Despite many positive reports about the progress of the military “surge” in Iraq, we, our coalition partners and the Iraqis face agonizing choices about what to do after the long-awaited reports from the ground commander, Gen. David Petraeus, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are received in three weeks time — choices that at best can only limit and not end the carnage, and, if wrongly implemented, could inflict the entire region with greater violence. The shorthand of “money, boots on the ground and political power” can best explain the reasons for this looming strategic tsunami in Iraq. While any categorization risks oversimplification, the impact and consequences of each are self-evident.
This calendar year alone, Congress will appropriate nearly $1 trillion both for running the Defense Department and the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the new fiscal year year, which begins Oct. 1, $450 billion goes for the defense budget. Two emergency supplemental spending bills for the war add another $300 billion. And soon the Pentagon will be sending to Congress a bill for the costs of the surge that were never covered by prior spending, and are estimated at $50 billion to $100 billion so far.
The approximately $800 billion to $850 billion spent for this year is about 6 percent of GNP, a level that is economically sustainable. However, politically and psychologically, the public and its elected representatives are unlikely to countenance that level of spending and the additional increases that will be needed for these wars for much longer — even as “supporting the troops” has become the new national mantra.
Americans are simply running out of patience with a war that our most senior admirals and generals recognize cannot be won militarily; that shows little sign of finding a political solution; and is costing, as Sen. Everett Dirksen famously remarked, “real money.”
Regarding “boots on the ground,” about 160,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq and are supported by a nearly equal number of contractors doing work normally carried out by the military. Iraq has more than 300,000 military, police and security forces. Adding other coalition forces, close to three-quarters of a million sets of boots are engaged in providing security at all levels.
Given the spread of violence to regions not covered by the surge, and underscored by the recent bombings in the north that killed hundreds of Iraqi Yazidis that may prove to be a dress rehearsal for more outrages to come, upward of tens or even hundreds of thousands more security forces could be needed to quell the terror and internecine warfare throughout the entire country.
The next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, has made it clear that by spring, unless tours beyond the current 15-month rotation for soldiers are extended and time in the states between deployments is reduced, we will run out of forces. Who would provide the forces to continue the surge, let alone increase the numbers, and who would pay for more forces remain unanswerable questions.
Regarding political power, the current Iraqi government headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has little to none. Without strong leadership and the authority to act, violence in Iraq will not be stemmed until such time as a resolute leader emerges, total exhaustion sets in or a miracle is wrought. We can hope for an Iraqi Lincoln, Churchill or Gandhi to emerge. Instead, we could get a Saddam or worse anarchy.
Under these circumstances, the United States and Iraq face two basic choices. First, enough force could be deployed to “win,” which would mean imposing a government with some semblance of rule of law that will curb the violence sufficiently to allow Iraq to become a functioning entity. Or, under the cover of greater involvement by regional states, we can redeploy and reduce our commitment.
For the first choice, in all likelihood, tens or probably hundreds of thousands more police, military and security forces will be needed for several or many years. And the additional costs could run into the many billions of dollars. Regarding the second, if mismanaged, a wider civil war could be provoked and major conflict could destabilize the region, including access to oil. In that process, Iran would surely be empowered and become more influential.
Whether or not President Bush recognizes these agonizing choices and still believes that the United States can prevail by “staying the current course,” several of the aspirants to replace him in January 2009 do appreciate this excruciating dilemma. But no presidential candidate has so far outlined a plan for Iraq commensurate with these stark realities.
Until there is full understanding of the real state of conditions in Iraq and a willingness to confront them, no solution will work. And even if there were this understanding, will that matter? The tragedy is that it may not.