Inside The Pentagon
by Elaine M. Grossman
November 3, 2005
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New Bush Strategy In Iraq Will Aim To Shield Public From Insurgents
The Bush administration is readying a major change to its military strategy in Iraq that will aim to better protect local populations from insurgent attack, according to U.S. officials. The planned shift reflects growing White House alarm about increased violence in Iraq and a deeper recognition that ending the insurgency will depend heavily on popular Iraqi support, these sources tell Inside the Pentagon.
For the time being, U.S. forces will continue to lead battles to rid insurgents from their strongholds in Iraq. But a new aspect of the military strategy will be to use Iraqi army troops and tribal militias to patrol those areas that have been cleared of guerrilla fighters, according to U.S. officials.
“Our military folks are considering adding ‘area security’ to the set of goals that inform the military strategy for winning the war in Iraq and for transferring responsibilities to the Iraqis,” the U.S. ambassador to that nation, Zalmay Khalilzad, told ITP this week. The envoy spoke during a Nov. 1 interview in Washington, sandwiched between meetings at the Pentagon and White House.
This is the second major change the Bush team has made to the military strategy in Iraq this year. Last spring, U.S. military leaders touted their decision to make training new Iraqi security forces the highest priority, with fighting insurgents dropping to a secondary focus.
But since then, insurgent attacks have risen to a weekly average of 600 -- twice the level from early last year -- and U.S. casualties in the war have surpassed 2,000. Nearly 100 Americans were killed in Iraq in October, the highest monthly casualties since January.
Though there is growing political pressure on the administration to begin drawing down the 138,000 U.S. forces in the restive nation, President Bush has vowed troops will come home only after the Iraqi security and political environment has improved. But speaking on PBS’
“NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” last week, Khalilzad said he believes “we are on the right track to start significant reductions in the coming year.”
Over the past few months, some uniformed officers have complained privately that the military strategy seemed adrift, lacking clear objectives or measurable progress. Military commanders in different sectors of Iraq have been left to improvise tactical objectives in fighting the insurgency, sources say.
The result, says one U.S. officer in the region, has been “chaos and confusion -- and anything but an effective counterinsurgency strategy.”
This officer and others spoke on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. military focus essentially has been to keep a lid on the insurgency, transfer security responsibilities to the new Iraqi army and lay the groundwork for the eventual withdrawal of American forces, according to several uniformed personnel in Iraq.
But those objectives do “not even address defeating the insurgency,” says one officer. “You have to reconcile the difference between stated policy and actual operations.”
To do that, experts in counterinsurgency warfare have been urging Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his top generals in Iraq to shift their focus away from hunting down and killing insurgents, emphasizing instead an effort to better protect the population from attacks.
Estimates are that more than 25,000 Iraqi civilians have lost their lives to violence in the Persian Gulf nation since the U.S.-led march to Baghdad in spring 2003. The continued instability has seriously hampered political and economic development, according to experts and officials in the region.
Many agree that safeguarding cities and towns across Iraq would require legions more troops on foot patrol. Keenly aware of existing strains on Army and Marine Corps personnel, Rumsfeld and his top military brass have repeatedly resisted calls for additional forces in Iraq.
As recently as five weeks ago, Army Gen. George Casey -- the top U.S. military officer in Iraq -- was defending the existing military approach as “a strategy based on proven counterinsurgency principles.” He told the Senate Armed Services Committee in late September the U.S. military was already attempting to isolate the population from insurgents “across Iraq,” and said there was “a misperception that all we’re doing is running around, chasing people and trying to kill them.”
Casey sent a team of officers and military analysts out across Iraq in late summer to review the military strategy. The group “came back and said that they generally have it about right,” the general testified before the committee on Sept. 29.
But a separate, secret review performed in August and September for Khalilzad found that the American military and its allies can only hope to quell the insurgency by significantly expanding secure areas of Iraq, officials say.
So it is the new ambassador -- with the full backing of President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- who is now leading the push to make area security a central feature of the military strategy in Iraq, other defense officials and diplomats tell ITP.
More effectively protecting Iraqi cities and towns will allow “people to side [with us] without fear, in terms of voting or in terms of political activity,” says one U.S. official in the region.
Casey will be directed to establish concrete benchmarks for U.S. and coalition forces to secure specific areas of Iraq along set time lines, according to officials in Washington and Baghdad.
Under the new approach, “everyone -- the soldiers and the civilians and the political leaders -- all can see that not only the measure of merit is how many troops you’ve trained, but also there are these areas that have been cleared of the insurgents [where] people can begin to lead normal lives,” says one source.
Time lines also will be set up to guide the transfer of security responsibilities to Iraqis, but they will be based on conditions rather than tied to specific dates, officials say.
Influential members of Congress -- including Sen. Carl Levin (MI), the most senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee -- have urged the administration to make clearer to Iraqi leaders that U.S. forces will not be there indefinitely and that they must take greater responsibility for resolving their internal political differences peacefully.
At the panel’s September hearing, Casey implied Khalilzad had not communicated that message forcefully to his Iraqi counterparts.
But the results of the ambassador’s secret “Red Team” review may ultimately have that effect.
Convened in late July during Khalilzad’s second month as the U.S. emissary to Baghdad, the Red Team was headed by trusted aides to the ambassador and included U.S. and allied military and intelligence officials working in Iraq, officials say. Briefed in August by Casey’s top staff officers for strategy, intelligence and operations, the team studied what was known about adversary cells in Iraq and what it might take to “break the back of the insurgency,” according to one official familiar with the group’s work.
The Red Team reportedly recommended a three-part change in focus for the new ambassador, who succeeded John Negroponte in June: First, the U.S. military must continue training Iraqi security forces and ensure the fledgling army, police and border guards earn the trust of the population.
Second, the U.S.-led armed forces must find and strike insurgents where they operate, and ensure those areas do not backslide into insurgent control.
And third, amid estimates that about 90 percent of the insurgency are Sunni Muslim Iraqis, it will be critical to draw the Sunni population and its leaders into the political process and attempt to distance them from extremists, according to those familiar with the Red Team’s classified report.
With training for the Iraqis and increased engagement with Sunni leaders already under way, “what’s added is, in particular, to put more emphasis on securing areas after a strike,” explained one official.
That move appears to draw significantly from advice Khalilzad heard last spring, as he prepared for his Baghdad post, in a briefing delivered by longtime Washington defense analyst Andrew Krepinevich. The administration should adopt an “oil-spot strategy” in Iraq that would “concentrate on providing security and opportunity to the Iraqi people, thereby denying insurgents the popular support they need,” Krepinevich wrote subsequently in the journal Foreign Affairs.
“Since the U.S. and Iraqi armies cannot guarantee security to all of Iraq simultaneously, they should start by focusing on certain key areas and then, over time, broadening the effect -- hence the image of an expanding oil spot,” wrote Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
To accomplish that strategy without boosting U.S. force levels in Iraq, the Bush team will turn more to local troops than it has done in the past.
In a recent interview with Newsweek, Khalilzad cited tribes like Albu Mahal in western Iraq, which have vowed to take on fighters loyal to Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other jihadists.
“There [are] also some forces that can be made from the tribes or from local areas that could be attached to the [Iraqi] military forces, that can complement or supplement or add to the existing, more formal forces,” one U.S. official tells ITP. These tribal militias may be trained as a form of national guard authorized by the Iraqi ministry of defense, the official says.
U.S. and Iraqi military leaders have already begun cultivating tribal fighters for this purpose, but with mixed results, according to some officials in the region.
“The issue is getting them to fight insurgents outside their tribal area and for us to be aware of their hidden agendas. . . . So far, the tribal engagement strategy from a military standpoint has not [done] what it was advertised [to do],” says one officer in Iraq. “The other issue is, what do you do with an armed militia after [its] purpose has been achieved? We have never been very good at demobilization.”
U.S. forces in Iraq will also participate in civil-military “provincial reconstruction teams” -- a tool Khalilzad used previously as ambassador to Afghanistan -- beginning with three such groups to be established by the end of the month (see sidebar).
The military prong of the administration’s revised strategy is part of an effort to “rebalance” the instruments of power in Iraq -- which include political, economic, cultural and diplomatic tools -- according to U.S. officials.
The new approach will attempt to increase U.S. political engagement inside the nation as well as with Iraq’s neighbors, officials say.
Once implemented, the changes may diminish the public limelight on the military occupation and more effectively address the root causes of the insurgency, according to some officials and experts.
The military must contribute to the counterinsurgency strategy “but shouldn’t be the lead instrument in that regard,” says retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold. “And they find themselves in the lead.”
But some question whether the changes may come too late to make a difference.
Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq by “haiba,” an Arabic term for a combination of respect and intimidation, says Hisham Melhem, a Middle East expert and correspondent for the Lebanese daily newspaper An-Nahar.
When Iraqis saw looting go unpunished shortly after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, “they realized instantly they could challenge the Americans without generating the kind of wrath Saddam imposed on them. Many Iraqis felt the United States had lost its haiba,” Melhem says. “It is very difficult to recover that lost haiba, that prestige or respect.”
—Elaine M. Grossam