Debate Grows Over Beefing Up U.S. Force in Iraq

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has moved to run for president in 2008, said that
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has moved to run for president in 2008, said that "without additional combat forces, we will not win this war." (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)
By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 17, 2006

The debate about how to proceed in Iraq, which in the past few months has focused on withdrawing U.S. troops, now includes serious discussion about adding more forces to the fight.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) repeatedly suggested this week that the United States needs thousands more troops in Iraq, and members of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group have discussed similar ideas as they prepare a much-anticipated policy recommendation. Members of Congress raised the concept on Wednesday in hearings with the region's top U.S. military commander.

In a speech last night to Republicans, McCain, who is considering a presidential bid in 2008, reiterated his desire for more troops to solve a "dire" situation.

"Without additional combat forces, we will not win this war," McCain said, describing inadequate U.S. troop numbers to clear insurgent strongholds, stem sectarian violence and train Iraqi security forces. "We need to do all these things if we are to succeed. And we will need more troops to do them."

Military officials and defense experts, however, said yesterday that significantly escalating the number of U.S. combat troops in Iraq is largely implausible because it would severely strain the military, would be unsustainable for more than a few months and would offer no discernable long-term benefit.

On Wednesday, Gen. John P. Abizaid, who leads the U.S. Central Command, testified on Capitol Hill that he believes sending in a large contingent of infantry troops would be a mistake, in part because it could dissuade Iraqi troops from taking the lead in security operations. Abizaid said he plans over coming months to introduce a more robust training effort -- involving additional U.S. trainers and advisers to help boost the numbers and capabilities of Iraqi forces -- so Iraq can defend its homeland and thus transition toward a U.S. exit.

"It's easy for the Iraqis to rely upon us to do this work," Abizaid said. "I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future."

About 140,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq, many stationed in the areas around Baghdad where violence has been most severe. Military officials said yesterday that a boost of 20,000 infantry troops -- five or six brigades -- would do little to change the nature of the insurgency or the sectarian strife and that commanders are not considering such a move.

"If you put 20,000 soldiers in Baghdad, they can provide a modicum of security where they have a physical presence," said a military officer familiar with discussions on the matter. "We could flex and bend, and we could do a spike. But we can't do a steady state with that many more troops. Additional troops could do a particular job for a finite period of time, but that doesn't solve the long-term problem of holding those areas."

Military officials and experts said yesterday that they think such a plan could work only temporarily because the Army and Marine Corps are stretched thin by ongoing conflicts. They said a large number of troops sent into Iraq would be hard to sustain over time without dipping significantly into the National Guard and reserves.

The argument for increasing troop numbers is that it might stop the cycle of violence and thus halt Iraq's drift toward civil war. The problem is that military analysts say there are not enough forces available to do that.

Under the troop-to-population ratios used in historical counterinsurgency campaigns, some of which had aspects of civil wars, the United States and its allies in Iraq would need at least 500,000 and perhaps more than 1 million troops, military experts say. No one thinks those numbers will be available anytime soon, even if the training of Iraqis is greatly expanded and accelerated.

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