20,000 more U.S. troops in Iraq considered

Bush explores `surge' in military strength

December 17, 2006|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Military planners and White House budget analysts have been asked to provide President Bush with options for increasing U.S. forces in Iraq by 20,000 or more. The request indicates that the option of a major "surge" in troop strength is gaining ground as part of a White House strategy review, senior administration officials said.

Discussion of increasing the number of U.S. troops, at least temporarily, has coursed through Washington for two months, as a possible way to reverse deteriorating security in Baghdad. But the decision to ask the Joint Chiefs of Staff to specify where the additional forces could be found among overstretched Army, Marine and National Guard units, and to seek a cost estimate from the White House Office of Management and Budget, signifies a turn in the debate.

Officials said that the options being considered include the deployment of upwards of 50,000 additional troops, but that the political, training and recruiting obstacles to an increase larger than 20,000 to 30,000 troops would be prohibitive.

About 17,000 U.S. soldiers are actively involved in the effort to secure Baghdad, so even the low end of the proposals being considered by military and budget officials could more than double the size of that force. If adopted, such an increase would be a major departure from the strategy advocated by Gen. George W. Casey Jr., which has stressed stepping up the training of Iraqi forces and handing off to them as soon as possible.

The details of the plan under study by the White House are not known, but in most scenarios the troop increase would be accomplished in large part by accelerating some scheduled deployments while delaying the departure of units in Iraq.

Bush has made no final decision, the White House said. Gordon Johndroe, the National Security Council spokesman, said that no memorandums outlining the options for increasing troop strength have gone to the president. But one senior official said the subject was discussed at length Wednesday during Bush's briefing at the Pentagon, and the president has reportedly asked detailed questions that some officials have interpreted as suggesting he is strongly leaning in that direction.

U.S. military officials said Friday night that the Pentagon is planning to send the 2nd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division to Kuwait in January. The brigade, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., would serve as a reserve that commanders in Iraq could draw on.

U.S. military commanders have been operating without such a reserve since the Marine unit that had been on call was dispatched to Anbar province in western Iraq. The Army brigade could become an element of a larger troop deployment to Iraq if the White House decided to increase troops there.

That option has been central to a broader debate in Washington. Advocates of a troop increase say the aim would be to reverse the slide toward an all-out civil war and give the new Iraqi government more time to consolidate control, while training of Iraqis is stepped up.

At the same time, U.S. and Iraqi forces would try to tamp down strife in neighborhoods that contain Shiites and Sunnis, and to slow insurgent attacks. To be effective, its proponents say, these tactics would need to be married to a broader political and economic strategy to generate employment in Baghdad and stabilize Iraq.

Critics of a surge approach have argued that any U.S. troop increase would lead to more U.S. casualties and merely put off the day when the Iraqis need to assume responsibility for their own security.

There is also concern that the military benefits would be short-lived unless the higher troop levels were sustained for a long period, adding to the strain on U.S. forces. Alternatively, critics say, if the surge in troop levels was too brief, adversaries could simply wait for the reinforcements to leave.

Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, said during a visit to Baghdad last week that U.S. military commanders were discussing the possibility of adding as many as 10 more combat brigades - a maximum of about 35,000 troops - to establish some semblance of control while Iraq's divided political leaders seek solutions to the rising violence.

On Friday, however, one administration official said that additional work was needed to fit a troop increase into the larger strategy, as well as on technical aspects about how the operation would be carried out. "There has not been a full articulation of what we would want the surge to accomplish," he said.

Strikingly, the surge proposal has not been actively promoted by the top commander in Iraq. Casey, the senior U.S. commander in Baghdad, has emphasized faster training of Iraqi security forces, an effort that would be supported by converting existing combat forces into trainers.

Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, has said that the advantages of a surge in troop levels would be temporary, and it might dissuade Iraqis from doing more to provide for their own security.

Some of the chiefs of the services that would supply forces for the surge have spoken about it in hedged terms. "We would not surge without a purpose," Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army Chief of Staff, told reporters Thursday. "And that purpose should be measurable."

Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who is assuming day-to-day command of U.S. troops in Iraq from Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, is said to be sympathetic to the idea.

The surge proposal has gained greater support among recently retired officers who served in Iraq. Two Army veterans who served in the unit that took control of the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005 helped draft a study issued Thursday by the American Enterprise Institute that called for sending an additional four or five additional combat brigades, or 14,000 to 17,500 troops, to Baghdad.

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