The big assumption: numbers equal effect

As the White House struggles with what to do next, the military maneuvers to cover its ass, and Congress debates on how to proceed, the central element throughout all these discussions is the number of troops in theater. Do we go “big” and throw more troops or do we cut and run? What course we choose is dependent on the number of troops we commit.

There are two fallacies embedded in framing the discussion as a numbers game. The first is assuming quantity is more important than quality. The second is the absence of our supplemental forces already operating in the theater who, if counted as a single entity, would be our largest “partner” in the Coalition. Soon after President Bush landed on an aircraft carrier and declared “Mission Accomplished”, the number of private security contractors in Iraq was pushing 20,000. Two years later, this number would balloon to over 50,000 (this may actually be half of the actual figure) with American and British contractors dropping to less than 10,000 in favor of cheaper “third country nationals” (predominately Latin American and African contractors) and “host country nationals” (Iraqis). When the President’s Coalition of the Willing was at its strongest, there were more than twice as many private security contractors operating in Iraq as the second largest member of the Coalition, leading some to suggest it was really a Coalition of the Billing.

So why don’t we consider the additional tens of thousands contractors that could be brought back over to provide site, transport, and sector security? Because it makes for a messy world of friction, oversight, integration, and accountability. We need to remember the latest incarnation of the Marine Corps’ Countering Irregular Threats intentionally ignored the role of “guns with legs” because it was too complex an issue to deal with.

Going back to the first point, quantity versus quality, includes the contractor question and more. Movies like Gunner Palace, books like Fiasco, Countering Insurgency in Iraq all document a wildly varied appreciation of counter-insurgency and even the need to practice it at all. This blog has raised the negative impacts of Haditha (done by the military) reconstruction failures (done by contractors), all of which are completely ignored in practice. When CENTCOM looks at Thomas Friedman as their COIN expert, we’re in trouble.

John Nagl, David Galula, Mao, Thucydides, and others should be required reading to appreciate the value of SWET. Instead of debating numbers, we should be discussing how the tactics have failed and how this will prevent the Iraq government from fulfilling the mandate we’ve given it.

We can’t win unless the population believes we will deliver a solution. Military forces and contractors, armed and not, must be under a strategic direction to start conducting real counter-insurgency operations and public diplomacy operations to rebuild trust with the populations. It may be too late, afterall we spent the last three plus years creating the environment that’s over there now.