President Bush has formally announced what has been known for quite some time: 21,500 more US troops will be deployed to Iraq. 16,000 will go to Baghdad, and the rest will be deployed into the Anbar province (this graphic from the New York Times nicely outlines the president's plan, along with opposing views). This is, in essence, the last attempt to salvage something approximating a winning strategy. This surge in US force levels will, as I have written about before and as the Washington Post article linked above agrees, result in increased levels of violence, as US troops take on the militias and death squads that have riven the country. The surge will be accompanied by increases in reconstruction efforts and the creation of a jobs program to deal with some of the economic issues that have also contributed to the problems.
Will the surge work? Much of its potential rests on the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who, to date, hasn't shown much interest in doing the heavy lifting required for stabilizing the country. Yesterday, al-Maliki called out the rebel militias, agreeing to directly challenge the Mahdi Army of Moktada al-Sadr (something to which al-Maliki had previously not been willing to do), and to allow US forces to engage both Shiite and Sunnis militias. President Bush has increased the pressure on al-Maliki, calling for the creation of benchmarks to gauge Iraqi progress and stating that "America's commitment is not open-ended....If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people."
If the surge is to work, then political fortitude will be needed from many different actors. The Iraqi government must be willing to destroy the rival militias in the face of public outrage, and President Bush, the US Congress, and the American people must be willing to sustain higher casualties when US soldiers engage the militias. This is no easy task. One need to look no further than the Palestinian territories and the on-going war between Hamas and Fatah, or the problems between Lebanon and Hezbollah, to see how hard it is for political leaders to challenge rival military groups. Iraqi nerve will likely depend on the incentives provided by the US. If the US is willing to do much of the fighting and if the jobs and reconstruction programs work, al-Maliki and the rest of the Iraqi government may be willing to see this through. Conversely, President Bush needs to firm up the benchmarks by threatening to pull out rapidly if the Iraqi government loses its nerve. Al-Maliki must understand that the consequences of failing to challenge the militias will outweigh the benefits of appeasement and cowardice.
Here in the US, there seems to be no doubt that Bush and his administration has the will to do what they deem necessary. So the question becomes whether Congress and the American public will support the president's plan. It is time for Congress to decide where it stands. If it opposes the surge, it must not simply pass symbolic votes against it, but must use all of its political tools to prevent the president from acting on his plan, including cutting off the funds being used to prosecute the war. Congress can not try to have its cake and eat it to, as I described earlier today. Allowing Bush to send the soldiers and then failing to do what is required to carry out the plan, as in Somalia, would be criminal.
The same is true of the American public. To date, there has been lots of grumbling against the war but little serious protest. In the face of the rise in casualties likely to come, that grumbling will get a lot worse unless the American public believes that the strategy is politically supported and winnable. President Bush must work with the newly-Democratic Congress to get its support, and if Congress is not willing to give that support it must openly and actively oppose and further troop increases in Iraq.
If all of these things come together -- the nerve of al-Maliki and the Iraqi government, the strength of Bush to punish Iraq if it loses that nerve, the political will of Congress, and the understanding and patience of the American people -- the surge has a chance of succeeding in its mission. But if any one of these parts is missing, many more US soldiers will die for a lost cause.