Saturday, Sep. 23, 2006
Why We Don't Have Enough Troops in Iraq
As the Pentagon weighs whether to put more boots on the ground, TIME examines the reasons behind the U.S.'s chronic manpower shortage
By BRIAN BENNETT AND SALLY B. DONNELLY
The scenes almost seem lifted from a different war: On a scorching afternoon in Ur, a neighborhood in northeast Baghdad, members of the Army's 172nd Stryker Brigade are on a charm offensive. The soldiers spent 12 months in the restive city of Mosul, before having their tour in Iraq extended to help in the U.S.'s campaign to pacify Baghdad. The unit's experience shows. They are alert but relaxed, carrying themselves with a gentle posture, weapons down, waving to the locals, talking with them. Kids hold hands with the Americans; an Iraqi mother hands a soldier her baby to hold. Locals invite U.S. officers in to sit and have glasses upon glasses of tea, orange Fanta, Pepsi and Arabic coffee. They don't go into a house without a few Iraqi soldiers who can better gauge if someone looks suspicious. Walking out of one Iraqi home, Lieut. Colonel John Norris, commander of the Stryker 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment Tomahawks, enjoys a moment of guarded optimism. "Days like this you think, wow, they can really do it. If they can just stop the killing."
It's the glimmers of hope that make the realities in Iraq so heartbreaking. Residents of Ur say that with the Strykers around, sectarian murders have all but disappeared. Neighbors emerge from their homes to chat and allow their sons and daughters to play in the street. But the Iraqis and Americans know that such sanity won't last. Though 12,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops have moved to the capital to try to defuse sectarian violence, the level of killing across the city remains as high as ever. That's because the U.S. doesn't have enough troops to maintain the peace in the areas they've secured, instead relying on Iraqi units who have yet to prove they can impose order. In Ghazaliyah, a west Baghdad neighborhood the 172nd Strykers cleared weeks earlier, violence has already gone back up to previous levels. For all the progress made in Ur, the troops know the cycle is bound to repeat itself there too. "We leave," says Sergeant First Class Joshua Brown, as his Stryker pulls out of Ur city, "and it turns into f------ Somalia."
Despite isolated success stories, there is a palpable sense that things are getting worse in Iraq. A U.N. report says a record 6,600 Iraqis were killed in the past two months amid the lawlessness. Major General William Caldwell told reporters last week that six weeks into the battle for Baghdad there was an upward "spike in execution-style murders" in the city. The two major challenges facing the U.S. — quelling Sunni-Shi'ite conflict in Baghdad while subduing the jihadist insurgency in western Iraq — have raised questions among officers in Iraq about whether the U.S. has enough troops to keep the country from falling apart, let alone achieve anything resembling stability. That perception was bolstered this month by a classified Marine intelligence report that estimated the U.S. needed an additional 10,000 to 15,000 troops to defeat al-Qaeda-led rebels in Anbar province. In an acknowledgement of the problem, General John Abizaid last week reversed hints of a drawdown by the end of the year, saying U.S. troops will stay around the current 140,000 in Iraq until next spring.
Will that be enough?
The experience of sending the Strykers to Baghdad indicates that more troops could help in the short term. A growing number of analysts in Washington, including some conservative supporters of the Bush Administration, have called for a substantial increase in U.S. troop levels to stop Iraq's slide into civil war. But expanding the total U.S. force in Iraq remains unlikely — military officials interviewed by TIME say that the U.S. command remains reluctant to make a major manpower boost. To some, that reluctance is indicative of the leadership's broader failure to heed complaints about U.S. troop strength that have been voiced by officers in Iraq for more then three years. "I know I could have used more forces," says a Lieut. Colonel who served in Iraq. "We could have held more territory... I asked, but I'm not sure the request ever made it."
The roots of the U.S.'s current troop shortage stretch back to the earliest days of the occupation. Despite projections by former Army chief of staff General Eric Shinseki that "several hundred thousand soldiers" would be needed to occupy Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former U.S. Central Command (Centcom) chief General Tommy Franks chose to go with a much smaller force of 125,000. As the insurgency intensified in 2003 and 2004, government and military sources say Abizaid did not ask the Bush Administration to send reinforcements. The sources say that in at least two White House meetings in 2004, Abizaid told Bush he "had everything he needed." That may have been at odds with what he was being told by officers on the ground. "I wouldn't say [the commanders] lied," says a colonel who served on the Centcom staff during the first year of the war, "but there was some intellectual dishonesty."
Once the force levels were set, the military's complex schedule for mobilizing troops and moving them in and out of the war zone made it difficult to make big increases rapidly. "It was the failure to adapt after the fall of Baghdad that set the Army on [this] course," says one retired officer. "Once you start the process of sustaining a force of 130,000 it is hard to shift."
But that doesn't entirely explain why the shortfalls persist. Military sources say they don't know of specific instances in which Abizaid and Gen. George Casey, the commander of ground troops in Iraq, failed to forward requests for more troops. Still, a senior Army officer says the nature of the Army's command naturally quashes sobering assessments. "One of the big reasons you don't tend to ask for more troops is the culture. If a superior asks how's it going, you say, 'Going great, sir' " says the officer. "It's a can-do culture."
The commanders' tendency to portray the situation in Iraq in a positive light has been compounded by disagreements about whether more U.S. troops, at this point, would intimidate the insurgency or just give them more targets to shoot at. And though the U.S. has enough active-duty troops to accommodate a troop increase, doing so would cause even more pain for the families of Army and Marine grunts, more than a third of whom have already done a tour in Iraq. "No one knows where the red line is that will break the Army," says Washington-based military analyst Andrew Krepinevich, "But Army leaders want to make sure they do everything they can to avoid crossing it."
So what options does the U.S. have left?
The military's focus is on pushing Iraqi forces forward to make up for the shortage in U.S. boots on the ground. "The U.S. needs to find out if the Iraqi Army will fight," says Krepinevich. And yet after two years, a good portion of the 300,000 U.S.-trained Iraqi troops on the front lines can't handle the security challenges in Baghdad; in many cases, their willingness to fight is compromised by their sectarian loyalties. During a recent patrol, members of the 172nd ventured to the edge of Sadr City, the stronghold of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Kids threw bricks at the soldiers and one smashed a fake Molotov cocktail filled with cooking oil against the eight-wheeled armored Stryker vehicle. A military intelligence officer determined the kids were part of a plan by al-Sadr's militia to provoke an attack on civilians that would inflame the population. The next morning, a battalion of the Stryker Brigade organized a rendezvous with Iraqi troops, but the Iraqis never showed. "They failed," says a U.S. company commander. "It's the biggest operation in Baghdad and they failed. That's why they're here."
The question is whether the Iraqis can prove their mettle and win the trust of citizens before the violence spills out of control. For now, the best that troops like the 172nd can hope to do is prevent things from getting worse. At current troop levels, commanders acknowledge the coalition can only clear three neighborhoods in Baghdad at a time. Some military officials have floated the possibility of a "surge" force of fresh troops to try to contain the violence. But that's still a short-term fix for a chronic problem — one that has already exhausted the patience of many Americans. "You can do a surge of 30,000 to 50,000 once or twice, but in an insurgency it's virtually impossible to guarantee that one surge will mean victory," says the retired Army officer. "This is a slow-grind war." And it's becoming harder to know just what it will take to win it.