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."
In terms of the fighting, the question may be academic. "There isn't much more land power available for use in Iraq and Afghanistan," retired Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, a former Army chief of staff, recently commented. "We are now 'all in' " -- that is, in poker terms, the U.S. armed forces have put all their chips on the table.
That view underscores the question of the reliability and combat effectiveness of Iraqi security forces. Essentially, any additional combat power is going to have to come largely from them, as will the capability to "hold" large areas outside the capital.
"The Iraqi security forces will be able to sustain and continue to improve their ability to maintain security," Odierno predicted. "They are staying and fighting. They are taking casualties."
But other officers report that the Iraqi forces themselves are not big enough and also have a mixed record in combat. Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who oversaw training and advising efforts there until this month, said in recent congressional testimony that Iraqi units are improving but "do not have tactical staying power."
"For the control and retain phases, we will need reliable Iraqi security forces in sufficient numbers," said Lt. Col. Douglas A. Ollivant, a senior Army planner in Baghdad. "There are clearly not yet enough reliable forces."
Iraqi security forces are "the weak link," said counterinsurgency expert Krepinevich. The Iraqi government is so factionalized that Iraqi forces remain largely ineffective, he explained: "This is the principal weak spot in our strategy -- and I'm afraid it may be fatal."
A senior commander in Iraq, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that U.S. plans do not call for holding cleared areas. Rather he said, the "Battle of the Baghdad Belts," as some in the military call the new offensive, is a series of raids designed to reduce attacks on the capital and thus support the main effort, which is to improve the security of Baghdad's population.
"This is about interdicting the accelerants of al-Qaeda," Odierno said yesterday. "I mean the truck bombs, the car bombs, the chlorine bombs that they try to do in order to harass the population and try to affect the confidence in the government of Iraq. These are the attacks that we are trying to prevent."
In their first week, the new operations have resulted in the capture of more than 700 detainees, the killing of 160 insurgents, and the uncovering of hundreds of weapons caches and bombs, Odierno said.
Terry Daly, a retired U.S. government expert in counterinsurgency, said that if Phantom Thunder is indeed a short-term aggressive action intended to kill insurgents who have attacked the capital and to remove their rural strongholds, then he thinks it is the right move. "This is not more of the same-old, same-old futile search-and-destroy, but rather an operational raid" to help improve security in Baghdad, he said. "As such it is skilled American generalship, which we haven't seen in a long time, and which looks good."
Even so, some insiders worry that the new push will still prove to be too little, too late. "We have lost the fight for public and political support, so no matter how successful we are militarily, we are being led to failure," said one U.S. intelligence expert involved in Iraqi operations.
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.