Too Few Troops
(Published in The Weekly Standard, from the April 26, 2004 issue:
Resolve alone won't bring success. We need a military and political strategy
that maximizes our odds of winning in Iraq.
Volume 009, Issue 31)
At his press conference Tuesday night, President Bush eloquently made the case for staying the course in Iraq. The next day, at City College in New York, Senator Kerry agreed: 'It would be unwise beyond belief for the United States of America' to cut and run, and to 'leave a failed Iraq in its wake.' And the American people, despite the recent bad news, show no sign of panic: In a Time/CNN poll, 57 percent of respondents agree that the United States should 'intensify' its military effort in Iraq.
Unfortunately, resolve alone won't bring success. Neither will well-delivered statements by the president. The problem in Iraq is not poor public relations, or a lack of will. Rather, it is the failure of policymakers at the highest levels to fashion a military and political strategy that maximizes the odds of success. That is what has been missing ever since Saddam's statue fell a little over a year ago.
The mere fact that violence has increased recently in Iraq is not by itself grounds for criticizing the administration's handling of the war. No sensible person believed that the effort to build a democratic Iraq would be without cost and dangers. No reasonable person expected administration officials and military commanders, either in Washington or in Baghdad, to be able to exercise unerring mastery over an inherently complex and always explosive situation.
Nor is the news from Iraq all bad. Several weeks ago we argued optimistically (perhaps too optimistically) that things were looking better, and we still believe there is much in Iraq to be gratified by: continued peaceful cooperation among Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders, despite many disagreements; an economy that seems to be improving; the fact that a large majority of Iraqis, as documented in polls, say their future is promising, reject political violence, and support an ongoing American presence. And much of Iraq remains, at the moment, relatively peaceful. All this is important progress.
Yet this progress can be undone. And while we certainly do not hold the administration responsible for everything that has gone wrong in Iraq, it is clear that there have been failures in planning and in execution, failures that have been evident for most of the last year. Serious errors have been made--and made, above all, by Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon. The recent violence in Iraq has confirmed that the level of American military forces has been too low to accomplish the president's mission ever since the invasion phase of the war ended last April.
On Thursday, the secretary of defense announced a three-month extension in tours of duty for about 20,000 troops in Iraq. This did not increase the number of troops on the ground, but it did undo a planned drawdown in military strength from 135,000 to 115,000, thereby maintaining current combat strength. But leaving 20,000 troops in Iraq for an additional three months will almost certainly not be enough. Close observers of the conflict in Iraq, civilian and military alike (military, of course, speaking off the record), say that at least two additional divisions--at least 30,000 extra troops--are needed in Iraq just to deal with the current crisis. Even more troops may well be needed to fully pacify the country. And it would be useful to have as many of those troops as possible there sooner rather than later.
The shortage of troops in Iraq is the product of a string of bad calculations and a hefty dose of wishful thinking. Above all, it is the product of Rumsfeld's fixation on high-tech military 'transformation,' his hostility to manpower-intensive nation-building in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, and his refusal to increase the overall size of the military in the first place. The results are plain to see: We are trying to carry out Bush's post-9/11 foreign policy with Clinton's pre-9/11 military. It is a wonderful military, but it is too small for our responsibilities in the post-9/11 world. As a result, it will not be easy to find the additional brigades to send to Iraq. Troubling reductions in our deployments elsewhere will be required, and an already stressed military will be asked to do more still. Unfortunately, there is no choice.
It didn't have to be this way. Back in August 2003, it was already clear that by early spring of 2004 there would be a shortage of forces to maintain stability and security in Iraq. Neither the military commanders in Iraq nor Rumsfeld pretended otherwise. But rather than prepare to increase American forces, Rumsfeld and General John Abizaid, the U.S. commander in the region, searched for stopgaps. One was the John Kerry solution: more foreign troops. Pentagon plans last fall called for the introduction of an additional international division on top of the one currently led by Poland. That second international division never materialized.
The second proposed fix was to build an Iraqi security force capable of filling the gap. Original plans to build a force of 50,000-100,000 within a year were scrapped as too modest. By October, Rumsfeld boasted that up to 200,000 Iraqi forces would be available in a matter of months. In order to accomplish this feat, training schedules were radically shortened, and procedures for vetting Iraqi soldiers and police were loosened. Critics, including this magazine, warned that this hasty assembling of an Iraqi force carried significant risks: Either they would not be capable of fighting in the time allotted, or they would be unreliable. Both unfortunately turned out to be the case. General Abizaid now acknowledges that the Iraqi forces have proved a 'big disappointment.' Many would not fight during the recent violence. Some even defected to the other side.
So the present shortage of troops in Iraq is not a surprise. It was predictable. Without the hoped-for second international division and without a usable force of Iraqis, security in Iraq has fallen almost entirely to an American force too small to handle the job. The stresses we're under now cannot be chalked up to the 'fog of war' or simple bad luck. Last September General Ricardo Sanchez, the top commander in Iraq, was asked if he had enough troops. He responded that he would not have enough to handle a new wave of conflict in Iraq. 'If a militia or an internal conflict of some nature were to erupt,' he told reporters in Baghdad, ' . . . that would be a challenge out there that I do not have sufficient forces for.' Eight months later, that conflict erupted, and, sure enough, there weren't enough troops to handle it.
We need to fix the situation. It would of course have been better to have planned for higher force levels from the beginning, rather than to have to scramble now, calling forces back from well-earned leaves and disrupting rotations. Had the proper number of forces been in place in Iraq from the beginning, some of the recent violence might have been deterred, or suppressed more speedily. Had the proper number of forces been in place, the military would have been able to act more aggressively and thoroughly to disarm, pacify, and secure Iraq. Instead, we tried to keep a lid on things, while terrorists became better organized and militias became stronger. Had the proper number of forces been in place early on, the looting that did so much damage to Iraq's infrastructure might have been stopped, munition dumps could have been secured, economic reconstruction would have moved ahead more easily, and more men and resources could have been devoted to the training of Iraqi soldiers. Perhaps we could even have reduced infiltration from Iran, lessening Tehran's ability to stir up trouble in the south.
Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld famously talks about preparing for the 'unknown unknowns.' Yet the present crisis was hardly unforeseeable, and Rumsfeld did not ensure that the military was prepared to deal with it. He failed to put in place in Iraq a force big enough to handle the challenges at hand. That is a significant failure, and we do not yet know the price that will be paid for it.
The question is whether Rumsfeld and his generals have learned from past mistakes. Or rather, perhaps, the question is whether George W. Bush has learned from Rumsfeld's past mistakes. After all, at the end of the day, it is up to the president to ensure that the success he demands in Iraq will in fact be accomplished. If his current secretary of defense cannot make the adjustments that are necessary, the president should find one who will.