November 28, 2006

Kagan on more forces in Iraq

Frederick Kagan writes in the Standard:

"The Washington Post recently proclaimed: "The United States and its allies in Iraq would need at least 500,000 and perhaps more than 1 million troops" to bring order to the country. Incoming House majority leader Steny Hoyer declared: "As a practical matter, there are no troops to increase with." Neither of these statements is true. The persistence of these myths forecloses serious consideration of the only option likely to bring peace to Iraq."

Kagan goes on to lay out his case, which is more than one could say for the previous attempt, by the other Kagan, Robert, and Bill Kristol, which said only, without further elaboration, "Those who claim that it is impossible to send 50,000 more troops to Iraq, because the troops don't exist, are wrong. The troops do exist."

In his piece, as in previous efforts, F. Kagan goes on to explain his belief that the extra troops can be found by a combination of lengthening troop rotations and accelerating the training of soldiers in the pipeline. One can stipulate to this theoretical possibility, however, and still have some serious concerns with Mr. Kagan's other assumptions.

Kagan stipulates that the only U.S. troops that are immediately available would have to by delaying the return dates on 20,000 soldiers now in theatre when the next block of 20,000 trained replacements arrive. Accelerating the training on the next block would bring in the remainder of the 50,000 troops he seeks some months later. The only problem with this is that at that point the troops whose return you delayed would by then have run out their extension, along with the next tranche behind them -- unless their return was delayed as well. The US cycles home 25,000 soldiers from Iraq every two months. To get that initial boost, what Kagan is really saying, then, is the current Iraq tour of duty would need to be lengthened for the foreseeable future from 12 months up to at least 14. That'll go over well (as Kagan concedes).

Even that only achieves half of Kagan's 50,000 increase, however: the rest, he says, comes from accelerating (really, reducing) training times. He rightly concedes that this effect would take some time to achieve; in other words, what the Kagan plan amounts to is those 25,000 extra troops now, and an additional 25,000 troops a couple months later.

A statistical study suggests this is unlikely to work in practice. Never mind that at the end of Kagan's reinforcement period, we'd be talking 210,000 Americans and 10,000 allied soldiers in Iraq, significantly more than there were during the Iraq invasion. Never mind that because the "surge" would not be fully realized or operational for at least two months from the word "go," during which conditions in Iraq could well worsen. (Could one still even call it that when one is now talking an operation that would take months to assemble, and months more to "fix" Baghdad, before then as Kagan says moving on to Anbar for Phase Two? We're talking at least a year of a larger troop level to prepare for and achieve all that.)

The problem, as noted here before, is that while there may be some statistical correlation between changes in the number of troops in Iraq and civilian violence levels there, there has been no correlation at all between total U.S. force levels and civilian violence, by any measure one can find. What that means is that there is some evidence that smaller (20-25,000 man) increases would dampen the violence temporarily, that the violence would find its new equilibrium at the higher deployment level.

This might change if one was talking about immediately "flooding the zone" with 50,000 troops at once, but Kagan's not doing that, basically conceding between the lines that it would be impossible. But the statistics indicate any slower, steadier rate of increase seems unlikely to have much in the way of tangible effect: after all, U.S. forces have surged by 20,000 twice before already with no lasting impact on the situation.

The other questionable Kagan assumption relates to the support of Iraqi forces. His historical peacekeeping ratios are accurate: low intensity legionary work is, was, always has been, basically a numbers game, but he cheats a little when he counts Iraqi forces into the mix. Normally in this kind of peacekeeping calculus, unless the locally raised troops have a Gurkha-style loyalty to you, you don't do this, for reasons that should be obvious in Iraq. The vast majority of those "trained Iraqi forces" are either in the Shiite- or Kurdish-dominated units. If you deploy the Kurds in Baghdad or the Shiites in Kirkuk, they will likely end up contributing to the violence, and through the usual outrages start up new hotspots in previously safe areas; but if you deploy them in their home territories, they're not contributing nearly as much to the equation.

This is, of course, the logic behind "Vietnamization," letting the local troops handle rear area security in areas where the population doesn't hate them, freeing up U.S. troops for the trouble spots. Fine. But that means you can either count the number of U.S. troops vs. the "trouble spot" population in your ratio, or the number of troops, loyal and disloyal, vs. the entire population of the country, when you're doing that reliable old 1 soldier-to-100 citizens ratio for successful peacekeeping. Taking "all troops" vs "some of the population" is cheating.

Iraq has 27 million people, and the old math suggests that you needed 270,000 trained peacekeepers (local or foreign) to really keep some kind of lid on that size of population. Which is, of course, what Shinseki said, and what the U.S. didn't do. By disdaining foreign military assistance, by taking their time on Iraqi military training, by disbanding the Iraqi army wholesale, by never having more than 180,000 foreign troops in country for the first couple years, that lid came right off.

The old math also suggests that once you allow that to happen, and you need to put that lid back on, then you need a higher ratio of occupiers-to-occupied to quell the insurrection (Kagan's 1-to-40 is one estimate). Again, the standard way to do this has been to count the whole country for your population base,and include the native allies, or, alternatively, just count the trouble spot population and only count your own troops. Kagan cheats a little by using the trouble spot population, but also counting Iraqi troops: effectively discounting large portions of the country as already 'cleared' in coming up with his 1-to-40 thumbnailer.

How many troops are needed to have a positive effect in Iraq now? It's hard to say: more than there are at present, certainly. A back of the envelope estimate based on historical precedents would be that 27 million citizens requires 270,000 troops. Cutting Kagan's estimate of reliable Iraqi soldiers in half and counting 50,000 trained locals against that means 220,000 western forces: about 60,000 more than there are at present.

That is corroborated by the apparent real world requirement for another division (20,000+) in both Baghdad and Anbar at present.

Numbers suggest that if the U.S. did choose to "reoccupy" Iraq (cause that's basically what you're talking about at this point, invading and taking over the country a second time), they'd probably need about 60,000 more soldiers on top of what they have at present. Again, it's just mathematics so take it with large salt blocks, but I think that would be the kind of levels that would be required to execute any kind of new, winning, kinetic strategy at this point. Anything less (which means, basically, anything that's realistically possible) would seem a half-measure.

That does not mean that another strategy, involving other elements besides raw troop strength and reconquest, might not still achieve success (as the strategy chose to define it); just that a troops-only, "Shock and Awe 2" strategy would seem to require more troops than the U.S. has readily to hand.

By the way, do the Weekly Standard editors require at least one non sequitur per column? In this piece, there's at least one new moment that makes you go "Huh": "Indeed, previous successful operations even in Baghdad did not require such high force ratios." Kagan, of course, doesn't elaborate on what those successes were, but one presumes those would be those successful operations, that because they were so successful, mean that 60,000 more troops are now needed, right? (The one operation he mentions, Forward Together, failed, he concedes, because, surprise, the U.S. didn't have enough troops to pull it off.)

Posted by BruceR at 11:03 AM