Sending More Troops
To Iraq Is A Mirage

Terrell E. Arnold
Ret. Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State
Former Chairman, Department International Studies of the National War College
And Deputy Director of the Department Of State Office of Counterterrorism

Just a month ago the Iraq Study Group issued its much awaited, widely kibitzed, and--by the Bush team at least--now largely ignored report on what to do to extricate the US from Iraq. As that report faded from the front pages and prime times of major news media, it became clear that Bush and his immediate supporters were bent on painting the United States completely into a corner. They wanted no date certain or even a suggested process for a US departure; they wanted no part of bringing the neighboring states (notably Syria and Iran) into the discussion; they shied--perhaps with credible reluctance--away from attempting to solve the Palestine issues in the context of future actions on Iraq; They appeared to accept that events in Iraq were on a continuing downhill slide, while searching for some formula that would assure "success", a mantra that, whether political or military, remained undefined. They floated on the notion that a "surge" in US forces--upward of 30,000 most often mentioned--could tame the conflict plagued streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi provinces, and, if it didn't, the "surge" would be a show of US determination.
Never in the history of US military engagement have national leaders been so patently unsure of themselves. But, but, critics of that statement will argue, the Bush team always has been very sure of what it wanted to do. That indeed may be true, but being ideologically certain of what you want to undertake is not the same thing as knowing what you are doing.
Having largely weaned itself from diplomacy as a foreign policy instrument, the US went into Iraq with military tools that, except for the initial shock and awe attack, were grossly out of mesh to the tasks at hand. While the announced aim was "to free the Iraqi people", the military went in virtually totally equipped for conventional combat situations, not post combat administration. The troops were there to do battle. Iraqi people quickly fell under the wheels of this juggernaut, but they did not stay down. What arose instead was a creeping insurgency that slowly morphed into a mix of efforts to get the occupiers out, while attempting to redress ancient ethnic injuries and trying to prevent future ones: A recipe, in short, for some combination of urban terrorism/insurgency and civil war. As those conditions evolved, the mismatch between US on the ground capabilities and intentions versus conditions in Iraq only mushroomed.
The certainty that it knows what it wants drives the Bush team to stay focused on forceful engagement, not peace making. The situation cries out that the last thing we need in Iraq is more combat troops. What the Iraqi people need is relief from gunfire and some promise that the infrastructure that actually was working fairly well before the US shock and awe attack will be put back together.
To be sure, that result is unlikely to dispose of the ethnic and religious differences that in some respects have accumulated for centuries. But while arguing that the situation will simmer down if we can only squelch the Sunni insurgency, it is worth noting that more than half of the most wanted characters on the famous playing card list were Shi'a, not Sunni. This says that left to their own devices, and free of an occupying military force that too often shoots first, there is at least some prospect that the differences can be bridged. In the meantime, civil war flourishes in a conflict environment sustained by combat between Coalition forces and Iraqis, and it is often hard to tell the difference.
One of the problems obviously is that the motives of the various militias are mixed. While groups such as the Mahdi army of Moqtada al Sadr seek to assure certain Shi'a dominance in any future arrangement, they also want to get rid of the invaders. It appears quite probable that this mix of motives applies to all of the militias except possibly those members who have joined up from abroad, be they ordinary adventurers or al Qaida.
In this particularly explosive environment, just what good could additional US forces do? If they were not combat forces, given a little time to demonstrate their intent to stop the fighting and restore public order, they probably would get considerable help. On the other hand, if they go in armed to the teeth and ready for battle, as seems probable in the currently unstable setting, then their principle contribution will be to add fuel to the fire.
In that event, it is worthwhile up front to examine what practical difference a "surge" force could make. The numbers are not terribly encouraging. At present, we have about 130,000 troops in Iraq to deal with roughly 25,000,000 Iraqis. In truth, not all are troublemakers, but in an insurgent/incipient civil war situation it already has been demonstrated that a comparative few troublemakers can do enormous harm under the protective cover of a civil population. With these numbers the ratio of US troops is one to every 190-200 Iraqis. If even two or three of those Iraqis are determined troublemakers, that one trooper is in deep trouble, and that is exactly where our forces are.
If we were to add 30,000 more troops, the ratio improves a bit to one US trooper for every 160 or so Iraqis. However, the number improvement is better than the safety improvement for US forces, because a few troublemakers can still successfully exploit a protective or even merely sheltering civil population to do great mischief. Something like this calculus leads a number of analysts to say we need a lot more troops in Iraq to actually make any difference in the situation. But to overcome the asymmetry that so solidly favors the Iraqi militants, the number of additional US or Coalition troops would have to be enormous. It appears obvious at this point that Iraqi insurgents could continue to operate successfully in an environment where the total US force has been doubled.
The reality may be even more stark. Frank Rich, writing for Truthout, reports that "Last month the Army and Marines issued an updated field manual on counterinsurgency supervised by none other than Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the next top American military commander in Iraq. It (the new field manual) endorsed the formula that 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 residents is the minimum troop density required." Applying that formula, it would take three quarters of present troops in Iraq to cover Baghdad alone, and it would take upward of 500,000 for Iraq as a whole. The latter number is roughly half of all active duty men and women in US armed forces, while senior military officers have said that there are no more than 9,000 additional troopers available for Iraq duty.
In this perspective, the addition of troops in Iraq is a horrifying mirage, a glittering image in the sands of that troubled place. What is needed is a fundamental change in the nature of the present situation, and more troops simply cannot do that. To the extent that peacekeepers are likely necessary to cool the civil war activities of various militias, those peacekeepers cannot be part of the present occupying force. They must be new; they must go in with a clearly reconstructive mission; and they must have a mandate that is widely supported in the outside world as well as the approval of Iraqi leadership in all camps. That means the occupation must end, and it must do so on a timetable that is declared soon. Adding troops will be counterproductive. Staying at present levels will be unproductive. The present pattern and trend of violence appear unlikely to subside until the occupation is replaced by a neutral team that can persuade the Iraqi people they are getting their country back.
The writer is the author of the recently published work, A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist on He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State whose immediate pre-retirement positions were as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College, and as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counterterrorism. He will welcome comment at <>



This Site Served by TheHostPros