Reinforce Baghdad

By William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and Rich Lowry, editor of National Review (THE WASHINGTON POST, 12/09/06):

We are at a crucial moment in Iraq. Supporters of the war, like us, have in the past differed over tactics. But at this urgent pass, there can be no doubt that we need to stop the downward slide in Iraq by securing Baghdad.

There is no mystery as to what can make the crucial difference in the battle of Baghdad: American troops. A few thousand U.S. troops have already been transferred to Baghdad from elsewhere in Iraq. Where more U.S. troops have been deployed, the situation has gotten better. Those neighborhoods intensively patrolled by Americans are safer and more secure. But it is by no means clear that overall troop numbers in Baghdad are enough to do the job. And it is clear that stripping troops from other fronts risks progress elsewhere in the country.

The bottom line is this: More U.S. troops in Iraq would improve our chances of winning a decisive battle at a decisive moment. This means the ability to succeed in Iraq is, to some significant degree, within our control. The president should therefore order a substantial surge in overall troop levels in Iraq, with the additional forces focused on securing Baghdad.

There is now no good argument for not sending more troops. The administration often says that it doesn't want to foster Iraqi dependency. This is a legitimate concern, but it is a second-order and long-term one. Iraq is a young democracy and a weak state facing a vicious insurgency and sectarian violence. The Iraqis are going to be dependent on us for some time. We can worry about weaning Iraq from reliance on our forces after the security crisis in Baghdad has passed.

The administration emphasizes that there needs to be a political, not simply a military, solution to Iraq. This is of course true. But the violence intersects with politics. Violence is radicalizing. It serves to empower extremists who are aligned with our enemies. So long as we don't succeed in controlling the violence, it will make any political settlement far more difficult.

Indeed, the violence perpetrated by the Shiite militias is directly related to politics. It is part of a power play by the likes of Moqtada al-Sadr to marginalize moderate figures such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Sistani's recent statement of disgust with Iraqi politics suggests that Sadr's gambit may be working. Sending more American troops at this juncture would not be a simple-minded and clumsy substitution of military force for political finesse. It would be an attempt to influence Iraq's political situation in our favor.

The administration's military strategy has long been based on getting the Iraqis to do the "holding" in the counterinsurgency strategy of "clear, hold and build." That would obviously be ideal. But the experience of the past three years is that the Iraqis aren't yet up to it, at least not in hotly contested areas such as Baghdad. The administration deserves credit for the strides it has made in training the Iraqi army. But for now we have to do much of the holding ourselves for it to be effective. That simply requires more manpower.

If American troops hand neighborhoods over to Iraqis, they are likely to soon deteriorate again -- in the same dynamic we have repeatedly seen of trouble spots being brought under control by American troops only to slide back again when the Americans leave.

One reason to prefer having Iraqis hold secured areas is that indigenous forces, in theory, don't risk creating the kind of nationalist reaction that can be prompted by a foreign occupying army -- i.e., us. But in the current environment of sectarian bloodletting, all signs are that American troops are more trusted and more welcome than Iraqis. Many Sunnis -- confronted by Shiite militias -- now accept our troop presence, and moderate Shiite leaders want us to stay. In fact, the chief fear of Iraqis in Baghdad neighborhoods patrolled by Americans is apparently that we will leave, not that we will remain.

Harvard Law School's William Stuntz recently made the core point powerfully: "The territory over which we fight is among the most strategically important in the world. Victory will place the most dangerous regime on the planet, Iran's fascist theocracy, in serious peril. Defeat will leave that same regime inestimably strengthened. If there is any significant possibility that the presence of more American soldiers on the ground would raise the odds of success, not putting those soldiers on the ground is a crime."

Administration spokesmen have jettisoned talk of "staying the course" in Iraq in favor of "adapting to win." If those words are to have meaning, the administration can't simply stay the course on current troop levels. We need to adapt to win the battle of Baghdad. We need substantially more troops in Iraq. Sending them would be a courageous act of presidential leadership appropriate to the crisis we face.