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Iraq occupation not worth lives with no clear goal

The news from last weekend that American soldiers killed 46 guerrilla fighters (the exact number is disputed) during several attacks in Samarra, a small town near Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit, suggests the “postwar” in Iraq has moved to a different level, one that more closely resembles, as several military commanders have acknowledged, an active war.

Perhaps recognizing this will bring closer the day when Americans push their political leaders to decide what the U.S. goals are in Iraq and whether the costs of achieving them are worth it.

A guerrilla war is different from more conventional war. The U.S. military is very good at a conflict that turns into a set-piece battle. In last Sunday’s ambushes, the U.S. forces were ready. In addition to killing 46 guerrillas, they wounded 18 of the attackers and captured eight. The American forces had only five wounded.

The problem, said Ted Carpenter — Cato Institute’s vice president for defense and foreign policy studies — is the guerrillas are likely to learn from the experience too. “It is fairly common in guerrilla conflicts for the guerrillas to believe at some point that they are strong enough to take on a conventional army. Afterward, they usually return to hit-and-run attacks on softer targets — which are more difficult to prepare for and defend against,” Carpenter said.

Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who commands the Army’s 1st Armored Division, said he believes there is a central leadership that finances guerrillas and gives broad orders — though the guerrilla bands have the option of calling off a planned attack.

Whether this is true — in some ways the idea of attacks without central leadership is more daunting — the level of violence against U.S. troops has risen sharply. November was the bloodiest month yet in Iraq, with 81 Americans killed (compared with 73 killed in April, during the actual invasion).

In a strict military sense, such casualties could be sustained. Politically, however, it could become more difficult to explain to Americans why so many of their best and brightest are being killed in a conflict whose goals are defined in only the broadest of terms.

“Bringing democracy to the Middle East” is a worthy general goal, but what intermediate steps can be taken, what are the measures of progress, how likely are they to succeed, and how many American lives are we willing to pay for a project that already appears dubious? Is keeping occupation troops in Iraq a benefit or a detriment in the larger struggle against Islamist terrorists?

The more discussion such questions receive, the better.

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