Jim Fine is legislative secretary for foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Fine has more than three decades experience living in, working in and writing about the Middle East. He coordinates FCNL’s Iraq Peace Campaign.
The president, some members of Congress and several influential commentators have called for the U.S. to send thousands of additional military troops to Iraq. Advocates of this call for an escalation of troop levels argue that a “surge” will enable the U.S. to gain control of the violence, proceed with training Iraqis in security tactics and ultimately make it possible to withdraw U.S. troops.
Faced with an escalating civil war and growing public opposition to the ongoing war and occupation of Iraq, these U.S. policymakers are still looking for ways to “win” a war in Iraq by reviving and escalating a failed military strategy. The U.S. needs a new political strategy in Iraq, not another military solution. For an explanation of why this new strategy won’t work, just ask the current U.S. military leaders in the region, many diplomats and, according to opinion polls, the majority of people living in the United States, all of whom believe increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq will not help to end the violence or the civil war. It’s also an opinion voiced last week by the Democratic leaders in Congress.
The Bush administration’s top military official in the region, General John Abizaid, warned Congress in November last year that more troops are not the solution. In testimony before the Senate Armed Service Committee, Gen. Abizaid was asked whether bolstering troop levels would help to stabilize Iraq. He responded that additional troops would not “add considerably to our ability to achieve success in Iraq.” Former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former General Wesley Clark also have expressed similar skepticism about the proposed benefits of troop increases. President Bush has ignored the advice from General Powell and chosen to replace General Abizaid rather than heed his advice.
But Bush and other supporters of an influx of new troops, such as Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman, might also look at recent history in Iraq before proposing to repeat the mistakes of the past. Last summer, during both phases of Operation Together Forward, 14,000 U.S. troops moved into the capital in an effort to secure and stabilize Baghdad. Following that influx, which brought the total number of U.S. soldiers up to the current level of approximately 140,000, violence in Iraq actually escalated. The Pentagon’s own statistics from that period document how weekly attacks increased by 15 percent while the number of Iraqi civilian casualties increased by 51 percent over the previous reporting period (which concluded in May 2006). A November 2006 Department of Defense report, “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,” reported a 22 percent rise in violence from August to November 2006.
The new Democratic leaders in the Congress, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, also have spoken out strongly against a rise in troop levels. In a letter to President Bush released on January 5, Speaker Pelosi and Sen. Reid write, “[T]here is no purely military solution in Iraq.” There is only a political solution. Adding more combat troops will only endanger more Americans and stretch our military to the breaking point for no strategic gain.” And it isn’t only Democrats who have doubts. According to a January 5 Los Angeles Times article, as many as five to 10 Republican senators have joined the Democratic leaders in criticizing the plan for troop surge. Our own conversations on the Hill confirm growing opposition to a troop surge within both major political parties.
By law, Congress has ability to insist on a new course for U.S. policy in Iraq. The congressional hearings on Iraq over the next few weeks will offer a forum for members of Congress to ask probing questions that expose the flaws in the new troop increase plan, and the administration’s stubborn persistence in pursuing military “victory” instead of a framework for political change. But members of Congress must do more than speak out. Congress must take up the responsibility of overseeing the president’s handling of Iraq and work to ensure that political change in that country becomes a top priority.
Congress’s biggest opportunity to stop further escalation of U.S. troop levels in Iraq will come next month when the president is expected to ask for an estimated $100 billion in “emergency” supplemental funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If Congress cannot be persuaded to "de-fund" the war now, it must at least be pressed to impose conditions on new funds to ensure they are not used to send more soldiers to Iraq, and to require that a draw-down of U.S. forces begin.
Congress must act now to pursue a dramatic new approach in Iraq that prioritizes diplomacy and political reconciliation. It must have a timetable for withdrawal, negotiations that include Iraqis fighting the government and U.S. forces, engagement with Iraq’s neighbors and a U.S.-funded reconstruction effort. The time is now to stop the violence. The U.S. should responsibly disengage U.S. troops from Iraq, implement a diplomatic plan to quell the internal violence and assist Iraq with reconciliation and reconstruction.