Washington Babylon — March 27, 2008, 11:33 am

The Surge is Not Sustainable: Augustus Richard Norton explains why

Augustus Richard Norton, a combat veteran and retired Army colonel, taught at West Point for more than 12 years and is now a professor of anthropology and international relations at Boston University. I spoke with Norton–who was an expert adviser to the Iraq Study Group–earlier today about the situation in Iraq. Here’s his take on the situation:

We can’t maintain the deployment that we have in Iraq. The Army is stretched to its limits. There is a flood of captains leaving the Army, and they’re the best and the brightest, the ones with the best fitness reports and educational backgrounds. In other words, we are losing many of the young officers who should be the future operations officers, battalion commanders, not to mention generals. We’re losing an essential part of the officer corps; in many ways the brain trust of today’s army. The pattern is that they serve two or three tours in Afghanistan or Iraq and then their families ask, “What the hell are we doing?” Headhunting firms come along and recruit these guys for nice paying jobs in business and industry. In recent years, you have about 50 percent of West Point officers leaving the service, and that’s at the first available opportunity, there are additional incremental losses after that point. That’s as high a rate as we’ve seen in decades. The same is true of many sharp R.O.T.C. commissioned officers. The top brass have the numbers and they should be worried about the drain.

This problem has been largely hidden from public view by the Pentagon, and stopgap measures have been taken to mitigate it. In particular, the (six-month) officer candidate schools are being expanded to commission promising sergeants. These OCS officers usually do a fine job as lieutenants and captains, and even majors, but comparably few of them will rise to higher ranks.

So there’s a real structural problem to sustaining a force in Iraq at pre-Surge levels. The Army is stretched thin, morale is depleted, plus there’s the financial cost and the question of defining “success.” You don’t get to a stable outcome in Iraq under any realistic terms for a long time, and yet it is unlikely that the U.S. can sustain its present level of deployment.

The last few days have not been promising. The Surge has been very dependent on the ceasefire with Jaish Al-Mahdi Shia militia and that’s coming unstuck. The arrangement with the Sunni “Awakenings” guys was a good tactical move, but let’s not confuse ourselves. We’re basically paying salaries of about $300 a month to 80,000 people in the “Awakenings” Councils–these are local militias with tribal connections and they’re making a temporary arrangement with us that’s very much in the spirit of an Arab proverb: “Kiss a dog and take something from him.” They’re taking something from American now–money–which allows them to operate, to challenge state power, and to be better prepared the next time that a major conflict erupts. In effect, we are facilitating the formation of sectarian militias. The policy is, for the moment, smart, but there are very real mid-term risks.

It looks like President Bush is going to kick this can down the road and avoid any significant withdrawals other than the planned reduction in surge units. That might be smart election-year politics and allow him to retain what’s left of his “legacy,” but by doing so he adds to the structural strains on the Army and only postpones the inevitable reckoning that must occur.

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