President George W. Bush has presented a new strategy for the war in Iraq that may be able to defeat the insurgency and reverse Iraq’s drift towards large-scale civil war. His speeches to date, however, raise many questions as to both the risks it will create over the coming months and the real-world ability to actually implement his plans. The new Bush approach is considerably more sophisticated and comprehensive than the one the president could fit into the 20-minute address announcing the plan – which had been cut back from a longer 40-minute version. It combines political, military, and economic action in ways that do offer a significant hope of success. The following analysis examines the strengths and weaknesses of the proposals in the president’s speech in detail, but also adds important further details and clarifications by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Peter Pace, and the US commander in Iraq, General George Casey. A reading of these additional details is more reassuring than the bare bones of the president’s speeches, but it is clear that the new strategy and plan do involve critical risks, political and military. The most important such risk is that the success of his strategy depends on the cooperation of a weak and divided Iraqi government that may not agree to deprive Shia militias of their growing power; on Iraqi forces that so far have shown little fighting capability and key elements of which are corrupt or allied with Shia and Kurdish militias; and on the acceptance of a major US urban warfare campaign by a divided Iraqi people, many of whom are hostile to the US and the presence of American forces. The overall changes in US deployment plans are complicated. They involve retaining and moving forces already in theater as well as adding new forces as well as some very high capability Army and Marine Corps units.
Their stated mission is to, “help Iraqis clear and secure neighborhoods while protecting the local population. These actions will build the capacity available to commanders to 20 brigade or regimental combat teams to assist in achieving stability and security and accelerate Iraqi Security Force development. The Bush plan will add two brigades and some 7,000 more combat troops to the force in Baghdad relatively quickly. This will raise the 24,000 US troops now in Baghdad to a total of 31,000. There are some three additional brigade equivalents in the pipeline, with around 10,500 more troops. These may deploy to Baghdad, to Anbar, or not at all depending on the pace of events.
Even if all deploy, adding 17,500 more US troops in Baghdad might not be enough. There were close to 50,000 US troops in Baghdad during the peak of the fighting in 2004-2005, plus more than two brigades, covering an area about half the size of the one that the US now plans to clear. At most, Bush’s plan would provide 41,500. In addition, the new plan raises serious political issues of a different kind since both Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s advisors and those of Abdel Aziz Hakim’s Supreme Council for the Islamic revolution in Iraq have previously gone on record as opposing an increase in US troops.
It will almost certainly mean a major confrontation with Moqtada Sadr’s Mehdi Army, which can now draw upon up to 60,000 fighters nationwide. More generally, much depends on the overall ability of the Iraqi government in achieving political conciliation and removing much of the popular support for insurgents and militias; and on the ability to co-opt or disband the less extreme Shia militias and Sunni security forces. The new Bush strategy focuses on Baghdad with a limited increase in US forces in Anbar, and calls for Iraqi forces to take formal control of the security mission in November. It is not clear that increasing US military strength from 132,000 to 153,000 will be enough to win even in Baghdad. The combined total of US and Iraqi strength does not seem sufficient to guarantee similar victory in the rest of Iraq, particularly in Basra, where the British will soon start making major cuts in their forces, Kirkuk, Mosul, and Iraq’s other major urban areas.
Given the poor performance of Iraqi forces in Baghdad and their failure to effectively take control of the security mission in other provinces, it seems very doubtful that the Iraqis can make the required progress by next November. As for the new “battle of Baghdad, everything hinges on whether the Iraqi government’s new appointment as military commander, and his two deputy commanders, will actually fight, and can or will deploy three more Iraqi Army and National Police brigades across Baghdad’s nine districts.
The Bush plan calls for a total of 18 Iraqi Army and National Police brigades, but many of these units can’t or won’t really fight, and many are at only a fraction of their authorized manning. There are currently 42,000 men in these Iraqi forces in Baghdad. Adding two brigades will add at most 8,000 men, bringing the total to 31,000. The plan also relies heavily on the 30,000 men in the Baghdad police forces in Baghdad, These Iraqi forces are to operate from local police stations – conducting patrols, setting up checkpoints, and going door-to-door to gain the trust of Baghdad residents. The reality is that the National Police still has ties to Shia militias and death squads, and the regular police is ineffective, corrupt, and not properly trained or equipped for the mission.
In reality, even if all the planned US forces, and Iraqi Army, National Police, and regular police forces do show up, the total mix of forces may still be inadequate to bring lasting security to a greater urban area with 5-6 million inhabitants. Bush also was scarcely realistic in saying that US troops would support or “help Iraqi forces, rather than lead them and bear the brunt of combat. Iraqi Army forces previously only deployed two of six promised battalions at the start of Operation Together Forward and took months to build up to around 7,000 troops. Putting a US battalion of 400-600 men as embeds in each of the nine Military Districts in Baghdad may help, but it is still US forces that will do almost all of the hard fighting. This is likely to sharply increase US casualties, at least initially. As for national efforts, Bush’s plan to increase the embedding of American advisers in Iraqi Army units – and partner a Coalition brigade with every Iraqi Army division, and giving US commanders and civilians greater flexibility to spend funds for economic assistance may also help. There are, however, many questions as to the real-world ability to deploy enough qualified US advisors and translators, and increase the effectiveness of Iraqi forces.
At the end of December, the Iraqi Army had trained and equipped 132,700 men, but many had deserted, many of the remainder were ineffective, and even effective units were often largely Shia or Kurdish and had mixed loyalties. It is far from clear that the US can rapidly succeed in raising Iraqi Army division strength from 10 to 13, brigades from 36 to 41, and battalions from 112 to 132. Out of the 92 Iraqi brigades now said to be “in the lead, as few as 10 may have high effectiveness, although some experts put the figure at 20-30.
Bush did not discuss the problems in reforming the police or the Interior Ministry to increase transparency and accountability and transform the National Police. These are all “high risk measures. The Iraqi Army is also only part of the story. The 24,400-man National Police will present a major force development problem because of its ties to Shia militias and extremists. No one knows how many of the 135,000 men trained and equipped for the police remain in service, but absentee and desertion rates often ranged from 25-50 percent, and the same is true of the 28,900 men trained for other Interior Ministry forces.
Further problems exist in dealing with the 135,000 armed security personnel in the various facilities protection forces, many of which are loyal to Sunni,
Shia, or Kurdish factions rather than the central government. The president’s use of benchmarks and the implied threat that the US will leave if Iraqi does not support it and cannot take over security responsibility by November may backfire. It creates a strong incentive for the elements hostile to the US to keep up military pressure, and for Sadr and other Shias hostile to the US to push the Maliki government to not cooperate.
The government may also react by trying to use the US increase in forces in Baghdad and Anbar to focus on Sunni insurgents and defeat them, while leaving Shia militias and forces intact, creating constant tension between the US and Iraqi governments.
That said, these very real risks in Bush’s new strategy do not mean it cannot succeed over time. They simply mean the odds of success are probably less than even. The president did make it clear that he expects much more intense urban fighting, and understands that a more powerful and proactive US military effort to “win, hold, build in Baghdad could significantly increase US casualties.
What is not clear is what will happen if Iraqis turn against US forces, or the insurgents lie low and outwait the US and government forces in what is a long war of attrition.
Anthony H. Cordesman is Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. This commentary is published by permission