A growing number of U.S. lawmakers and defense experts are urging a shift in U.S. military strategy in Iraq that would focus less on trying to secure the whole country and more on shoring up protection of major population centers.
The arguments for change arise from concern that U.S. and Iraqi forces lack the numbers still to combat insurgents everywhere and that enemy fighters have continued to show a disturbing ability to cause significant casualties in major Iraqi cities that by now should have become safe zones.
In the aftermath of fresh bombings yesterday in Baghdad and Tikrit, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) added his voice to those calling for a new focus. He said the emphasis up to now on rooting out insurgent strongholds through widespread, short-duration raids -- what he termed "sweeping and leaving" -- is not working.
"Rather than focusing on killing and capturing insurgents, we should emphasize protecting the local population, creating secure areas where insurgents find it difficult to operate," the senator said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. He added that such an approach would require more troops and resources, arguing against the idea of reducing U.S. forces in Iraq next year.
The persistent ability of enemy groups to move fighters around the country -- eluding raids or replenishing their ranks after taking casualties -- has put pressure on the Pentagon to demonstrate that U.S. tactics are effective. U.S. commanders have acknowledged a measure of frustration at needing to send forces back to some cities and towns where insurgents had returned after being chased out months earlier. But they insist progress is being made.
They also say they already are pursuing a version of the strategy advocated by McCain and other critics. Indeed, for months now, senior officers at the U.S. military command in Baghdad have been using the term "clear and hold" as a shorthand description of their counterinsurgency strategy. The same term was applied by Gen. Creighton W. Abrams Jr. to his Vietnam pacification strategy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which followed the "search and destroy" campaign of his predecessor, Gen. William C. Westmoreland.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice elevated the phrase last month into a kind of official bumper sticker for the U.S. campaign in Iraq. "Our political-military strategy has to be to clear, hold and build: to clear areas from insurgent control, to hold them securely, and to build durable, national Iraqi institutions," she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
But in practice, critics say, U.S. forces have tended to place more emphasis on clearing than holding. And senior officers and administration officials conceded in interviews this week that the holding aspect has received less attention, in large part because of a shortage of available troops.
U.S. commanders have avoided seeking more American forces for such defensive missions, waiting instead for additional Iraqi military and police forces to emerge from training. With those personnel now exceeding 211,000, the shortage is easing, officials said.
"The difference now is, we have Iraqi forces that can do the holding," said a senior administration official involved in policymaking on Iraq. "We didn't want to use U.S. forces to do a lot of the holding because it gave the impression of occupation."
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. authorities also had underestimated what would be required to keep areas free of enemy activity.
"We thought that once we had turned the town over to the local people, that they would be able to defend their own territory and take care of themselves," he said Monday on PBS's "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." "So now the Iraq armed forces that have been trained up will do that for their own people."
As more Iraqi forces are fielded, the Pentagon has indicated that U.S. forces can probably be reduced below this year's base level of about 138,000 troops, although military officials say any reduction will depend on a host of military, political and economic conditions. Some Democrats, such as Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), have urged a sizable cut after the Iraqi elections in December.
But McCain warned that ensuring secure zones, through extensive foot patrols and other troop-intensive operations, will require not only more Iraqi forces but also a sustained U.S. commitment. A strong backer of the Iraq war, McCain called the idea of a partial drawdown of U.S. troops next year "exactly wrong." He said the level "should be ramping up, with more civil-military soldiers, translators and counterinsurgency operations teams."
McCain, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, noted that calls for a shift in counterinsurgency strategy have recently come from such independent defense experts as Andrew F. Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, and Thomas Donnelly and Gary J. Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute. They have argued that the establishment of safe zones would allow economic reconstruction and political activity to flourish, and that the zones could then spread -- like "oil spots," as Krepinevich put it in a Foreign Affairs article earlier this year.
U.S. military officers insist the current strategy has succeeded in containing Iraq's insurgency. They cite the thousands of enemy fighters captured or killed, including a number of leaders of the Sunni resistance and senior members of Abu Musab Zarqawi's al Qaeda terrorist network in Iraq.
They say that though the average number of daily attacks has tended to rise this year, the "effectiveness" of such attacks -- in terms of casualties and property damage -- has declined, so that only about 10 to 15 percent are currently rated effective. They also report significant gains in intelligence about insurgent groups, saying that more Iraqis, angered at the violence, are coming forward with tips.
As an example of renewed efforts to hold areas that have been cleared of insurgents, U.S. officers point to Anbar province in western Iraq. Elements of a full Iraqi army division have begun moving into the region, joining several Iraqi special police brigades in establishing permanent bases and providing a substantial government presence in several towns that had been insurgent strongholds.
To bolster security and spur reconstruction activity in other pockets of the country, U.S. officials are borrowing an approach being employed with some success in Afghanistan: the use of "provincial reconstruction teams." These teams combine the skills of State Department political officers, development assistance specialists and military civil affairs soldiers in generating local jobs and hope. Plans call for the first three teams in Iraq to go to Tikrit, Irbil and Hilla, with another dozen or so to follow.
To shore up security in Baghdad, U.S. commanders are pressing Iraqi public order battalions to take responsibility for protecting specific city neighborhoods, rather than roaming freely through the city. "We're looking for more efficient ways to use them and have plotted a strategy in increments of three months that hands them more specific responsibility," a senior officer in Baghdad said in a phone interview.
Staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this report.