Send more troops to Baghdad and we’ll have a fighting chance

By Frederic Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of 'Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq' (THE TIMES, 25/12/06):

A decisive moment in world history is at hand. If the United States, Britain and their allies fail in Iraq the result will almost certainly be a regional maelstrom. If the coalition succeeds, then the West will regain the initiative against radical Islam in Iran and throughout the Muslim world.

The current trajectory in Iraq is poor: rising sectarian violence threatens to rend Iraqi society and destroy America’s will to continue the struggle.

The choices are bleak: nobody has yet developed a convincing plan to resolve this conflict through diplomacy, politics or any other form of soft power. Hopes for success now rest on the coalition’s willingness to adopt a strategy of bringing security to the Iraqi population and confronting the sectarian violence directly as the prerequisite for subsequent political, economic and social development.

Embracing such a strategy would mark a dramatic change from the approach that the US military has pursued since April 2003. Since the beginning of the counter-insurgency effort US central command has focused on training Iraqi soldiers and police to establish and maintain security on their own. America’s own military efforts to establish security have been reactive, sporadic, under-resourced and ephemeral.

The creation of an Iraqi army that now numbers more than 130,000 troops is an impressive accomplishment, but that army has proved unable to stem the violence on its own. On the contrary, as its size and quality have increased the violence has grown even more.

Those well versed in the art of counter-insurgency will not be surprised by this phenomenon, since providing security to the population is a core task for any counter-insurgent force — as the recently released US military doctrinal manual on the subject emphasises.

It is now time to abandon the failed strategy of “transition” and return to the basics of counter-insurgency and stability operations by bringing peace to the Iraqi people.

Baghdad is the centre of gravity of the struggle in Iraq today. The United States, the government of Iraq and the insurgents have all identified it as the place they intend to win or lose. It is also the largest mixed community in Iraq.

Any hope for keeping Iraq together as a unitary state — thereby avoiding a genocidal civil and probably regional war — rests on keeping Baghdad mixed.

However, sectarian strife is leading rapidly to sectarian cleansing and many of Baghdad’s mixed communities are being forcibly purified. Bringing peace to those areas and ending the violence must be the primary task of coalition strategy.

Establishing security is a military task in the first instance. Troops must move through Baghdad’s neighbourhoods, examining every house and building, finding weapons caches and capturing insurgents and armed militias.

American forces have conducted many such operations in the past, including Operation Together Forward II as recently as the autumn.

In all previous operations the clearing of embattled neighbourhoods was followed by a rapid withdrawal of US forces. Insurgents of both sects then swarmed back in to the cleared areas to demonstrate the failure of the exercise by victimising the helpless inhabitants.

Success in such operations requires persistence. Once a neighbourhood has been cleared, US and Iraqi forces must remain to maintain security.

Partnered at the platoon or company level, they must live in the neighbourhoods and man permanent checkpoints. This approach was used with great success in Tal Afar in September 2005 and thereafter and is being used even now in some districts of Baghdad.

Units that remain in neighbourhoods rapidly gain the trust of the locals, who volunteer more information about troublemakers from within the neighbourhood and interlopers from outside.

The presence of US and Iraqi troops brings greater security, which enables the start of economic and political development. It is unfortunate that this basic counter-insurgency approach has been neglected so far, but it is not too late to undertake it.

Clearing and holding the critical mixed and Sunni neighbourhoods in Baghdad would require approximately nine American combat brigades, or about 45,000 soldiers. There are now five brigades operating in Baghdad, so America would have to add four more — about 20,000 soldiers.

In the past, central command generated surges in security in parts of Iraq by drawing forces from elsewhere. This approach created opportunities for the insurgents in the denuded areas. It would be wiser instead to couple a surge in Baghdad with an increase of troops in the other key hotbed of the insurgency, Anbar province.

There are now the equivalent of three brigades of US troops in Anbar. An additional two (about 10,000 troops) there would not allow the United States to clear and hold the province but would prevent insurgents fleeing the fight in Baghdad from destabilising Anbar further.

It would also place greater pressure on Al-Qaeda and the Sunni Arab insurgency, whose violent assaults on Shi’ite areas are a principal cause of the growth of Shi’ite militias.

Military action by itself will not lead to success, of course. The clearing of neighbourhoods must be accompanied by immediate reconstruction efforts.

These efforts should take two forms. All cleared neighbourhoods should receive a basic reconstruction package aimed at restoring essential services. But reconstruction can also be used as a form of incentive.

Neighbourhoods that co-operate with coalition efforts to maintain security could be rewarded with additional reconstruction efforts to improve their overall quality of life. These efforts should be channelled through Iraqi local (not central) government structures as much as possible.

The insurgents, particularly the Shi’ite Mahdi army, have begun imitating Hezbollah by providing services to the population of Baghdad in return for loyalty and support.

By offering reconstruction assistance through local Iraqi leaders, the coalition would get Iraqis used to looking to their own government for essential services.

Combining these efforts with the establishment and maintenance of real security would reduce the strongest recruiting tools that the Sunni and Shi’ite militias now have and would make possible future reconciliation and political progress.

The coalition forces can succeed in the end only if they can turn the responsibility for maintaining security over to the Iraqi forces; the training of the Iraqi army must also continue.

If a plan of this variety were adopted, in fact, the training of the Iraqis would improve dramatically. Embedding trainers in Iraqi units is a good start, but it is not as effective as partnering Iraqi units with coalition troops in planning and conducting missions.

This plan would also solve another critical problem: instead of presenting the growing Iraqi army with an ever-increasing security challenge, this strategy would lower the level of violence even as it expanded the Iraqis’ capabilities. Such an approach is the only way to make a successful transition to an independent and secure Iraq.

The increase in US troops cannot be short-term. Clearing and holding the critical areas of Baghdad will require all of 2007. Expanding the secured areas into Anbar, up the Diyala River valley, north to Mosul and beyond will take part of 2008.

It is unlikely that the Iraqi army and police will be able to assume full responsibility for security for at least 18 to 24 months after the beginning of this operation.

This strategy will place a greater burden on the already overstrained American ground forces, but the risk is worth taking.

Defeat will break the American army and marines more surely and more disastrously than extending combat tours. And the price of defeat for Iraq, the region and the world in any case is far too high to bear.