"You are damned if you are heavy, and damned if you are light -- both cause problems."
That sentence appeared in an email I received three weeks ago from a thoughtful Vietnam War vet reflecting on "how devilishly difficult counterinsurgency really is."
In his formulation, "heavy" roughly correlates to Gen. David Petraeus' "surge and hold" operations in Iraq and "light" to the "patrol and quick reaction" operational scheme directed by Gens. John Abizaid and George Casey.
The military component of the "surge" consists of change in operational and tactical emphasis designed to achieve the original strategic goals. Iraq as a strategic project is and has always been about choice. A free, economically and politically stable Iraq creates a democratic choice in the politically dysfunctional Muslim Middle East, a region trapped in the terrible yin-yang of tyrant and terrorist -- which is no choice for those who value life and liberty. Sept. 11 made it clear that economic and political development -- the expansion of the sphere of economically and politically liberal states -- was key to America's 21st century security.
But development takes a long, long time.
This means a "sudden" increase in troop strength alone is of minimal value. Reinforcements and withdrawals have always been an option.
What Petraeus has changed is the "level of presence" in violent areas. The relentless targeting of Shia and Sunni extremist organizations is a far more important feature of what Iraqis are calling "the new security plan" than simply sending more U.S. troops into the streets.
Since Petraeus took charge, the economic and governmental (Iraqi political) "lines of operation" have received increased public emphasis. This new emphasis is very much a part of the "surge." The "surge" is commonly referred to as if it were solely a fighting strategy -- in reality, the intent is to work synergistically with economic and political activities, and it amounts to armed nation-building. Iraq's provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) are being revamped. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's national reconciliation program remains the key Iraqi political endeavor. In Iraq, economic and governmental progress is a frustratingly incremental and painstaking effort, but that holds true for every other hard corner of the planet.
In February, I speculated it would take at least eight to 12 months before we'd know if Petraeus' approach will significantly accelerate the process. Petraeus promises an evaluation in September, so he is a month ahead of my low estimate. The year 2012 is probably a better time to evaluate it.
Yes, 2012, which is not one but two U.S. elections away. To pay off, "the surge" requires a lot of "sustain." This leads to a crucial point: A truly grievous American strategic weakness (which the surge does not address) is our own political cycle. Al-Qaida's jihadists plotted a multigenerational war. That means we must fight a multi-administration war, which entails bridging the whipsaw of the U.S. political cycle.
The Bush administration has not prepared the nation for that -- at least, not in any focused manner. And that omission constitutes negligence. Bush critics who advocate withdrawal are even more negligent, however, for withdrawal without ensuring Iraqi stability is a self-inflicted defeat leading to extremely dire consequences. The current war in Iraq, which began in the late summer of 2003, is a war against Iraqi democracy. It is waged by the remnants of Saddam's regime (secular fascists) and al-Qaida (theological fascists).
Retreat feeds our totalitarian enemies' megalomania, which ultimately leads to more mass murder and most costly wars. The Iraqi people themselves provide an example of democratic vision and magnificent perseverance. The February 2006 attack on the Golden Mosque in Samarra brought Iraq to the precipice of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's strategic sectarian war -- but even that failed to produce the apocalyptic schism al-Qaida desired. The Iraqis understand the value of an open, productive political system.
Every war is a series of mistakes -- bloody, expensive mistakes. France's Georges Clemenceau provided a more elegant rendering of the terrible hell of it: War is a series of catastrophes that results in a victory. . Ultimately, winning any war -- but especially this intricate, multidimensional war -- demands perseverance and creative adaptation. War winners understand this real-world problem.