Friday, June 08, 2007

More on how Iraq is not Korea

Nice piece from Michael Hirsh from Newsweek on how the Korean analogy to the current President's adventure in Iraq doesn't work. More disturbingly, in looking at the contradictory and murky releases from the White House recently, it appears that there really isn't any plan in place as to what the troops in Iraq are doing and what happens next. This leads to one of two conclusions, both disturbing.

First, that the current President really has no idea what's happening, and is just throwing more soldiers at Iraq because it's the only thing he knows how to do, and it "makes sense" in a very superficial way. Even with everything the current President has done, that kind of callous stupidity is still too hard to accept as plausible.

The more likely scenario, which has been discussed here previously, is that the current President is simply trying to do everything he can to prolong an end-game strategy, because he knows the only possible way to start extracting the United States from this mess would be an admission of failure on his part, and he is unwilling to do so. Therefore, he's trying to run the clock out to January 20, 2009, and let the next President "declare failure" in his eyes.

That, to me, is the only thing that explains wild swings from "train the Iraqi army" to the surge which is now retarding our ability to train the Iraqi army. It's enough to make your head swim - or to start crying, when you realize that we've just gone over the 3,500 mark in terms of American soldiers killed in this misadventure in Iraq.


Hirsh: Iraq After 2008
What follows the surge? Will it be ‘Plan B,’ ‘Plan B-H’ (Baker-Hamilton), or something like South Korea? Bush seems as hazy on this as he was on the initial occupation plan. All that’s certain, says a White House official, is that a ‘fairly robust’ U.S. force will long be in Iraq.
By Michael Hirsh
Updated: 3:45 p.m. CT June 7, 2007

June 7, 2007 - While roaming around Balad Air Base north of Baghdad a year ago, I thought that the most telltale signs of how long George W. Bush intended to stay in Iraq were the cracks. Runway cracks, that is. Brig. Gen. Frank Gorenc, the base commander and leader of 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, was very worried about them. The Saddam-era concrete was getting pummeled by the constant landings of U.S. F-16s, C-130s and other aircraft that flew in and out so regularly they had turned Balad into the busiest hub in the world outside of Heathrow. So Gorenc was slowly, painstakingly, rebuilding the runways to U.S. specs. No short-term plan, this. When it came to controlling the airspace over Iraq, Gorenc told me, “We will probably be helping the Iraqis with that problem for a very long time."

Just how long is the issue of the day in Iraq-obsessed Washington. And frighteningly, no one seems more confused about the plan than Bush himself. In two separate appearances in the last week, he alternately invoked last fall’s Baker-Hamilton report—which envisioned a substantial pullout by early 2008—and America’s South Korea occupation, which has been a robust front-line presence for more than 50 years. Which is it?

Neither, as it turns out. The Washington commentariat has suggested recently that Bush seems ready to pronounce the imminent end of his “surge,” which by several accounts has failed both to secure large parts of Baghdad and, on a more strategic level, to prod the still-paralyzed Iraqi government to govern. “I would like to see us in a different configuration at some point in time in Iraq,” the president said at a Rose Garden news conference on May 24. So is he talking about a “Plan B?” he was asked. “Actually, I would call that a plan recommended by Baker-Hamilton, so it would be a Plan B-H,” the president joked.

In fact Bush has no intention of going back to Baker-Hamilton, says a senior White House official, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on the record. Sure, he’s paying a lot more lip service to its recommendations, partly in an effort to gain new bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill after the White House’s successful effort to thwart a Democrat-led withdrawal plan. But one of the central recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton report called for a dramatic consolidation of the U.S. presence onto a handful of large bases like Balad. There, U.S. air units and special ops would mainly focus on killing Al Qaeda and leave the Iraqis more or less to their own devices. A long-term presence at Balad is still part of the plan—it always was—but the White House official told NEWSWEEK this week that the Baker-Hamilton panel misunderstood the mission. “What Baker-Hamilton didn’t get right is the military feasibility of doing anti-Al Qaeda missions based primarily on special forces operations,” he told me. “That isn’t feasible because Al Qaeda is so entrenched in the population.” When the National Intelligence Estimate “gamed this out,” he said, it concluded that sectarian violence was now so out of control that to allow Shiite reprisals to occur while the Americans remained hunkered down on their bases would only fuel support among the Sunnis for Al Qaeda, which would grow even more entrenched. Hence the surge’s effort to rein in Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and other chief culprits.

This will continue for many months. So while the president supports Baker-Hamilton’s “end state”—stabilizing Iraq—he doesn’t intend to get there using its recommendations. That means “a fairly robust presence beyond the end of 2008,” the official said. “A sustainable presence.” How would you define that? I asked him. “Well, sustainable has always been kind of a 10-[combat-]brigade presence. We’re at 20 now.” A plan for 10 U.S. brigades amounts to about 50,000 combat troops, and another 30,000 troops in support. So about 80,000 U.S. troops will need to stay in Iraq over the long term, about half of the force planned for the height of the surge this summer.

All of which brings us to Bush’s recent invocation of South Korea, where tens of thousands of U.S. troops have been stationed along or near the border since the truce that ended the Korean War—there is no peace treaty—54 years ago. But here the president apparently hasn’t thought things through either. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in an interview last week, told me that there was no Status of Forces Agreement with the Shiite-led government, which is increasingly dominated by the virulently anti-American Sadr, that would legally permit a long-term U.S. presence. <> Nor is there any sign of a truce between Sunnis and Shia. So Iraq really is nothing like South Korea.

Some of Bush’s putative Republican successors, like Mitt Romney, don’t like the Korean model. “Our objective would not be a Korea-type setting with 25,000 to 50,000 troops on a near-permanent basis remaining in bases in Iraq,” the former Massachusetts governor told The Associated Press on Thursday. Romney and most of the other candidates embrace the Baker-Hamilton recommendation of rapidly training up the Iraqi Army to take over security. Under the plans put forward last fall, that meant quadrupling the number of U.S. training teams. Why was such an increase necessary? Last fall, the military brass were moving toward a consensus that to be really effective, U.S. training teams needed to operate down at the company level, not just embedded within a battalion (which is made of three companies). That meant as many as 20,000 to 30,000 additional U.S. advisers would be required, up from the 5,000 or so then being budgeted.

But to do that effectively, U.S. combat brigades needed to be shifted out of Iraq so their officer corps could be turned into trainers. And under the surge, that’s not happening either. To do so, it would mean “a fairly significant change to the [U.S.] force laydown in Iraq,” Maj Gen. Carter Ham, the commandant at Fort Riley, the U.S. Army’s adviser-training center, told me. The big trade-off of the surge that few people are taking note of—what it really has cost us—is that it is taking precious time away from the program to bring the Iraqi Army to readiness. The surge is therefore ensuring that U.S. troops will have to remain longer on the front lines of an intractable sectarian war.

The upshot is there really is no Plan B, or Plan B-H, or indeed anything coherent. The goal is Baker-Hamilton’s “end-state,” but without the training up of Iraqis that would allow the recommended pullout to happen by March 2008. It’s the South Korean occupation without the truce, or a status-of-forces pact. It’s just Iraq, in other words— a quagmire that is as resistant to solutions as ever.


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