Following the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, one of the questions being asked most often is whether we need to send more troops to improve security. This question has become urgent not only because of the bombing but because of the sabotage and ambushes that are slowing recovery in Iraq. The same question has arisen in Afghanistan, too. Security is not good and the trends are worse. Aid workers will not go into some parts of the country and Taliban are operating in large numbers. Recently, 400 Taliban attacked a rural police station, killing 20 policemen and villagers. Would more troops help in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Assuming the Bush administration could stand the political heat, a lot more troops might improve security. But they would not help, if they stayed in passive defensive positions. They would have to go on the offensive, and more ruthlessly than they have until now. Since it is difficult to distinguish a friendly Iraqi from an unfriendly one, for example, we would have to assume that all were unfriendly and act accordingly. Following this logic, the most effective thing to do would be to build an extensive secret police apparatus to spy on all Iraqis. Since the information this apparatus supplied would be extensive but unreliable (fear produces information, not necessarily the truth), we would have to accept punishing, even killing large numbers of innocent Iraqis. As Saddam Hussein proved, this approach does allow one to control Iraq. But in recognizing that we recognize at the same instant that this is not an approach we could pursue.
Will more troops help if they are not part of a police state? The answer is probably not. There are just too many things to guard. But this does not mean the situation is hopeless. The real problem in Iraq and Afghanistan is not the number of troops but the strategy we are using.
Our strategy in both places is to hunt for bad guys and capture or kill them. This seems like a sensible thing to do but there are two problems with this strategy. First, it assumes that there are a limited number of bad guys, for example, the Taliban and al Qaeda leadership or the 55 Iraqis on the now famous deck of cards. Get this limited number and we win. But the bad guys get new recruits and new leaders come forward. If we search for the bad guys in a heavy-handed way, searching peoples’ homes almost at random or on bad intelligence, we can make enemies of people who were neutral or friendly before and generate more recruits for our enemies. Bad intelligence is the second problem with our current strategy. We can capture or kill the bad guys only if we know where they are and we can know where they are only if the Iraqis and the Afghanis tell us. In short, we need to get the cooperation of the Iraqi and Afghani people, not only to get better intelligence but to discourage recruits going to our enemies.
How do we get this cooperation? In both Iraq and Afghanistan, much time and effort has been spent on setting up national councils. This is largely irrelevant. These councils do not affect the way that Iraqis and Afghanis live. To succeed, we must show the people of Iraq and Afghanistan that they are better off supporting us than being neutral or supporting our enemies. We cannot do this by conducting raids aimed at capturing or killing bad guys. Such raids will be most effective only after we have the trust and cooperation of the people. Winning this cooperation requires that our forces disperse and work with the people, involving them in providing security and rebuilding the country. There are some examples of this in both Iraq and Afghanistan but they are exceptions. They need to become the rule, even in the so-called Sunni triangle where most of the attacks on Americans have occurred.
This different strategy could not be applied everywhere and at once in both countries. But we should start applying it immediately. We have wasted a lot of time and unnecessarily made enemies in both places but it may not yet be too late to recover.
David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.