The one thing more persistent than security problems in Iraq is the talk of “more troops” being able to fix the situation.
The talk is ill-informed, considering that history shows that occupations and counterinsurgencies don’t follow the “more is better” rule. Rather, they are successful when the outside power employs local forces and leaders to keep the peace.
Some 130,000 U.S. soldiers, plus 131,000 Iraqis and 20,000 coalition troops, are deployed in Iraq with its population of 24 million. That’s a ratio of one foreign soldier per 160 local civilians. Over 420 U.S. servicepeople have been killed, two-thirds of them in hostile action. Critics of the administration’s current strategy argue that if only there were more U.S. troops fighting rebels and collecting intelligence about plots against the provisional government, the violence would diminish.
There are not enough soldiers walking the beat, the argument goes, and not enough intel people collecting intel. But fixing Iraq isn’t like pushing a car out of a sand trap -- an exercise in which more manpower always helps. Intelligence-collection has limitations of quality that can’t be corrected by quantity. And a greater number of troops could as easily create more targets for adversaries as it could quell those adversaries. These aren’t the only reasons adding troops isn’t the answer. There are also practical problems with adding more troops in Iraq, including the difficulty in sustaining them there.
And then there’s the historical record. Successful occupations and counterinsurgencies of recent times have operated on a shoestring of personnel from the occupying power, with great dependency on the locals. Consider:
The British colonization of India: The British in the 1800s governed India’s 250 million inhabitants with a mere 70,000 British troops and 900 British civil servants, for a ratio of one British soldier for every 3,571 Indian civilians. Yet the goal of ruling India was more ambitious than that of the U.S. in setting up and supporting a government Iraq.
The British troops were aided by an additional 125,000 Indian troops under British command. These local forces not only kept the peace in India (notwithstanding a notable mutiny over British religious insensitivity) but also policed rebellions in the British Empire from China to Africa. The British also employed a cadre of Indian civil servants, after initially resisting such local administrators.
The American-led counterinsurgency in El Salvador: The U.S. from 1981-91 used a mere 55 military advisors, mostly Special Forces, to support the Salvadoran government and military in their fight against Marxist insurgents. The 10,000 Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front fighters had popular support, numerical parity with the national army and looked poised to topple the government. The handful of U.S. advisors, working with a cooperative Salvadoran leadership, created Salvadoran rapid-reaction battalions and retrained the NCO corps to make it more professional. Over the course of a decade these measures, coupled with substantial financial aid, brought the counterinsurgency military success against the Soviet-backed Marxists.
The American occupation of Afghanistan: In that country where the U.S. ousted the Taliban regime in 2002, some 15,000 U.S. and coalition troops are keeping relative peace and setting up the government. While Afghanistan is basically similar to Iraq in that it has tribal population of 25 million, the Afghanistan ratio of foreign soldiers to local civilians is 1 to 1,667. The difference so far is the U.S. has been far more successful in putting local leaders and military forces in place there.
Interestingly, the U.S. troop ratio in Iraq is the same as it was in Japan from 1945-52, when 450,000 Americans troops governed post-war Japan’s 72 million inhabitants. Some might argue that historical parallel is precisely what justifies the U.S. numbers in Iraq -- though that requires ignoring the fact that great-power Japan’s military might was more substantial than Iraq’s and that the U.S. had just defeated it in a total war. Such parallels also ignore the fact that the U.S. presence in the country declined steadily from the initial half-million.
Beyond that, there are some similarities, though: The Americans decommissioned Japan’s seven-million-man fighting force, identified 210,288 Japanese individuals whom the U.S. banned from Japanese politics, and carried out the oddly familiar tasks which Gen. Douglas MacArthur summed up as: “First, destroy the military power. Punish war criminals. Build the structure of representative government. Modernize the constitution. Hold free elections. Enfranchise the women. Release the political prisoners. Liberate the farmers. Establish a free labor movement. Encourage a free economy. Abolish police oppression. Develop a free and responsible press. Liberalize education. Decentralize political power. Separate the church from the state.”
To carry this out MacArthur made an alliance with the wartime emperor -- without it he would not have been able to harness the imperial civil service and put it to work.
Whatever one’s assessment of the Japan parallel, surely no one wants the U.S. to do a Japan-plus, ramping up its civilian and military presence to the point where Iraq starts to look like French Algeria from the 1840s to the 1950s. Consider that by 1900, the Algerian population of four million locals faced two million European -- mostly French -- administrators, troops and colonists. The French monopolized the nation’s jobs, political posts and much of the good land, driving the Algerians into towns and cities where they were unemployed, disenfranchised and eventually rose up in a decade-long war.
To be sure, Britain’s occupation of India ended badly as well, U.S. forces remain to this day in Japan and Korea, and fighting the bloody counterinsurgency in El Salvador led the U.S. into unpleasant compromises. It will be difficult to stabilize, rebuild and leave Iraq without similar difficulties.
Already, there’s the distasteful specter of employing low-level former Saddam henchmen in Iraq’s new security forces, and the risk that the U.S. would, unconscionably, let high-level Baathists share power in a post-Saddam Iraq. Yet some standards can be -- and must be -- maintained. The worst Iraqi offenders should be purged just as the 210,000 Japanese were purged, or just as corrupt and murderous Salvadoran military leaders such as Col. Benvanides were tossed out with U.S. pressure.
Even after considering the historical parallels, there are those who will argue Iraq is far more complicated than India, Japan, or El Salvador because the Iraqi population is more restive than those locals were. A succession of British governors and U.S. officers might disagree that Iraq presents more of a challenge than the ones they faced.
Despite legitimate differences among the cases, the lesson of history remains: A relatively modest occupying force, assisted by a larger contingent of locals, can effectively secure a territory, put down insurgents, and carry out the remarkably unchanging list of nation-building tasks.
Which is why we don’t need more U.S. troops. We need more Iraqis.
Melana Zyla Vickers writes about defense technologies and foreign policy for TechCentralStation.com and is a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum. She is a former editorial-board member of USA Today, Canada's The Globe and Mail and The Asian Wall Street Journal, and a former editor at the Far Eastern Economc Review.