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Can a Troop ‘Surge’ Save Iraq?

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: January 8, 2007

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President Bush has reshuffled (WashPost) his top political and military advisers on Iraq ahead of a major speech on the war in which he is expected to call for a “surge” of U.S. forces. That the White House is even considering this plan indicates the dire state of affairs in Iraq, says Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, widely credited as author of the plan. His rationale was, “In case of emergency, break glass and execute this plan,” Kagan recently told reporters. “We think we’re there now.” But the plan—which calls for a temporary deployment of between twenty-five thousand and thirty thousand forces to Baghdad and Anbar province—has drawn heavy criticism from some quarters. Middle East analysts say a political solution, which includes some kind of national reconciliation—as this new Backgrounder outlines—is what Iraq needs. Counterinsurgency specialists dismiss the plan because the force ratios are too low, given Iraq’s size and population. Critics on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, worry a surge would only deepen U.S. engagement at a time when the majority of Americans favor a swifter exit strategy (AP). House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said that if President Bush wants a troop surge, “he is going to have to justify it” (LAT).

The whole “surge” debate, Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman, is “almost completely irrelevant.” Cordesman says if a military surge “or any other development is to have meaning, there has to be progress in political conciliation or at least in finding some form of nonviolent coexistence.” Kagan counters that his surge proposal has been misinterpreted by the media. He only favors deploying more U.S. soldiers along with Iraqi forces to select parts of Baghdad and Anbar; Sadr City, a Shiite slum and fertile recruiting ground for militias, would not be targeted because it would only inflame Shiites against the Americans. Instead, Kagan recommends the surge focus mainly on mixed Shiite-Sunni sections, be backed by adequate reserves (which Kagan says do exist despite claims to the contrary), and remain in place for at least eighteen months. No matter what, he says, 2007 will be a bloody year. The New York Times offers a detailed graphic of the changing Sunni insurgency in Iraq.

It remains unclear what effect the president’s new military team will have on the White House’s Iraq policy. Outgoing CENTCOM Chief John P. Abizaid and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, both disapproved of the “surge” plan. Casey will be succeeded by Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus (NYT), generally regarded as an experienced hand in the region and an expert on counterinsurgency. Less clear is whether Petraeus will push for even greater numbers of U.S. forces in Baghdad.

Against the backdrop of the president’s upcoming speech and reshuffling of advisors is the opening of a Democratic-controlled Congress. Oversight and budgeting for the war are expected to factor heavily in the coming weeks. No doubt some critics will also question why the Iraq Study Group report, at least at this juncture, was apparently shelved (Economist.com), while others will press for the faster redeployment (PDF) of U.S. forces, as first outlined by Lawrence Korb and Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress. The trouble, writes E.J. Dionne Jr. of the Washington Post, is that “Congress has precious few tools available to stop the commander in chief.”

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