When history tallies the list of American mistakes in Iraq, sending too few troops to do the job will be near the top. Today, the past is proving prologue.
In April 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s three-division, invasion-lite force was too small to impose order across Iraq, or even in Baghdad, after Saddam Hussein’s army and regime collapsed in three weeks.
Through the remainder of 2003, there were too few American troops to snuff out a belatedly recognized Sunni insurgency before it grew big enough to endure — for years.
From 2004 through 2005, there were never enough American troops in Iraq to implement a full-scale clear-and-hold strategy, sometimes dubbed "spreading ink spots," the only proven way to defeat an entrenched insurgency.
Now, in 2006, the insurgency is compounded by Sunni versus Shiite mayhem that is killing thousands of Iraqis, mostly civilians, each month. Again, the 140,000 American troops now in Iraq are too few to accomplish the multiple tasks at hand: provide security in conflict areas, defeat the insurgency with offensive operations and dampen Iraq’s murderous civil strife.
The current focal point of this multidimensional maelstrom is Baghdad itself. Anthony Cordesman and other expert analysts judge that winning the Battle of Baghdad won’t win the Iraq war but losing it could well doom the American mission to failure. If U.S. forces and their Iraqi government allies cannot assert enough control over Iraq’s sprawling capital city to restore order and stop the bloodbath, the American effort in Iraq could be staring at defeat.
Clearly, the stakes in Baghdad couldn’t be higher.
To fight this battle, the U.S. Army has pulled units totaling two brigades plus smaller formations from northern and western Iraq into the capital. That’s an infusion of about 15,000 U.S. combat troops augmented by several tens of thousands of Iraqi army and police forces of decidedly uneven quality.
Their task is Herculean. Baghdad is huge — 5 million people spread over 250 square miles. It’s an ethnically mixed city with predominantly Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods alongside each other. It’s a city awash in weaponry and riven by the sectarian hatreds that threaten to tear Iraq apart. Car bombs and death squads from Sunni and Shiite militias exact a grisly daily toll of murdered Iraqis.
To fight this decisive battle for Baghdad on which Iraq’s fate may hang, the U.S. military command has strained to provide reinforcements totaling less than half the size of the New York City Police Department.
Few if any military professionals believe this is sufficient to pacify Baghdad. Success requires painstaking security operations conducted neighborhood by neighborhood. As each area is meticulously searched and secured, enough forces must be left in place to keep it secured. Manifestly, there are not enough troops to do this.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army forces withdrawn from northern and western Iraq leave insurgents in those areas freer to regroup and attack anew.
Last month, the senior commander of U.S. forces in western Iraq made a startling admission. Marine Maj. Gen. Richard C. Zilmer told reporters at his headquarters in Fallujah that he had enough troops to train and develop the Iraqi security forces but not enough to defeat the insurgency.
"If the mission statement changes, if there is seen a larger role for coalition forces out here to win that insurgency fight, then that is going to change the metrics of what we need out here," Zilmer said.
Gen. Zilmer’s blunt words followed the leak of an even more pessimistic classified Marine intelligence assessment of Anbar Province, a vast hotbed of the Sunni insurgency stretching from Baghdad to the Syrian border. The report, written by Zilmer’s subordinate, Marine Col. Pete Devlin, said the security situation in Anbar Province would continue to deteriorate unless the region gets major infusions of aid and substantially more U.S. troops.
In effect, Devlin’s report said U.S. and Iraqi forces in Anbar had lost the all-important political struggle for the province and that the security situation was deteriorating accordingly.
Counterinsurgency warfare is predominantly a political struggle: 80 percent political and 20 percent military is a commonly cited ratio applying to the war in Iraq. That means the ultimate success or failure of the American mission in Iraq depends heavily on whether Iraq’s democratically elected government can resolve the country’s sectarian divisions, deliver basic services and govern effectively.
But that still leaves an irreducible military component, that 20 percent or so factor. Lose that struggle and even a much more effective Iraqi government and its American ally could still lose this war.
Counterinsurgency warfare is inherently manpower-intensive. Rumsfeld’s preoccupation with high-tech, information-age warfare is no substitute for boots on the ground. Wavering populations in Iraq won’t rally to our side if we can’t provide them basic security. Until more of the new Iraqi army and police forces are combat ready, properly equipped and fully capable, providing that security will depend substantially on having enough U.S. and coalition forces on the ground.
President Bush insists that Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism. If so, he should be willing to provide an indispensable requirement for winning that war — enough troops in Iraq.