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Withdrawal Symptoms

Quitting Iraq won't undo the real damage of the war.

IN NOVEMBER 2004, Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez came to a luncheon at my professional home, the LBJ School of Public Affairs. I attended and asked some inconvenient questions. It was an inconsequential exchange, but two weeks later I received a surprising invitation: Would I fly to Germany in February and speak to the leadership of the Army V Corps about the operational conditions of Iraq? I have no military experience, and have never been to Iraq, while many in my audience—mostly generals and colonels—had spent over a year there. But of course I went. My unstated assignment was to say some inconvenient things, which may have otherwise gone unsaid.

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Inconvenience has since gone public, big time. Back in November, Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) gave a breakthrough speech, describing the troops as “stretched thin”: “Recruitment is down, even as our military has lowered its standards. Defense budgets are being cut. Personnel costs are skyrocketing.… Choices will have to be made.” At the same time, Murtha added, success in Iraq is very remote. “Oil production and energy production are below pre-war levels. Our reconstruction efforts have been crippled by the security situation. Only $9 billion of the $18 billion appropriated for reconstruction has been spent. Unemployment remains at about 60 percent. Clean water is scarce.… And most importantly, insurgent incidents have increased from about 150 per week to over 700 in the last year.… Since the revelations at Abu Ghraib, American casualties have doubled.”

For this, Cheney blasted him, but then it emerged that Murtha’s crime was tipping the administration’s own hand. It appears we are beginning a long, slow, painful retreat from Iraq.

But are we drawing the full and correct lessons from this disaster? Some former liberal hawks now take refuge in what Sam Rosenfeld and Matthew Yglesias call “the incompetence dodge”: that things would have turned out okay if only the neocon cabal were not in charge. Such libhawks would withdraw U.S. forces only to use them again, in another (but, of course, more justified and better planned) war. And that would mean a bigger war, with a bigger force on the ground, and a much bigger budget to support it.

But the reality is that the Iraq war could not be won by a force of any size or by an expenditure of any amount. Against determined opposition, occupations in the modern world cannot prevail. They haven’t for more than 60 years. The reason is that the basic economics of warfare have changed. Here are six reasons I gave to the officers in Germany—a pure exercise in stating what they already knew.

Sixty years ago the then-colonial world was mostly rural; today it consists of enormous cities. These urban jungles of concrete provide vast advantages—concealment, fortification, communication, intelligence—to the defender. In cities, troops on patrol are isolated and exposed; their location is always known, while that of the enemy is not. More patrols mean more targets. The superior firepower of the occupiers just means that a lot more innocent people get hurt.

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