Facing reality on troop levels

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In his speech to Congress yesterday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki delivered a powerful statement of appreciation for U.S.-led efforts to replace Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship with a democratic government, and he gave a frank warning about the dangers posed by terrorists and militias, particularly in Baghdad. Unfortunately, we suspect that Washington’s preferred solution — reducing U.S. troop levels outside the capital in order to bring relief to Baghdad — is more likely to expand the problem from Baghdad to include other parts of Iraq than to lead to an overall reduction in crime and violence.

At a joint press conference with the Iraqi leader, President Bush acknowledged that the violence plaguing Baghdad remains “terrible.” Mr. al-Maliki told lawmakers why it is essential to address the violence and stabilize Iraq right away. The terrorists, he said, “hope to undermine our democratically elected government through the random killing of civilians.” He went on to say: “They want to destroy Iraq’s future by assassinating our… scientific, political and community leaders. Above all, they wish to spread fear.”Mr. al-Maliki also emphasized that failure in Iraq would have catastrophic consequences far beyond his country’s borders: “Do not think that this is an Iraqi problem. This terrorist front is a threat to every free country in the world and their citizens. What is at stake is nothing less than our freedom and liberty.”

“Confronting and dealing with this challenge is the responsibility of every liberal democracy that values its freedom,” he said. “Iraq is the battle that will determine the war.”

Mr. al-Maliki’s assessment of the importance of winning in Iraq (one which Mr. Bush shares) is on the mark. But the Pentagon says that the new Baghdad force will come from the 127,000 troops deployed throughout Iraq and that it does not expect to send additional forces. The administration continues to resist the conclusion that more troops will be necessary in order to successfully complete the mission.

Frederick W. Kagan, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, has noted that time and again the Pentagon hints at reducing troop levels in Iraq — even as security imperatives require more soldiers. For example, in the months leading to October’s constitutional referendum and December elections, troop levels went from 138,000 to 160,000. During this period, coalition forces embarked on aggressive anti-terror operations in the Sunni Triangle and elsewhere in order to give Iraqi security forces the ability to hold Sunni towns; coalition commanders subsequently said that the operations played a critical role in ensuring that voters could safely go to the polls, Mr. Kagan wrote in the Weekly Standard.

These are just two examples of how more troops can bolster Iraqi security. If the administration insists on shifting troops and ignores the need to bolster the force, it could be jeopardizing the mission in Iraq.

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