US President George Bush finally announced his new strategy for Iraq. Predictably, Bush has opted for a dramatic troop increase numbering over 20,000 to provide security in Baghdad and the restive Anbar region. The Commander in Chief has been under immense pressure from Democrats, ex- Generals and even erstwhile neo-cons on the right way forward in Iraq. Having sanctioned the much publicized bi-partisan Iraq Study Group, the president took cover behind the impending report for the better part of last year on what his future strategy will look like for a war that the coalition of willing seems to be losing. After seeing the report and also rejecting it in parts, Bush decided to set the future strategy in Iraq based on assessments from the Pentagon and intelligence agencies. He avoided any further criticism for the war by buying time and pushing his policy speech on Iraq to January. To instill clarity on how best to use the increased troop levels in Iraq, Bush has also shaken up the military establishment in Iraq and the Central Command based in the Gulf. With the removal of Generals Casey and Abizaid as heads of the Iraqi command and CentCom respectively, the White House gave subtle hints on what the renewed strategy in Iraq would look like. Both Casey and Abizaid have been vocal advocates of a gradual reduction in the number of troops this year and making “transition” the theme for 2007. Casey and Abizaid were of the firm belief that American troop presence in Iraq was increasing the insurgency and with more boots on the ground, the number of targets for the insurgents is also more. Further, many ex-Baathists and extreme nationalists, who make up part of the insurgency, propagate American presence as a foreign occupation and that sentiment helps fuel resentment against the Americans. The Casey-Abizaid line basically looks at ways to train more Iraqi troops and reducing the American presence in the front lines of the battle. The new team comprising of Admiral William Fallon and Lt. Gen. David Petreaus will look at how to best use the increased troop levels in Iraq and ultimately what mission will the additional divisions be assigned. But the question before the generals and the White House is – is the troop increase an exercise in futility?

 

President Bush has outlined some of the mistakes his administration has made during the war and how it has played out. Not sending more troops all of last year was one mistake that the president has conceded in a rare admission. He should also be aware that the inadequate numbers on the ground is not a year old problem. Many analysts and even the former Ambassador to Iraq, Paul Bremer have clearly stated that an adequate figure to stabilize Iraq was closer in the range of 500,000 rather than the existing 140,000 odd. Also, with the president not doing enough to bring out a political resolution after the Al-Qaeda attack on the Al-Askariya mosque in Samarra which Arab analysts described as the “Iraqi 9/11” ultimately added another violent element to the existing insurgency – sectarian reprisal attacks. The two key missteps are ultimately what lead to violence on an unprecedented scale all of 2006. The revised Bush strategy will not have the desired effects if the weak Iraqi government is not sincere in its efforts to quell the sectarian militias and death squads. Then again, the very definition of “sincere” is questionable. In the eyes of ordinary Shia Iraqis, by swearing allegiance to clerics like Moqtada al-Sadr the current Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki is showing conviction and solidarity with his community. The definition of sincerity changes dramatically in the Green Zone housing the Multinational Forces. Here, going after militias and death squads regardless of the sectarian affiliation is being truly sincere to the ‘cause of freedom’. This disconnect amongst the two sides has not only made radical clerics like Sadr control the government (he has 30 sitting members in the Iraqi parliament) it also sends a message to the two warring communities that it is the militias and not the Americans or the Iraqi army that will protect them. In such a scenario how a troop surge or increase will help is anybody’s guess. The Republicans and most vocal amongst them, presidential hopeful, John McCain has argued that an increase in troops will help in breaking the cycle of violence and thereby help the Iraqi government take control of Baghdad and the Sunni dominated Anbar promise. While the argument holds some merit, the counter argument to that is will the Shia dominated government act against its own militias, which are the source of majority sectarian attacks in the country. Then again, if the argument is that to secure Baghdad is of vital importance, in military parleys, whichever way Baghdad goes, Iraq follows, then a 20,000 increase in troops still falls short of the required number needed to safely take the city.

 

Bush has complained about the quality of troops coming out of the Iraqi training schools. Many units are heavily infiltrated by militiamen themselves and the notorious Interior Ministry has been accused of executing Sunnis without even a trial. The “clear, hold, build” strategy to clear areas of militias and insurgents, in the words of the president, is not working because while the Americans are doing the “clear” part of the strategy, Iraqi forces cannot manage the “hold” part for any building on those successes that can follow. To tackle this Bush has tapped Gen. Petreaus, a decision most will not argue against, for the general has done some excellent work in training Iraqi troops and his primary mission, it seems, will be to train more Iraqis so that the Americans can start going home.

 

The American public and the world in general have now seen the war go on for too long, and the will to maintain status quo is not an option anymore. One thinks that the president understands that but the solution does not lie in increasing troops, which as the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman finds akin to a couple not being able to work things out, decide to have a child thinking it will solve all problems. The president must set a realistic deadline to step back from the frontlines and let the Iraqis, with their newly bestowed American sponsored  “democracy”, decide the best way forward. 

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