Wednesday, May 23, 2007

When a Surge Strikes a Slippery Slope

Remember January 10, 2007?

That night President Bush told the American public that as decider-in-chief, he intended to “surge” an additional 21, 500 troops – five army combat brigades and four Marine regimental combat teams – INTO Iraq rather than “out” to cut the high daily death totals and provide stability and security in Baghdad and al-Anbar province.

“Surge” suggests swift, assured action over a short space of time. Those who live near water experience a real day-to-day effect (actually twice per day) is the tidal or coastal surge caused by the moon’s gravitational pull on the earth’s oceans. Although most often a concern for ship captains, such surges can adverelyalso seriously affect waterfront properties, especially when the tidal surge comes on top of a storm surge from winds blowing on-shore. (In 20th century warfare, one of the best known occasions when a tidal surge dictated the timing of amphibious operations was the landing by two U.S. one U.S. Army and one U.S. Marine Corps divisions at Inchon, Korea where the tidal surge was 22 feet.)

Hardly was the surge proclaimed before it hit the first slippery slope that, like a riptide, diffused the surge’s power until it collapsed. While advance cadres were already en route, the first major army combat units would not arrive until mid-February. Moreover, the last of the army units would not be in place until June. The Marines were positioned to react a little more quickly by shifting the 2,200-strong expeditionary unit afloat in the Persian Gulf into al-Anbar, but this also required early deployment of a brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division to reconstitute a reserve force in the war zone. On top of this, commanders in the field were voicing the need to maintain elevated troop levels well into 2008, much longer than the new commander, General David Petraeus, had intimated during his confirmation hearing.

By mid-March, the 21,500 had grown to more than 28,800 as the generals asked for and received 2,200 military police, a 2,600-strong combat aviation unit, 125 troops who would reinforce provincial reconstruction teams, and 2,400 other support troops.

These forces were added to the 52,500 troops in 15 brigade combat teams and supporting forces (a combined total of 135,000 to 140,000) that were the “steady state” level in theater, troops whose tours were suddenly extended (causing a surge of adverse emotion) by three months. Some units on-notice for deployment in the autumn were told they would go earlier and remain longer.

But more was to come. In late May, with 20 brigade combat teams in Iraq, the Pentagon confirmed a report in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that rotation orders were such that in December 2007 or January 2008, as many as 98,000 combat troops might be in Iraq and a total in theater exceeding 200,000. That would be more than at anytime since the end of “major combat” on May 1, 2003 when the U.S. presence was 255,000 troops.

Increase troop numbers creates another “surge” – logistics. Food, fuel, water, and ammunition needs are met largely by the army of civilian contractors, estimated at about 126,000 by the New York Times – a quantum increase over the 9,200 that supported U.S. troops in Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990-1991. Other sources estimate that armed security guards alone may total 100,000. What is known is that at least 917 U.S. contractors have been killed in Iraq since the invasion, with 16 percent of these fatalities coming in the first three months of 2007 – the deadliest three months of the war.

Combat fatalities among U.S. military forces have also surged – 377 since January 1, 2007. According to the Pentagon, 70 percent of these casualties were from IEDs – improvised explosive devices – with each succeeding month showing more IED fatalities than the previous month.

And now, with more foot patrols as part of the effort to maintain a coalition presence in volatile regions and the hunt for the three U.S. soldiers taken prisoner last weekend, soldiers are encountering a new variation of the vehicle-borne or individual carrying an IED: a homemade IED planted along footpaths and trails to act as an anti-personnel landmine. This variation is sure to add to the overall IED toll as troops on foot have no protection for their lower extremities.

Perhaps this probability accounts for the name given these weapons: dismounted improvised explosive device – abbreviated DIED.

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