Wesley Clark: Bush's 'surge' will backfire

The rise in troop numbers could reduce the urgency for political effort

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The odds are that President George Bush will announce a "surge" of up to 20,000 additional US troops in Iraq. But why? Will this deliver a "win"? The answers: a combination of misunderstanding and desperation; and, probably not.

The recent congressional elections - which turned over control of both houses to the Democrats - were largely a referendum on President Bush, and much of the vote reflected public dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq. Most Americans see the US effort as failing, and believe that some different course of action must be taken. Most favour withdrawing forces soon, if not immediately. The report of the Iraq Study Group is widely seen as a formal confirmation of US failure in Iraq.

The country's action there has been the very centrepiece of the Bush presidency. With two years left in office, he would, of course, try to salvage the situation. Many Americans remember the 1975 evacuation of the US embassy in Saigon, with desperate, loyal Vietnamese friends clinging to the skids of the American helicopters. No one wants that kind of an ending in Iraq. And our friends and allies in the region are also hoping for the US to pull some kind "rabbit from the hat", even if it seems improbable, for a US failure would have grave consequences in the region. Iran, especially, is the beneficiary of a failure, and al-Qa'ida will also try to claim credit.

From the administration's perspective, a troop surge of modest size is virtually the only remaining action inside Iraq that will be a visible signal of determination. More economic assistance is likely to be touted, but in the absence of a change in the pattern of violence, infrastructure enhancement simply isn't practical. And if the President announces new Iraqi political efforts - well, that's been tried before, and is there any hope that this time will be different?

As for the US troops, yes, several additional brigades in Baghdad would enable more roadblocks, patrols, neighbourhood clearing operations and overnight presence. But how significant will this be? We've never had enough troops in Iraq - in Kosovo, we had 40,000 troops for a population of two million. For Iraq that ratio would call for at least 500,000 troops, so adding 20,000 seems too little, too late, even, for Baghdad. Further, in a "clear and hold" strategy, US troops have been shown to lack the language skills, cultural awareness and political legitimacy to ensure that areas can be "held", or even that they are fully "cleared". The key would be more Iraqi troops, but they aren't available in the numbers required for a city of more than five million with no reliable police - nor have the Iraqi troops been reliable enough for the gritty work of dealing with militias and sectarian loyalties. Achieving enhanced protection for the population is going to be problematic at best. Even then, militia fighters in Baghdad could redeploy to other areas and continue the fight there.

What the surge would do, however, is put more American troops in harm's way, further undercut US forces' morale, and risk further alienation of elements of the Iraqi populace. American casualties would probably rise, at least temporarily, as more troops are on the streets; we saw this when the brigade from Alaska was extended and sent into Baghdad last summer. And even if the increased troop presence initially intimidates or frustrates the contending militias, it won't be long before they find ways to work around the obstacles to movement and neighbourhood searches, if they are still intent on pursuing the conflict. All of this is not much of an endorsement for a troop surge that will impose real pain on the already overstretched US forces.

There could be other uses for troops, for example, accelerating training for the Iraqi military and police. But even here, vetting these forces for their loyalty has proven problematic. Therefore, neither accelerated training nor more troops in the security mission can be viewed mechanistically, as though a 50 per cent increase in effort will yield a 50 per cent increased return, for other factors are at work.

The truth is that, however brutal the fighting in Iraq for our troops, the underlying problems are political. Vicious ethnic cleansing is under way right under the noses of our troops, as various factions fight for power and survival. In this environment security is unlikely to come from smothering the struggle with a blanket of forces - it cannot be smothered easily, for additional US efforts can stir additional resistance - but rather from more effective action to resolve the struggle at the political level. And the real danger of the troop surge is that it undercuts the urgency for the political effort. A new US ambassador might help, but, more fundamentally, the US and its allies need to proceed from a different approach within the region. The neocons' vision has failed.

Well before the 2003 invasion, the administration was sending signals that its intentions weren't limited to Iraq; Syria and Iran were mentioned as the next targets. Small wonder then that Syria and Iran have worked continuously to meddle in Iraq. They had reason to believe that if US action succeeded against Iraq, they would soon be targets themselves. Dealing with meddling neighbours is an essential element of resolving the conflict in Iraq. But this requires more than border posts, patrols and threatening statements. Iran has thus far come out the big winner in all of this, dispensing with long-time enemy Saddam, gaining increased influence in Iraq, pursuing nuclear capabilities and striving to enlarge further its reach. The administration needs a new strategy for the region now, urgently, before Iran can gain nuclear capabilities.

America should take the lead with direct diplomacy to resolve the interrelated problems of Iran's push for regional hegemony, Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Isolating adversaries hasn't worked. The region must gain a new vision, and that must be led diplomatically by the most powerful force in the region, the United States.

Without such fundamental change in Washington's approach, there is little hope that the troops surge, Iraqi promises and accompanying rhetoric will amount to anything other than "stay the course more". That wastes lives and time, perpetuates the appeal of the terrorists, and simply brings us closer to the showdown with Iran. And that will be a tragedy for not just Iraq but our friends in the region as well.

Retired General Wesley Clark, former Supreme Commander of Nato, is a senior fellow at UCLA's Burkle Center for International Relations

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