More troops not solution to Iraq crisis, experts say

October 01, 2006|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON -- Renewed allegations that the White House and Pentagon blundered by not deploying sufficient troops in Iraq to deal with the aftermath of the 2003 invasion swarmed around the administration this weekend, stirred by publication of Bob Woodward's new book, State of Denial.

More than four years of combat in Iraq have left 2,711 Americans dead and 20,568 wounded. Today, with the 147,000 American troops deployed there apparently unable to stem a widening and increasingly bloody sectarian war, the issues raised in Woodward's book are adding fuel to a bitter election-year debate about the Bush administration's conduct of the war.

But while the debate swirls, some hard-eyed military officers and analysts assessing the situation in Iraq conclude that it would be difficult and costly to scrape up enough troops to raise levels in Iraq significantly and that even raising troop levels now might not work.

"We keep confusing troop levels with the fact that there was no plan for stability operations, no commitment in terms of aid, no understanding of the political challenges," said Anthony H. Cordesman, who is senior strategist at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies and generally regarded as Washington's senior independent analyst. "The critical mistake wasn't one of troop levels, although I think if there had been a plan it would have called for significantly more troops and a longer troop presence."

Eventual success depends not just on the number of deployed troops, Cordesman said, but on whether their presence "is buying the time for reconciliation and effective governance and building the kind of Iraqi security forces that can take over the job - or not. This is a very high-risk operation where the odds of success are even at best."

Arguing over troop levels in Iraq "is a nice debate to have, but it doesn't have a bearing on the real world," said Michael O'Hanlon, military analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. The military is already under such strain that "we don't have that option."

"The time for more American troops is clearly over," said Thomas E. Ricks, author of Fiasco, a best-selling history of the war. "There aren't any more troops available."

The size of the force needed for the Iraq war was a contentious issue even before 90,000 American troops lanced across the Kuwait-Iraq border in March 2003 in pursuit of Saddam Hussein. The Army's first estimate, that 400,000 to 450,000 would be needed for the occupation, was extrapolated from its peacekeeping experience in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. But that plan was rejected by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, according to the memoirs of retired Gen. Tommy Franks, the top U.S. commander at the time.

Before 2003 was out, rising violence prompted senior U.S. officials in Baghdad to press Washington for more troops, requests that went unanswered. Woodward reports that in the early summer of 2003, James Dobbins, a senior U.S. diplomat with long experience in the postwar Balkans and elsewhere, drew up a plan calling for 500,000 troops, a staggering increase over the 148,900 troops then deployed in Iraq. His plan was forwarded to Washington. There was no response, Woodward wrote.

Despite optimistic White House and Pentagon assurances of progress in Iraq, top aides and commanders were increasingly worried that the country was sliding out of control, and top Bush aides mounted two efforts to oust Rumsfeld, Woodward reported.

"If we have a military strategy, I can't identify it," complained then-deputy national scurity adviser Stephen J. Hadley, according to Woodward's book. "I don't know what's worse - that they [the Pentagon] have one and won't tell us or that they don't have one."

By late last year, even the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. John Abizaid, was fed up. "Rumsfeld doesn't have any credibility anymore," he remarked to a friend, in Woodward's account.

Today, there is rising anger and frustration among top American officers whose concern is two-fold: the risk of permanent damage to the U.S. military the longer the war drags on, and concern that despite tactical military success against insurgents, not enough is being done politically to prevent Iraq from sliding into chaos. Many are concerned, as well, that the burden of the war is falling unfairly on a small number of volunteers.

"There are a lot of good people out there in terrible stress and danger, because the judgments of our national leaders have been faulty," one three-star officer said privately last week. "You come back here and people just don't have a clue."

The continuing demand for troops in Iraq has wrecked the Army's plan to sustain troop rotations indefinitely by rotating combat brigades through Iraq on one 12-month tour every three years. That would enable battered units to return home for refitting and retraining and then to serve for 18 months as part of the U.S. strategic reserve, John Medve, senior Army war planner, said in a recent interview.

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