TOPICS: Iraq: Surge or huge muddle?

Senior advisers to US commander General David Petraeus say George Bush’s last-chance, fingers-crossed “surge” to secure Baghdad has hardly begun and is evolving every day. That’s in the nature of military plans in combat zones, they say. Stuff happens, things change. But the decision to send an extra 2,200 military police to Iraq, coming on top of Pentagon suggestions that up to 7,000 more regular soldiers may be required, coming on top of the 21,500 troops already sent or on their way, coming on top of the 135,000 or so already there, smacks, at best, of a lack of up-front planning, at worst, of a king-sized muddle.

Critics of the surge, and opponents of the war, will immediately cry “mission creep”. To them, Bush’s decision to ignore the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group and build up, rather than draw down, in Iraq was characteristically perverse. In any case, the initial reinforcement of 21,500 appeared to be an arbitrary figure, dictated more by the availability of suitably high-calibre troops than by requirements on the ground. Petraeus’s own counter-insurgency doctrine calls for optimum ratios of one soldier to 50 non-combatants. On that basis, he is far short in Baghdad, even if the reinforcement rises to 30,000 plus.

And given the Kerbala carnage last week and other random acts of horror, it seems logical to assume that US troop numbers will only continue to rise, especially since the British and other coalition allies are slipping away just as fast as they dare. Factor in suggestions from a senior commander in Iraq that the surge may become a super-surge and be extended to February next year, and mission creep could become mission charge, even though most Americans, and most of the world, believe it is mission impossible.

Luckily, Petraeus, though he may not have his military act together just yet (he’s been there less than month), has no intention of leading an ever-larger body of America’s finest soldiers down a bloody blind alley. He said on Thursday, as he has before, that only politics, not policemen and paratroopers, will finally settle Iraq. That is a message to Nouri al-Maliki and ordinary Iraqis to the extent that they have any control over events, that they had better get focused, and quick. Petraeus will concentrate on peacefully pacifying Baghdad in the old style and if that works, he’ll go after the insurgents and bombers wherever they regroup.

But this process, however successful (and it is still a long shot) cannot last indefinitely. If it bears fruit, Petraeus will gradually switch to the “go long” handover strategy, which prioritises reconciliation and reconstruction — jobs, schools, electricity, all the things the last four wasted years have failed to deliver. If the surge isn’t working come Labour Day, Petraeus has already said he’ll go to Congress and say so, loud and clear. He is not the guy to carry on a hopeless fight. Nor will he want to take the fall for Iraq. But if matters on the ground begin to improve, it should be Petraeus and his troops who get the credit. — The Guardian