U.S. Military Strategy in Iraq

U.S. Military Strategy in Iraq

With all the talk of drawing down U.S. forces in Iraq, the U.S. military is quietly adopting a strategy that gets more U.S. soldiers onto the streets to interact with Iraqi locals and forces. Experts say this strategy will be successful at securing Iraq in the long run, even though it puts troops at greater risk in the short run.

April 12, 2006 3:54 pm (EST)

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U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld continues to defend his military strategy in Iraq and has reiterated there is no timetable for drawing down U.S. forces. His comments come amid accusations by a handful of retired generals who say the Pentagon failed to provide enough troops to properly secure Iraq. At the same time, there are signs the U.S. military may be experimenting with new tactics to increase contact with local Iraqis and embed American troops within Iraqi security units to "clear, hold, and build" cities prone to insurgent violence. According to this plan, as security spreads and an Iraqi government gets up and running, military officials say some form of drawdown of the roughly 130,000 U.S. forces in Iraq will then be possible. "Everything hinges on forming a government and what that government looks like," says a top Pentagon official, who spoke to cfr.org on condition of anonymity. "Until we have a government, it’s a silly question." Some experts counter that White House plans to draw down its forces are tied less to Iraq’s political calender than to U.S. midterm elections in November.

What are the latest developments of U.S. military policy in Iraq?

The United States is increasingly handing over security duties to the country’s interior ministry forces. U.S. forces have reportedly handed control of about thirty smaller bases over to Iraqi forces. The U.S. military has also provided more direct assistance and training to Iraqi forces by embedding small ten-person teams of mostly senior-level U.S. soldiers and Marines within Iraq’s police and army units. The job of these so-called transition teams is, as the Pentagon official put it, "to coach, teach, mentor, and monitor" Iraqi forces. But this strategy, while effective, runs huge risks, says Stephen Biddle, CFR’s senior fellow for defense strategy. "You take these penny-packets of Americans, put them out in unprepared lodging spaces and make them live in exposed positions and intermingle with Iraqis and eventually people are going to get killed," he says.

Is the United States planning to draw down its forces?

Probably, but it’s unclear exactly when, experts say. At the moment, the White House says no plan is in place to draw down its forces until military officials on the ground in Iraq say the security situation improves and U.S. troops are unneeded. But some experts say the decision to draw down forces will be tied more to the United States’ upcoming congressional elections than to the security situation in Iraq. "I don’t believe for a second that if there’s an announcement for troops withdrawals it will be driven by the generals’ assessments of progress," says Andrew Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel and professor of international relations at Boston University. "The president needs to show success to the American people, and the definition of success at this point is reducing our exposure over there."

Other experts dismiss the notion the Pentagon’s drawdown plans are motivated by Iraq’s ability to form a coalition-based government. "I think it’s preposterous that we’re just waiting for the formation of a unity government and somehow at that magic moment we will be drawing down forces," says Barry Posen, a national security expert who teaches political science at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology. Experts say that other factors, including the stresses and strains on those serving in the military, enter the equation. George Packer, writing in the New Yorker, says that divorce rates among Army officers have doubled since 2003, and that if the war drags on thousands of lower-level officers may quit to avoid being redeployed to Iraq.

Posen envisions an eventual two-part drawdown over eighteen months, whereby troop levels in Iraq will drop from roughly 130,000 to below 100,000 by year’s end, followed by a second, more significant drawdown of forces shortly thereafter. Anthony Zinni, former commander in chief of U.S. Central Command, speaking at a recent CFR meeting, predicts that a pullout may involve placing U.S. troops in neighboring countries like Kuwait or Jordan.

What are the main challenges to U.S. military strategy?

  • Insufficient troop levels. "Almost everyone besides Donald Rumsfeld says [the U.S. military presence in Iraq] is too small," Posen says. Experts say to enact the Pentagon’s strategy to "clear, hold, and build" former insurgent strongholds like Tal Afar—which President Bush in recent speeches has held up as a model—is unsustainable in the long term without greater numbers of forces on the ground. "We don’t have enough troops there to do enough Tal Afars," CFR’s Biddle says. The doctrine of "clear, hold, and build" requires not only high density of troops but the presence of U.S. troops, because the Iraqi security forces are not seen by Iraqis as neutral. "If you had the troop strength to do Tal Afars throughout the Sunni Triangle," Biddle adds, "that would be a path to success in this conflict." Rumsfeld says that too large a U.S. troop presence will only fuel anti-U.S. feelings among Iraqis and that the longer U.S. forces remain in Iraq, the more dependent Iraqis will become on them for basic security.
  • Rotations disrupt continuity. In Tal Afar, Packer writes, stability emerged because the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR), led by Colonel H.R. McMaster, slowly built relationships on the ground, earned local leaders’ trust, and learned the lay of the land. But some experts say the fragile stability risks coming unraveled because of the U.S. military’s policy of rotating entire regiments out of different regions versus individual soldiers. The strategy emerged as a response to the lessons learned in Vietnam, Bacevich says, when individuals, not whole infantry units, were rotated to "create the appearance of continuity but which in reality only created more turbulence." In Iraq, regiments are replaced as a whole to maintain cohesion and efficiency among units. The downside, Biddle says, is "you lose the corporate memory in its entirety all at once." Packer likens the situation in Tal Afar to a wound requiring sutures. "If they were removed too quickly, the wound would open again and there would be heavy bleeding," he writes.
  • A preference for low-risk solutions. The military strategies noted above—whether it’s "clear, hold, and build," comingling more with Iraqi locals, or embedding U.S. soldiers with Iraqi forces—are seen as important counterinsurgency strategies to create greater long-term stability, but in the short-term will put U.S. soldiers at risk, experts say. "And the U.S. leadership, including this president, is very averse to incurring casualties," Biddle says. "The administration feels that higher casualties will undermine public support for this war effort." To limit risks, U.S. soldiers isolate themselves on heavily fortified bases, conduct surveilance missions backed by armored vehicles, and rarely come into contact with everyday Iraqis. "That model provides maximum force protection but it means minimum effectiveness at solving the problem," Biddle says.

What kind of permanent footprint will the U.S. military leave in Iraq?

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has dismissed suggestions that the United States seeks permanent bases in Iraq. "We are, in fact, in the process of removing base structure from a lot of places," she told the U.S. House Appropriations Committee on April 4. But this year, the White House has sought $348 million to construct bases in Iraq as part of its emergency war funding bill, though the Senate has still not approved the funding. Zinni told the Guardian that a permanent military presence in Iraq is "a stupid idea and clearly politically unacceptable," while others say it would only confirm suspicions in the region that the United States’ real intentions in Iraq were to secure land and oil. But Bacevich says if Iraq ever stabilizes, the United States should keep a permanent presence there, similar to its military forces stationed in Saudi Arabia during the 1990s. Rumsfeld, according to Biddle, envisions a "lilypad" conception of permanent bases, which would hold sparse numbers of troops—"basically they’d be refueling points," says Biddle—but also be designed to allow U.S. forces to return in larger numbers if ever needed. This concept, he says, differs from traditional overseas bases, which feature large numbers of troops that provide quick responses and interact more with local citizens.

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