Friday, July 01, 2005

Protecting the Border

When people talk about the need to add troops to Iraq, one of the points they make is that we don't have the troops to keep reinforcements for the terrorists from entering Iraq. O'Hanlon makes this point in this article:

Second, in keeping with the recent ideas of Democratic Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and John Kerry of Massachusetts, we should attempt to gain more allied assistance to protect Iraq's borders. Since the jihadist threat is indeed serious, growing and a danger to all, there is a chance the allies would listen.

On the surface this seems like a reasonable argument. In this case, it is a call for troops other than American forces in order to get in a dig at the administration for not getting enough foreign help. But I'll ignore the attempt at a cheap shot here.

And indeed, the jihadis committing the most newsworthy and bloody attacks do indeed come in across the border from Syria mostly:

Iraqis have carried out less than 10 percent of more than 500 suicide attacks since 2003, according to one defense official. At least 213 attacks have occurred this year — 172 by vehicle and 41 by bombers on foot — according to a count by The Associated Press.

While most suicide attackers in Iraq are thought to be Gulf Arabs, North Africans are also streaming in to carry out deadly missions, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.

The bombers are recruited from Sunni communities, smuggled into Iraq from Syria after receiving religious indoctrination, and then quickly bundled into cars or strapped with explosive vests and sent to their deaths, the officials told the AP. The young men are not so much fighters as human bombs — a relatively small but deadly component of the Iraqi insurgency.

Case closed, right? I mean, foreigners are coming in to kill Americans and Iraqis so we clearly need more troops on the border to stop them. Well not quite. This exchange from a DOD press conference is instructive:

Q Going back to Iraq for a moment, General, if I may. I believe it was a former Iraqi general talking to a New York Times reporter some months ago who said if you dig in Iraq, you either find oil or you find weapons. And either Saddam Hussein was like I am in a hardware store and couldn't deny buying weapons, or this stuff is coming in from outside. Do you have any idea on these caches we find how many are indigenous or there before, and how many are coming in, say, from Iran and Syria?

GEN. CONWAY: You know, I can't speak to contemporary results [NOTE: Conway commanded I MEF in Iraq from March to September 2004]. I can tell you in my time there that it all appeared to be old stuff; that there were no new weapons coming in of some other nation's mark that appeared to be freshly oiled or just out of the Cosmoline. I suspect there are people in country that are doing that kind of analysis because it's extremely important. But I don't have the figures for you.

So the actual weapons that the insurgents and terrorists are using are still being dug up from inside Iraq for the most part. Only the terrorist volunteers and cash are coming into Iraq from the outside. If Conway's experience is still the rule, and someone of his rank would surely be in the know on this I should think, this would still hold true. So I'll assume that the enemy is still getting its weapons inside Iraq until I see anything to the contrary.

This is a far more difficult influx to combat. If the enemy was smuggling in significant amounts of weaponry and ammunition, even if it was just small arms stuff, we'd have an easier time of it and the calls for more troops to watch the border would make sense as an isolated observation. We'd be looking for trucks filled with weapons and ammo.

But when combatants who look like anybody else are the only asset the enemy needs to import and they are coming across the border to enter Iraq, how do we tell who is normal and who is nutball? Do we shut down the whole border and declare it a free fire zone? Mine it and let whoever comes across--whether shepherd or suicide car bomber--go up in a poof of smoke?

I've said from early on that this insurgency by a small minority is only so persistent because it has access to plentiful money and arms stockpiled inside Iraq prior to the invasion. The normal practice of sealing the border to prevent such assets from getting inside don't work in Iraq since those assets are already inside Iraq. Putting 20,000 troops along the border would be a waste of effort and would either subtract troops from other missions in the interior if we didn't add them to the current force or would further stress our military if we had increased our troops strength in Iraq for this mission.

In time, we'll have more Iraqis in fully equipped border posts and they will be better able to tell locals from distant foreigners. But this problem shows the complexity of the problems we face and why the obvious solution isn't necessarily the solution.