A classic counterinsurgency campaign, though, would require several hundred thousand additional U.S. and Iraqi soldiers as well as heavily armed Iraqi police. That option has been all but rejected by the study group, which concluded that there are not enough troops in the U.S. military and not enough effective Iraqi forces, said sources who have been informally briefed on the review.
“Go Home,” the third option, calls for a swift withdrawal of U.S. troops. It was rejected by the Pentagon group as likely to push Iraq directly into a full-blown and bloody civil war.
The group has devised a hybrid plan that combines part of the first option with the second one — “Go Long” — and calls for cutting the U.S. combat presence in favor of a long-term expansion of the training and advisory efforts. Under this mixture of options, which is gaining favor inside the military, the U.S. presence in Iraq, currently about 140,000 troops, would be boosted by 20,000 to 30,000 for a short period, the officials said.
Setting up two strawmen so that the alternative preferred all along looks great by comparison is a classic bureaucratic strategy. Both “Go Big” and “Go Home,” in their purest forms, as non-starters for reasons outlined above. That leaves “Go Long.”
As noted in the longer piece, that option is hardly without risks.
That combination plan, which one defense official called “Go Big but Short While Transitioning to Go Long,” could backfire if Iraqis suspect it is really a way for the United States to moonwalk out of Iraq — that is, to imitate singer Michael Jackson’s trademark move of appearing to move forward while actually sliding backward. “If we commit to that concept, we have to accept upfront that it might result in the opposite of what we want,” the official said.
And, of course, even aside from the perception issue, it might not work. Providing interim security while training up a competent Iraqi defense force who would take over the job has always been the plan. We got off to a poor start and rebooted that effort under the command of Dave Petraeus and appear to have made substantial progress. Still, it has been maddeningly slow and it has proven virtually impossible to prevent the infiltration of the security forces by the enemy.
The U.S. Special Forces managed to square that circle in El Salvador, ultimately defeating the insurgency while maintaining a very small footprint. The operation was, to say the least, not without controversy and there are myriad operational and practical differences with the situation in Iraq. Still, it is doable.