Inside The Pentagon
by Elaine M. Grossman
June 14, 2007
Pg. 1

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Vickers calls for ‘indirect’ approach


The White House nominee to become the Pentagon’s top official for special operations anticipates a post-surge strategy for Iraq may be implemented “fairly soon,” potentially involving a significant reduction in deployed U.S. forces and a shift in main emphasis to training and advising Iraqi troops.

Prior to his nomination as the next assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, Michael Vickers was an outspoken critic of relying on an increase in deployed U.S. forces as the central facet of the Bush administration’s Iraq strategy. He met with President Bush on two occasions last year, in private session, to offer his counsel on the way ahead in Iraq.

Vickers currently directs strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. He is a former Green Beret and CIA operations officer who, during the 1980s, directed a covert operation to arm and train the mujaheddin and ultimately drive the Soviet army out of Afghanistan.

“The security situation is inextricably linked to politics,” he said during a Dec. 12 appearance on the “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” on PBS, prior to the surge of more than 20,000 additional forces to Iraq. “If you can solve some of the Iraqi political problems, the security situation becomes manageable. If you can’t . . . all the forces in the world aren’t going to change that.”

Instead, Vickers has called for moving more expeditiously to hand off security responsibilities to the Iraqis, a change he says might win bipartisan consensus at home. And, analysts say, such a change could require dramatically fewer American troops stationed in Iraq.

The Washington Post reported June 10 that U.S. military officials in Iraq anticipate moving to just such a force posture, beginning by the middle of next year and resulting in a pull-out of about two-thirds of the currently deployed 150,000 U.S. troops by early 2009.

An early effort by Gen. George Casey and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad to transfer more authority to the Iraqis is now widely regarded as having been premature (Inside the Pentagon, May 31, p1).

But in an upcoming change, a reduced U.S. force could remain in Iraq for years, a “go long” strategy some colonels advising the U.S. military headquarters in Baghdad first proposed during a secret Joint Staff study last year, the Post reported (ITP, Nov. 9, 2006, p1).

During Vickers’ June 12 confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, no members of the panel raised the nominee’s past critiques of the Iraq strategy or his alternative recommendations.

After the lawmakers adjourned, Vickers was asked if the recent upticks in Iraq violence suggest the surge approach is failing and a transition to his strategy is now in order.

“I am a strong proponent [of the idea] that, fundamentally, the Iraqis must win the Iraq war and that we can support them,” Vickers told ITP.

“And that support will most likely be sustained by an indirect approach over the longer term.”

In special operations lexicon, an “indirect” approach typically includes training and advising local forces, supporting allies with intelligence, and winning hearts and minds through information campaigns and reconstruction efforts. By contrast, a “direct” approach involves combat operations, which remain the centerpiece of U.S. military activity in Iraq today.

In Vickers’ view, the United States should at least double the approximately 3,200 forces advising Iraqi security forces; improve the caliber of U.S. troops assigned to that mission; and concentrate more effort on training the Iraqi police.

“If you look at our advisory effort in Iraq compared to previous efforts, it’s been far more ad hoc, lower quality, lower numbers,”

Vickers told the “NewsHour.”

“I don’t want to underestimate the difficulty of the problem, but if Iraq is to hold together, this is the only viable path that I see,” he said.

By comparison, the United States had 16,000 advisers in South Vietnam by the end of the war, where the national population was 17 million, he noted in his December interview. Iraq has more than 27 million people, according to a recent CIA estimate.

The Washington Post article quotes Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of day-to-day operations in Iraq, saying a reduced American presence could include roughly 10,000 troops to train and advise Iraqi forces.

Vickers also seeks a more competent training initiative. The ad hoc nature of the effort to transition security responsibilities to Iraqis is reflected in the Pentagon’s lackluster approach to the quality of trainers to date, he suggests.

Those officers and troops assigned to train foreign militaries are not typically the first up for promotion, thus the mission specialty has not attracted the cream of the crop, he told the “NewsHour” last year.

“Is this a centrally selected position, rather than a ‘hey you’ position?” he asked. Currently, it’s a matter of “you’ll do” rather than “you’re our best guy and you’re competing for this job,” he said. “And that’s where we need to move to over time. . . . We’re not there yet.”

This week, Vickers insisted he is not anti-surge, but simply recognizes the limitations of boosting troop presence. He cited a finding of the Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Lee Hamilton (D-IN), noting one unnamed general’s assessment “that adding U.S. troops might temporarily help limit violence in a highly localized area.”

The major conclusion of the report, though, was that the United States should condition its military, economic and political support on the Iraqi government’s progress toward achieving milestones in security, reconciliation and governance.

Transition to a more indirect approach of advising the nascent Iraqi army and police “doesn’t mean you can’t have a temporary surge to achieve some temporary effect,” Vickers told ITP this week. “It’s just that, fundamentally, the indirect approach will have to dominate after the surge is done.”

Vickers told the committee this week the political progress is not yet there.

“One of the worrisome signs right now, besides the lack of progress on the essential political front,” Vickers said at the hearing, “is that sectarian identities are hardening and have continued to harden, and therefore the link between military operations and political outcome is not having the full effect at this point in time that we would all hope for.”

When does he anticipate surged forces might be drawn down?

“That point is probably coming fairly soon,” Vickers volunteered. He declined to offer specifics.

Defense officials regard Vickers’ nomination as likely to receive bipartisan support in a committee vote within the next two weeks.

Confirmation by the full Senate is anticipated shortly thereafter.

A move to Vickers’ Plan B might offer political appeal for both Democrats and Republicans in Congress as they near the 2008 elections.

While Democrats have been pushing a reluctant Bush to set a withdrawal timetable, even Republicans have been hinting that a lack of progress attributable to the surge will make it harder for them to continue their support for current force levels. The senior U.S. officer in Iraq, Gen.

David Petraeus, is expected to issue a status report in September.

Describing the force surge as a necessary “stopgap” to prevent the break-up of Iraq following a 2006 spike in sectarian violence, Vickers told ITP the strategy has demonstrated “partial” benefit. One such benefit, he contends, is the growth of security in Anbar province as U.S. officials have cultivated the support of Sunni tribes. Despite some qualms in Washington and Baghdad about arming warring factions, U.S. officials say the Anbar model is now being pursued across Iraq (ITP, June 7, p1).

“But the political reconciliation and other aspects are lagging behind military operations,” Vickers said in the brief interview this week.

“That’s why Adm. Fallon and Amb. Crocker are working so hard,” he said, referring to the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Adm. William Fallon, and the U.S. envoy to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker.

An Iraqi failure to capitalize on U.S. efforts at pacification with political progress of their own is what may well trigger the Bush administration’s movement to the post-surge phase, according to defense analysts.

Vickers hinted at potential changes on the horizon in written responses to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee, released this week.

Listed first among his “overarching priorities” for the new job would be to “ensure that the warfighting capabilities under my oversight are used in the most effective way possible to achieve favorable outcomes in Iraq, Afghanistan and the broader global war on terrorism,” according to the document.

—Elaine M. Grossman

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