Exploring U.S. Strategy in Iraq

Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Military Reporter
Friday, July 6, 2007 12:00 PM

Over the last three months, tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops have been deployed to Iraq in what some U.S. officials have called a "last chance" effort to stabilize the country. The shift in strategy has pushed U.S. forces deeper into Baghdad neighborhoods and created more outpost positions, which U.S. troops occupy together with Iraqi soldiers. While violence has decreased in Baghdad and Anbar province, where the bulk of the additional forces are concentrated, it has increased elsewhere in Iraq.

Videos: Baghdad Tour (washingtonpost.com, July 6)

Post military reporter Ann Scott Tyson has been covering the U.S. strategy in Iraq and will be online Friday, July 6, at Noon ET to answer reader questions.

The transcript follows.

Get recent articles by Tyson.


Takoma Park, Md.: Thanks for answering our questions. There have been news reports in the past couple of days about yet another investigation of possible Marine involvement in the deaths of Iraqis, this time eight prisoners. Last year there were at least two cases involving civilian deaths. In all three incidents, the Marines were from Camp Pendleton. My questions is, how can this happen? I have read Nathaniel Fick's "One Bullet Away" and was struck by the rigorous training Marines undergo. If these men are so highly trained, how does the discipline collapse? I know that the Marines are not the only branch of the military involved in such things, but they do take pride in their discipline. Are the Marines accepting marginal recruits because they are under pressure to meet goals, and this is one of the consequences? Or is there something else going on?

washingtonpost.com: Marines face new probe over eight Iraq deaths (Reuters, July 5)

Ann Scott Tyson: In general, I believe U.S. troops show a lot of restraint in combat -- but the age, maturity and experience levels of the forces do play a role. The Marines tend to be a younger force by design, and may be more vulnerable to overreacting in some situations. Having said that, such abuses remain relatively rare.


Wheaton, Md.: Is it safe to assume that if the U.S. troops leave, then the Iraqi terrorists will take over, especially as that is exactly what just happened in the Gaza strip after the Israeli withdrawal?

Ann Scott Tyson: If all U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq rapidly, I do not believe that the Iraqi government or security forces would be able to prevent the outbreak of greater violence, including sectarian violence, and efforts by extremist groups to take control, particularly in certain regions.


Washington, D.C.: President Bush and Vice President Cheney constantly talk about "winning" or being victorious in Iraq. What exactly constitutes a victory in Iraq? Will women hold high public office there in ten years? Will Baghdad experience less violence than New Orleans? Will people of different religious faiths be welcome to live and worship there? What are the precise conditions that constitute a win or a victory? I've never understood it and I invite others to explain it to me.

Ann Scott Tyson: The Bush administration has published a strategy for "victory in Iraq" that you probably can find online, and in general the stated goal is an Iraq that is unified, has a representative government, is a partner against terrorism and can defend its borders.

However, it is interesting recently to see shifts in terminology regarding more immediate goals in Iraq. For example, official statements by U.S. commanders and others have placed less emphasis on political "reconciliation" and more on accommodation, which is a less ambitious goal. So it is important to watch for these nuances.


Boston: Where are the large scale (potentially permanent) U.S. bases located in Iraq (either built or being built)? Is there at least one in each of the three potential zones if some form of partition were to take place? Not to get too far ahead, but how would you distribute a 50,000 troop force across these bases given the various internal (Shia, Sunni, Kurd) and external (al-Qaeda, Syria, Iran, others) long-term threats to the country, assuming that was the number of U.S. troops that were politically acceptable to leave as a stabilizing force?

Ann Scott Tyson: There are several large bases in Iraq, primarily those with airports and long runways, as well as major logistics operations -- such as in Balad and outside Baghdad -- that would be candidates to remain as long-term bases. There are potential bases in each of the three regions that likely would exist in the case of partition. I would imagine that the troop distribution would remain similar to what it is today, with fewer troops in the Shiite south and northern Kurdish areas and more in the central areas that are predominantly Sunni or mixed in terms of sect and ethnicity.


New Brunswick, N.J.: How can the U.S. be asking the current Iraqi government to be non-sectarian at the same time the U.S. has begun to pursue a policy of using Sunnis (including former "enemy combatants") to fight other Iraqis (as reported on June 30 by the New York Times)? What has happened to the U.S. compares less to Vietnam than the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan. We simply do not have the power to occupy Iraq.

Ann Scott Tyson: There are clearly risks to enlisting Sunni tribes and former insurgents to fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq and other fighters, but as far as I know this tends to be Sunni against Sunni, and so is not sectarian in nature. Overall, the U.S. military is more sensitive now than in earlier stages of the war to the sectarian implications of training, arming and deploying certain forces.


Winnipeg, Canada: President Bush has said that the occupying forces cannot lose as long as they stay in Iraq. How realistic is that position? I worry that with increased violence, and with the knowledge that some members of the Iraqi army are also off-duty insurgents, there is a possibility that a large faction of the Iraqi army might turn on the occupying forces. Could President Bush's version of supporting the troops eventually result in them being overrun with devastating casualties?

Ann Scott Tyson: It is probably correct that from strictly a military standpoint, they would not lose. Even the best Iraqi Army units are no match for U.S. forces. But there are risks, for example, for members of the small U.S. military advisory teams that work every day with Iraqi Army and police units. Those troops trust Iraqi forces with their lives on a daily basis. So, I do not think Iraqi forces could take on the current force, but they could in individual situations manage to kill some U.S. troops.


Rockville, Md.: Why don't the military strategists put drones (with infrared capability) all over Baghdad to spot people placing bombs? I don't see why this isn't possible (is Baghdad that big?). Also in a similar vein shouldn't we have rooftop outposts every few blocks for a similar purpose? Also, I have heard that Iraqi recruits are untrustworthy and indifferent. Isn't there anything the U.S. military/Iraqi government do to motivate these troops? Also why haven't we attacked Iran yet, we have caught them with their hand in the cookie jar.

Ann Scott Tyson: You asked a lot of questions! There are a lot of drones flying over Baghdad, as well as helicopters and other aircraft that do play a role in looking for bombs. However, there is high demand for all of these military assets to support ongoing operations by ground troops, monitor houses for targets, etc., and it's really just a question of demand and supply.

The motivations of Iraqi recruits vary greatly, and in some cases their loyalties are questionable. Overall, the U.S. military has worked hard to make sure they are paid and have adequate logistical support as a way to motivate them.


Anonymous: In the Haifa Street video, did the one guy have a blanket over his face so Iraqis wouldn't know he was working with/for the Americans?

Ann Scott Tyson: In the Haifa Street video, there was an Iraqi interpreter wearing a blue shirt and hat who was wearing a scarf because he did not want to be identified as working with Americans. Interestingly, one of the American soldiers also was wearing a scarf, because he had worked on Haifa Street for a whole year earlier and felt everyone there knew him and didn't want to be singled out.


Sun Prairie, Wis.: Ms. Tyson: Thanks for doing this chat, first of all, and my compliments also for your story about the Kiowa crash incident earlier in the week. It was a really fine piece of writing.

My question concerns Gen. Petraeus, whose ideas about counterinsurgency I mostly agree with. However, I also think the time for them in Iraq was at least three, probably four years ago; too much water has passed under the bridge for them to be effective now. I thought that Petraeus, who'd had success as a divisional commander in the Mosul area taking an approach different from that adopted by other American generals, was so intent to try his ideas on a countrywide basis that he'd lost sight of how much the passage of time had reduced their chances of working. Am I in the ballpark here? I respect Petraeus, but professional frustration can influence one's perspective, and he had a lot of it.

Ann Scott Tyson: Thank you -- and others -- for your thoughtful questions. I agree that as the years pass it has become far more difficult for U.S. troops to accomplish their goals, for a variety of reasons. Iraqis in many areas are tired of having their homes searched and being asked the same questions by each different U.S. unit that comes through. The number of Iraqi civilians killed in the fighting, in some cases by U.S. troops at checkpoints, etc., continues to grow -- and that stirs resentment. And the increase of sectarian violence has made the conflict far more complex for U.S. troops.

Having said that, the strategy of Gen. Petraeus has had an impact, such as reducing the upward spiral of sectarian killing in Baghdad, but clearly it is too early to know whether overall the strategy will be able to work or not.


West Orange, N.J.: The "surge" is supposedly based on a scheme of "clear, hold and build." The press reports assorted shootouts and sieges, but we don't get a clear picture of just how much the cleared areas grow or (more important) what portion can stay clear under Iraqi supervision and not revert to insurgent control. Is there any regular morgue tally by neighborhood to gauge the real (as opposed to alleged) change in security?

Ann Scott Tyson: On the neighborhoods cleared, in Baghdad the U.S. military now estimates that about half the neighborhoods are under control, while the rest are still more heavily contested or in the process of being cleared. It is taking longer to gain control of Baghdad's neighborhoods -- the focus of the surge -- partly because troops have been dispatched to outlying hot spots such as Diyala, and also because they have had to re-clear some part of the capital where insurgents are more entrenched and fighting hard. The military in Baghdad keeps a weekly count of the neighborhoods in four different phases: disrupt, clear, control, and hold. So far only a few are in the hold phase.

In terms of the morgue tally, I only have seen Baghdad morgue figures and am not aware of local tallies. The U.S. military keeps its track of civilian casualties, but acknowledges that it is incomplete because it is only what U.S. forces report.


Silver Spring, Md.: Dear Ms. Tyson: I am no military expert, but it seems to me that our forces still are fighting and being trained to fight as if every major conflagration were World War II all over again. I thought we would have learned from Vietnam to fight guerilla insurgencies, but it appears not. I would think that the military would better focus a majority of their forces in unconventional warfare rather than leaving those tasks up to relatively small special forces units. It also would be advantageous to train our officers in such rather than have them sitting in a classroom "learning" about how to fight an unconventional war. Just my two cents.

Ann Scott Tyson: There has been a growing emphasis on unconventional warfare by conventional forces in the past few years. While generally less skilled than Special Forces teams, many regular infantry units at the grassroots have developed a good understanding of the basic ideas of unconventional warfare.


West Orange, N.J.: The Sunni AMS and the Shiite Sadrists have refused to discuss or vote on the proposed new oil law. They apparently think that U.S. and U.K. firms should not even be allowed to participate in the industry. Friends indeed. But if this leaves the parliament without a quorum, what is Prime Minister al-Maliki to do? Without this reform, isn't anything done in the surge more or less pointless?

Ann Scott Tyson: Senior U.S. commanders and officials would agree with you that political progress is essential if there ultimately is to be success in Iraq, and that so far that progress has been disappointing. They also agree that Maliki is beholden in many ways to narrow sectarian interests and that his ability to shape events is limited. That is one reason there is more focus lately on working out compromises between local groups.


Chicago: Bottom line: How proactive are we being in Iraq? How much of our effort there is simply to react to events on the ground and to try to contain the damage? In other words, if you could analogize our forces to firefighters battling a blaze, do we have Iraq under control? Is the fire contained? Or are we simply trying to save some of the houses while the forest burns? Thanks.

Ann Scott Tyson: I do not think Iraq is under control, but U.S. forces are containing the damage to a degree. For example, the sectarian "cleansing" of Baghdad virtually ran its course in 2006, but the fault lines between Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods have been fairly stable since the troop surge got underway. Clearly, the situation differs from place to place, with improvements in security in Anbar in the west, while Diyala to the east has deteriorated.


West Orange, N.J.: How many Saudi agencies or charities have significant human or financial presence in Iraq? If any Saudi missionaries or aid workers happen to be found (incidentally, of course) among captured insurgents, do we lock them up or release them to Saudi authorities? Do non-Iraqis constitute a large or tiny share of insurgents captured?

Ann Scott Tyson: I have come across Saudi charities in Iraq, so I know they have operated there, and my belief is that any foreigner captured as an insurgent is handled the same way, regardless of what job they were doing in Iraq. According to the U.S. military non-Iraqis are a small share of captured insurgents.


Why would the terrorists win?: Ann: Regarding your comment that our departure would lead to greater violence, why is the only outcome of that (according to the administration and their supporters) that the terrorists would win and take over the country? Al-Qaeda is a Sunni group; Iraq is largely Shia. Also, we're told that the large majority of Iraqis are interested in peace and "on our side." If that's true (and if isn't, why are we there?) then we should be able to at least supply them with enough resources to literally have a fighting chance.

Ann Scott Tyson: I do not think I said that the terrorists would win; I think sectarian violence is the biggest threat now, but I do believe that extremist groups would take advantage of the chaos and the weakness of the Iraqi government and its forces.


Rockville, Md.: Because I think Iraq will be settled as a U.S. political question rather than as a military event, it makes me wonder at some of the political tactics. Why do so many say "that is a good idea but it is too late"? I would expect a good idea to be good, and a bad idea to be bad. How does the timing make a difference?

Ann Scott Tyson: Timing makes a difference because of the cumulative impact of the human, economic and other costs of war.


Rockville, Md.: Why are so many Republican senators staking out positions before the surge is evaluated? Do they give up on the political process, the surge, or do they just want to avoid the stampede?

washingtonpost.com: Key GOP Senator Breaks With Bush (Post, July 6)

Ann Scott Tyson: I don't cover Congress, but in general Americans are an impatient people.


Ann Scott Tyson: Thanks for all the excellent questions. I am signing off now.


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