Monday, September 10, 2007

The Troop Surge: A Question of Limitations

Regardless of what General Petraeus or the Bush Administration says in its progress report on the results of the American troop surge in the Green Zone in Iraq the central question which needs to be addressed is what will happen when the troop surge comes to an end—which it must do—sooner or later.

Despite the political rhetoric among war-hawks that the surge needs to be maintained in order to continue the “progress” practical military necessity demands that the surge will have to stop so as to allow the forces engaged to rest, re-arm, re-equip, receive new personnel, and adopt new tactics for future battles. It’s an inescapable aspect of warfare. A cursory examination of military history shows this to be true.

When the inevitable lull does take place will violence flare anew thus canceling whatever “progress” had been made before? If so, what will we do then? Mount another surge? And another?

War, by its very nature, imposes an unnatural and harmful strain on those who engage in it and the material the combatants use to wage war. Even victorious armies can be undermined by the successes they achieve on the battlefield. Here are two examples: In 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Germans in the early months of the invasion achieved astonishing success in seizing vast amounts of territory in Russia against negligible or ineffective resistance but much to their astonishment the German columns were suffering rapid depletion of men and material. The German Army Group South was down to 60% effectiveness in men and material even though their sector had the lightest resistance of all. German leaders were confused by this and finally one of their commanders, who flew over the battlefields, came to this inspired conclusion. He realized that attacking armies were only effective for a certain distance and depth. The Germans armies invading Russia had nowhere near the amount of men and material needed to achieve truly effective control of the endless Russian Steppes. The enormity of their task in subjugating such a huge area of land was the root of the physical and mechanical breakdowns being felt by the German armies.

The same thing happened in 1944 when the Anglo-American-Franco armies were liberating Western Europe from Nazi occupation. Despite fantastic successes on the battlefield, the Allied forces experienced significant slowdowns in autumn and early winter because supplies and new personnel weren’t getting to the front fast enough to sustain the offensives by the armies engaged. There are innumerable books on the subject. The late Stephen Ambrose dealt with the issue in-depth in his best-selling book Citizen Soldiers. Indeed, Ambrose wrote that by December 1944 even though the Allied forces were on the German border ready to invade the Allied combat divisions were only at 50% effectiveness in terms of manpower and that the Allied forces had no reserves at all save for the three Airborne divisions. (This explains why General Eisenhower sent the 82nd Airborne division to St. Vith and the 101st Airborne Division to Bastogne to foil the German counter-offensive during the Battle of the Bulge. They were the only reserves he had available to meet the threat). What’s more significant about this is that the Allies were liberating friendly countries.

The American forces in Iraq do not possess that advantage. They are fighting in hostile territory amidst a populace that does not welcome its presence. There is no conscription to ensure a steady stream of fresh personnel and American industry is not being geared to supply new material to the forces in the field as it was in World War Two. The fact that the troop surge was confined to only one sector of Iraq merely confirms that America lacks the logistical strength to achieve overall success in Iraq and, probably, never had enough personnel to achieve a truly decisive victory in the first place.

When the sad history of the Second Iraq war is written there will probably be considerable documented evidence that mid-level Pentagon officials warned the Bush Administration that ousting Saddam Hussein was a shoestring gamble (since American forces were decisively engaged in Afghanistan at the time) and that the invasion would only work if there was no significant resistance. As it turned out the gamble failed. What’s more insulting to our armed forces is that the President has been trying to shift the blame to his commanders, saying, in essence, that he was only following the recommendations of his military advisers when he invaded Iraq—which I don’t buy for a moment. Time will show that it probably was the other way around: that the Bush Administration overrode the Pentagon’s caveats and blundered into Iraq in a desperate quest for vainglory. (I don't see how any sane military commander could ever have recommended such a strategic monstrosity).

And meanwhile more and more innocent, brave Americans die every day.

And this is progress?

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