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Iraq Troop Levels Again At Issue

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: September 20, 2006

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“Unwinnable,” declares Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security adviser (LAT), of the Iraq war. Additionally, there are no combat-ready troops (WashPost) in active service to send, argue Lawrence J. Korb and Peter Ogden of the Democratic-aligned Center for American Progress. They say the Bush administration’s “Adapting to Win” plan for Iraq should be renamed “Reinforcing Failure” (Slate’s Fred Kaplan breaks down the deployments of the one million men and women in uniform). Ahead of November’s midterm elections, Democrats are beating the anti-war drums louder. Yet they remain divided on an alternate plan that would break with the “stay-the-course” Republicans but not come off as “cut and run.”

Some are calling for an immediate withdrawal. Yet "Bush is very likely to resist pressures for such deep troop cuts for much the same reasons that President Johnson did in 1968 during the Vietnam War," CFR President Emeritus Leslie H. Gelb writes in the Los Angeles Times. "[N]o president wants to be seen as losing a war." Others are pushing for a timetable for a phased withdrawal. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) favors a redeployment of forces, a policy first put forward last year by Rep. John Murtha (D-PA). Both joined other Democratic congressional leaders in demanding Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation. This new Backgrounder breaks down the Democrats' plans on Iraq. 

Iraq has seen a “big jump” of U.S. forces from around 130,000 to 147,000 in recent weeks, reports the Army Times. Pentagon officials describe it as a temporary move, mainly to address recent spikes in sectarian violence in Baghdad. Yet the anti-war camp is not buying that argument. “You have to wonder whether this big run-up of troop commitments is related to an attempt to calm the country in the run-up to midterm elections in the United States,” writes Juan Cole in his blog on Middle East politics. Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top American commander in Iraq, told reporters at least 140,000 troops will be needed in Iraq until next spring (NYT).

Some conservatives say more forces are needed now. “The bottom line is this: More U.S. troops in Iraq would improve our chances of winning a decisive battle at a decisive moment,” write Rich Lowry and William Kristol, editors respectively of National Review and The Weekly Standard, in the Washington Post. Ideally, they admit, Iraqi forces would provide the bulk of the security, but given the level of sectarian tension in the air, American forces are seen as “more trusted and more welcome than [Iraqi soldiers].” Also, counterinsurgency doctrine, or COIN, calls for a 20/1000 ratio: twenty soldiers for every 1,000 civilians. For Iraq (outside of relatively stable Iraqi Kurdistan), that means 450,000 coalition forces, argues Kenneth M. Pollack of the Brookings Institution in his February 2006 report “A Switch in Time.” Some analysts point to a philosophical rift between conventional military planners—who prefer sweeping combat operations—and elite units like the Special Forces—which seek to build relationships with local Iraqis (WashPost). Former Marine infantry officer Seth Moulton says instead of dispatching more troops to Iraq, more Special Forces should be embedded with Iraqi forces in small advisory teams, rather than cocooned in megabases. “We can’t win this war from the Burger Kings and rec centers of our largest bases” in Iraq, he writes in the New York Times.

Indeed, polls show Iraq—and the president’s handling of it—is the elephant in the electoral room. According to TIME, 63 percent of Americans disagree with the White House’s stay-the-course policy in Iraq; 54 percent say Iraq has hurt U.S. efforts to win the war on terror. Republicans have sought to paint Democrats as softies on national security. President Bush, in a number of recent speeches, has linked the war in Iraq to the global war against al-Qaeda. “If we yield Iraq to men like [Osama] bin Laden, our enemies will be emboldened,” he told Americans on September 11, 2006. “The safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad.”

In response, Democrats point to the grim realities on the ground in Iraq: 2,660 American soldiers dead, and a war chest that’s swelled to $313 billion. Unemployment in Iraq is 60 percent countrywide and as high as 90 percent in Anbar, a heavily Sunni province west of Baghdad. Moreover, the number of Iraqi civilians dying in Baghdad alone has gone from roughly 1,000 per month in the beginning of the year, when fresh optimism followed the nation’s first permanent elections, to over 1,500 per month this summer. Attacks against U.S. forces reached their highest postwar point in July, according to this recent Government Accountability Office report. The Iraq Study Group, an independent bipartisan commission, gives the Iraqi government until the end of 2006 to curb the violence and improve basic services for Iraqis. 

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