Iraq Push Revives Criticism of Force Size

C Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment soldiers carry injured colleagues to a medical center at the base in eastern Baghdad after an bomb destroyed a Bradley fighting vehicle, killing five U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter.
C Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment soldiers carry injured colleagues to a medical center at the base in eastern Baghdad after an bomb destroyed a Bradley fighting vehicle, killing five U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter. (By Rick Kozak -- Associated Press)

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By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 23, 2007

The major U.S. offensive launched last weekend against insurgents in and around Baghdad has significantly expanded the military's battleground in Iraq -- "a surge of operations," and no longer just of troops, as the second-ranking U.S. commander there said yesterday -- but it has renewed concerns about whether even the bigger U.S. troop presence there is large enough.

As the U.S. offensive, code-named Phantom Thunder, has been greeted with a week of intensified fighting in areas outside the capital -- areas that the U.S. military has largely left untouched for as long as three years -- the push raised fears from security experts and officers in the field that the new attacks might simply propel the enemy from one area to another where there are not as many U.S. troops.

Since President Bush ordered the troop increase in January, the military had focused on creating a more secure environment in Baghdad. "We are beyond a surge of forces," Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said yesterday in a briefing from his headquarters in the Iraqi capital. He did not directly address the size of the force, saying only that the addition of 30,000 U.S. troops over five months "allows us to operate in areas where we have not been for a long time."

Retired Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, who in 2003 was among the first to call public attention to the relatively small size of the U.S. invasion force, said that the new operation shows how outnumbered U.S. troops remain. "Why would we think that a temporary presence of 30,000 additional combat troops in a giant city would change the dynamics of a bitter civil war?" he said in an interview yesterday. "It's a fool's errand."

An officer working in Arrowhead Ripper, the subsidiary offensive in Diyala province, said wearily, "We just do not have the forces in country right now to have the appropriate level of presence across the country."

Many counterinsurgency experts agree. Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., the director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a national security think tank, said flatly that Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, does not have enough troops. "I suspect General Petraeus is taking a risk here, but that's what commanders do," he said.

The issue of the number of troops has dogged the Bush administration and its generals since before the war began. Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, then secretary of state, told Gen. Tommy R. Franks in September 2002 -- seven months before the U.S. invasion -- there were not enough troops in the war plan. Most famously, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, then the Army's chief of staff, told a congressional hearing a month before the assault that the plan did not call for a sufficiently large occupation force.

Yet some who were sharply critical of the Bush administration back then judge the situation in another way now. "I think it is different -- better planned, and tied to the operations in Baghdad," said retired Army Maj. Gen. William L. Nash. He still maintains that the U.S. presence is at least 50,000 soldiers short but said that at least now "the troops we do have are being used economically and are being directed towards specific, important objectives."

Frederick W. Kagan, a military historian at the American Enterprise Institute who was involved in developing the plans for the recent troop increase, was more emphatic. "They have been very deliberate in setting conditions, including establishing both our forces and Iraqi forces in key areas and developing intelligence and trust relationships, including with some former insurgents, and these developments will facilitate the operation greatly," he said. "So I think that we have enough troops to get the level of violence down dramatically with this and successive operations."

But some officers in Iraq sharply disagreed with the assertion that the United States finally has enough personnel to bring security to the country. "I believe we have enough U.S. troops for this specific operation," said a U.S. military strategist there, referring to Phantom Thunder. "I do not believe we've ever had enough troops to do all of the tasks we should be doing in Iraq."

One of Petraeus's nerviest gambles is that enemy fighters will not be able to move and disrupt other areas. The biggest concern for U.S. commanders is the big northern city of Mosul, where insurgents counterattacked the last time the U.S. military conducted an operation this size, in November 2004. That is especially worrisome because the United States now has only one battalion of about 1,000 troops stationed there, far fewer than were there then.

U.S. commanders are keeping a wary eye on that city. "That one U.S. battalion in Mosul is getting a lot of help from the [Special Operations Forces] community that is obviously not highlighted," the U.S. strategist in Iraq noted. "We're still concerned, but you have to accept risk somewhere."


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