The debate over troop strength in Iraq isn't going to disappear anytime soon, even though the man most knowledgeable on the subject has repeatedly stated it's a red herring. "The number of troops, boots per square inch, is not the issue," General John Abizaid, chief commander of coalition forces in Iraq, recently said. "The real issue is intelligence." Well, that and getting Iraqis to the point where they can police and run themselves.
The issue is also common sense, which is certainly lacking amongst the proponents of increased troop levels and international control in Iraq. If 138,000 American troops are sitting ducks, adding another 20,000 to the fold as Senator John McCain prescribed won't do a thing except add 20,000 fresh targets. And no matter how often the Howard Dean not-so-straight-talk express insists the contrary, the problem is not the national makeup of coalition forces. Winning the war, not reducing American casualties, should be the goal. Finally, as the bombing of UN headquarters has taught everyone sans Madeline Albright, terrorists are equal-opportunity killers and don't give a hoot if the UN Security Council is in charge or not.
If there is a problem it may, unfortunately, be self-imposed. It is not troop allotments or nationality, but rather how we're using existing forces. To understand this we need to go back a few months.
In mid-June the Pentagon grew weary playing defense and began an aggressive campaign to capture and kill Baathist militants and foreign terrorists in Iraq. The campaign produced immediate results -- in the first two days alone coalition forces killed almost 100 enemy forces and captured dozens. Operations like "Peninsula Strike," "Soda Mountain" and "Sidewinder" turned the tables on the militants, who found themselves on the painful end of a relentless attack.
Casting notions of defensive "peacekeeping" aside in favor of the hunt, the military's new approach continued to reap rewards, such as the arrest of several high-ranking Iraqi officials and increased intelligence from the capture Iraqi documents. The domino effect peaked with the military's July 22 assault on the compound of Uday and Qusay Hussein. A tip from an Iraqi informant and many bullets later the deaths of the Hussein boys at least in part avenged their countless victims.
June and July were very good months for US forces in Iraq. Over just six weeks of aggressive fighting the US detained thousands of suspected Iraqi militants in hundreds of military raids. The Sunni triangle was shrinking. At the height of the new offensive militant attacks against US forces had been cut in half. By early August several days in a row passed without the loss of single US soldier in combat -- a seemingly inconsequential but notable feat.
But in a repeat of early summer's bad conventional wisdom we're again mired in debates about troop strength and foreign control. How'd we get back there? Quite simply, somebody in the chain of command ignored the notable advice of Gen. George S. Patton -- "Always take the offensive. Never dig in."
On August 6, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez announced that the military would dramatically cut back its aggressive operations because of a perception that the rate of return had peaked; militant attacks were declining. Further raids, one newspaper warned, "could unintentionally be creating a reservoir of support for the insurgents or even spurring revenge attacks by ordinary citizens."
Well, despite the hypothetical of what could or could not have happened we now know the alternative to proactive engagement -- proven terrorist success. Our fear of imaginary over-aggression is likely much worse than the real thing, and is certainly no comfort to our soldiers in the shooting gallery. If you're going to get shot either way, choose offense.
Now there is certainly merit in winning hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, and we should do this whenever possible. But the military was raiding the Sunni triangle, an area predominantly loyal to Saddam Hussein. As former Lt. Col. Ralph Peters once wrote, "Do not worry about alienating already hostile populations."
It is not coincidence that following the military's switch to defense, militants accomplished a series of attacks against the Jordanian embassy, important pipelines and the UN headquarters. There may have been some exceptions, such as the capture of "Chemical Ali," but events indicate that the military should think twice about self-restraint based on prognostication.
But don't take a pundit's word for it. Just listen to the soldiers itching to break out of these self-imposed bonds.
"Most of the guys feel we should be on the offense, because on the offense the enemy can't pick where he will attack us," said tank platoon leader and sitting duck Lt. Kurt Muniz. "We're now on the defense. Whoever wants to do a car bomb, he can pick the time and place."
In three short sentences Lt. Muniz eloquently rebuffs all the cable news second-guessers and political populists -- McCain, Albright, Dean -- who robotically echo one another with cries for cosmetic, feel-good solutions in Iraq. It shouldn't take Lt. Muniz to ask what good more troops are if Pentagon brass is just going to hold them back.
Indeed, we could draft every able-bodied American male between 18 to 35; send them to Iraq under UN auspices; spread them across the borders of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran; have "blue helmets" guard every installation; take every impotent defensive posture imaginable; and there would still be a terrorist cell somewhere that manages to find a gap and bomb a soft target or military checkpoint.
Our military goal is to neither control Iraq nor limit casualties, but rather to find and defeat the insurgents still at war. Lt. Muniz's solution -- more offense please! -- is the only one way to achieve that victory.