The big news, all but lost in the welter of attention given to revelations of past intelligence failures and the continuing saga of Martha Stewart, is that the strength of the anti-American resistance in Iraq is growing by leaps and bounds. Over the past year, the insurgent order-of-battle has enjoyed as much as a fourfold increase. If we needed further proof that the war is not going well, evidence is now at hand.
A year ago, when he assumed charge of United States Central Command and acknowledged that Operation Iraqi Freedom had given way to what he candidly called a “classical guerrilla war,” Gen. John Abizaid assessed the total number of insurgents to be 5,000. But according to a recent Associated Press dispatch all but ignored by major media outlets, official estimates of the enemy’s strength have risen to 20,000—this despite the fact that over the past year American forces have killed or imprisoned several thousand Iraqis and so-called “foreign fighters.” In short, enemy recruitment is easily outpacing our efforts to reduce his numbers.
There is a sense in which this hardly comes as a surprise. Despite periodic ebbs and flows, the fighting in Iraq over the past year has progressively intensified. Overall security has deteriorated. Bush administration efforts to portray the resistance as a last-ditch effort by a handful of Saddam loyalists have long since lost all credibility. The truth is that our adversary is shrewd, resourceful, and highly motivated. By and large, we find ourselves dancing to his tune: he blows up an oil pipeline, detonates a bomb in downtown Baghdad, or assassinates an Iraqi official—and we react after the fact.
But the new figure of 20,000 insurgents—if sympathizers and fellow travelers are included the actual number could well be even higher—does qualify as important in one sense. It affirms long-standing suspicions, vociferously denied by the Bush administration, that we have too few troops on the ground to win.
History suggests that one precondition for defeating guerrillas is overwhelming numerical superiority, with a ratio of 10:1 traditionally cited as the minimum requirement. Even counting the fledgling Iraqi army, allied contingents (some of dubious quality), and the modern-day mercenaries known as private contractors, counterinsurgent forces available in Iraq today fall well short of that 10:1 standard.
Numbers alone cannot guarantee victory. But without enough boots on the ground, it becomes impossible to provide security. Absent security, it becomes impossible to gain the trust and confidence of the people, as the newly installed Iraqi government desperately needs to do.
How many U.S. troops do we actually need to pacify Iraq, a landmass the size of California, with long, open borders and an increasingly alienated population of 25 million? A quarter of a million soldiers—almost twice the number currently deployed—would not be too many.
Bush and Rumsfeld have repeatedly vowed to provide their commanders with whatever they need to accomplish their mission. For public consumption at least, U.S. generals have said that troop strength in Iraq is adequate. But the new, higher estimate of the enemy’s forces has made that position untenable.
Either the Bush administration needs to get serious about winning the war that it so recklessly sought in Iraq, or it needs to cut its losses. To persist in the present course is merely to perpetuate the existing stalemate—with good men and women getting killed and maimed, tens of billions of dollars being expended, and the United States exhausting its stores of goodwill—all to no purpose.
Getting serious means mobilizing the country for an expanded military commitment. Mobilization necessarily entails changes in domestic priorities. It also implies an urgent, costly, and politically sensitive expansion of the U.S. Army, the service bearing the greatest burden for the war’s conduct.
Cutting our losses means promptly beginning the process of disengagement. That implies bringing the troops home, leaving it to the now-liberated Iraqis to sort out their future, and mending the diplomatic fences so recklessly torn down in the administration’s rush to war.
The issue is a political one. But military realities rather than ideological fantasies or electoral calculations deserve pride of place in considering the alternatives.
For the present generation of American military leaders, testing time is at hand. Duty demands that they speak unpalatable realities to civilian officials who on the eve of an election campaign desire nothing more than to dodge the truth. Unless they receive immediate, decisive attention, the military contradictions besetting U.S. policy in Iraq may soon supersede in importance the political miscalculations that landed us in this mess in the first place.
We have been here before. In an earlier insurgent war that had self-evidently gone awry, a prior generation of American generals faced a similar challenge. They flunked their test. Rather than confront President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara with the fundamental defects of their policy in Vietnam, they kept quiet and went along. They chose to be “good soldiers.” As such, they made themselves complicit in a vast and unnecessary tragedy. History excoriates their memory.
Every day in Iraq young American soldiers demonstrate great physical courage in supporting a misguided policy. Whether the current crop of U.S. military leaders can muster comparable moral courage remains to be seen. But their moment approaches.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of international relations at Boston University. He is the author of The New American Militarism, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.