Bring 'em home or send a whole lot more?

Maybe it's time for a real debate about U.S. troops in Iraq.

Published September 12, 2006 5:15PM (EDT)

If the war on terrorism is the "decisive ideological struggle" of this century, and if Iraq is its central front, then why is it that the White House continues to fight there on the cheap?

"Cheap" is a relative word here, of course; we're spending something like $8 billion a month in Iraq, and the cost of the war will exceed $318 billion by the end of September. That's a universe away from the kind of numbers people tossed around before the war began, but there's an argument to be made that it's not nearly enough.

It goes like this: If we're serious about staying in Iraq until the "job is done," we're going to need a whole lot more troops to do it. "The administration can't simply stay the course on current troop levels," the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol and the National Review's Rich Lowry write in today's Washington Post. "We need to adapt to win the battle of Baghdad. We need substantially more troops in Iraq."

How many more? There are approximately 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq now. Col. Peter Devlin, the senior Marine intelligence officer in Iraq, says commanders in Iraq's Anbar Province need an additional 16,000 troops before they can even hope to make progress there. "Without another division" in Anbar Province, Devlin wrote last month, the U.S. military can do "nothing" to "influence the motivation of the Sunni to wage an insurgency." Although the Pentagon says it's taking Devlin's report "very seriously," things have actually gotten worse since he wrote it. As the New York Times reports, a Stryker unit previously stationed in the province has been moved to Baghdad to help with security operations there, as have M.P.s who were supposed to be training Iraqi security forces.

But when it comes to the need for more troops, Anbar Province may be just the tip of the iceberg. In video now up at Raw Story, CNN correspondent Michael Ware says commanders on the ground in Iraq say privately that they need "at least three times as many troops as they currently have there now, be that Iraqi and American or, even better, just three times as many American troops."

Three times as many American troops? That's 420,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines, a massive number that should come as a surprise only to those who chose not to listen when Gen. Eric K. Shinseki said before the war that "something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers" would be needed to secure Iraq after Saddam Hussein's fall.

Does the United States even have an additional 280,000 troops available for duty? Would the American people stand by while the president went and got them?

Here's a modest proposal.

Instead of the debate we're having now about Iraq -- set a timetable for withdrawal vs. sort of, kind of "stay the course" -- let's have one that more accurately reflects what "winning" in Iraq may really take. Let's stop pretending that security conditions are going to improve anytime soon without a significant change in the balance of power in Iraq. Let's debate the idea of setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq against the idea of throwing 280,000 more Americans into the war. Let's debate the premise of the "more troops" argument -- Lowry seems to have a hard time agreeing with himself -- and let's discuss how we're going to find 280,000 more troops and what kind of people they're going to be. Let's talk about what we won't be able to do if we've got 420,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. And let's have that debate now, before the November elections, before the administration can start talking again about gradual troop reductions that never seem to happen.

Kristol and Lowry seem to be ready for the debate.

Are Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush?

Are Ken Mehlman and Karl Rove?

Are there any men left in Washington, or are they all cowards?

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

MORE FROM Tim Grieve

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