Thursday, December 14, 2006

It is increasingly clear that, absent a major change of direction, the United States could suffer a catastrophic defeat in Iraq. The debate over U.S. policy in Iraq has deteriorated into discussion of competing formulas for failure: 1) beginning to withdraw in the next four to six months, as incoming Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin suggests; 2) the Baker-Hamilton panel’s plan to try to negotiate with Iran and Syria while withdrawing most combat troops by sometime in 2008; and 3) adopting the plan formulated by Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the outgoing top U.S. ground commander, to slash combat forces as soon as the spring of 2007, to move approximately half of the 15 U.S. combat brigades in Iraq away from fighting and into training Iraqi security forces. All of these plans go in the wrong direction. In the coming months, an increase of almost 25,000 troops will probably be necessary in order to stabilize Baghdad, where violence is spinning out of control.

The Pentagon’s preferred alternative is getting the parties to achieve a political solution in Iraq while turning security responsibilities over to Iraqis as rapidly as possible. But the violence now enveloping Baghdad is just the latest manifestation of what is wrong with the current Pentagon approach. For the past three years, U.S. commanders have repeatedly tried to reduce American troop levels in Iraq and turn responsibilities over to the Iraqis. Each time, however, reality has intervened and forced U.S. generals to go in the opposite direction: maintaining or increasing force levels. It is also time to be honest with ourselves and realize that the political process is doomed to failure unless the Islamofascists can be defeated militarily. In the short run, this means that a larger American military presence is the only way to stabilize lawless neighborhoods of Baghdad and to protect Iraqis from the predations of terrorists and gangsters. While we agree on the need to step up efforts to train Iraqi troops to be able to control their own country, starting with Baghdad, there is no serious possibility that they will be able to do so on their own anytime soon.

As former Army vice chief of staff Gen. Jack Keane — a friend and confidant of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who disagrees with the secretary’s reluctance to send more troops — pointed out yesterday in remarks at the American Enterprise Institute, 35 percent of the soldiers in Iraq’s army are absent from their units at any given time. The Iraqi police, heavily penetrated by militias, are in far worse shape, and transforming them into a competent force could take years of training. Instead of pretending that Iraqis will soon be capable of substituting for their American counterparts on the battlefield, it makes far more sense — as Gen. Keane urges — to give the Iraqis the combat experience they will need fighting alongside a strengthened U.S. combat force.

Yesterday, a task force, including Gen. Keane and headed by AEI resident scholar Frederick Kagan, issued an “interim report” containing a series of recommendations that sound far more likely to lead to victory than the current Pentagon approach. It would involve sending in an additional 25,000 troops to stabilize Baghdad, with a focus on rooting out Sunni terrorist groups. The mission would be gradually expanded to the northern and western sections of the country. After success was achieved in dealing with the Sunnis, Gen. Keane and his colleagues say that Washington would be in a far stronger position to press the Iraqi government to deal with Shi’ite militias — with the understanding that we would act if the Iraqi government did not. This will be painful, but it can be achieved. Mr. Kagan says the entire operation, which could require 32,000 troops, could be accomplished by extending tours for U.S. ground forces, the Marine Corps and National Guard units.

The plan would also have to be accompanied by a substantial reconstruction plan — one that would provide additional assistance to neighborhoods where violence has ended. Although many of the specific details have yet to be worked out, the Keane-Kagan proposal looks to be a much more plausible starting point for achieving victory than the proposed alternatives.

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