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Analysts Debate Proposal to Increase Troop Levels in Iraq

November 20, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: President Bush was a world away in Asia, but even there he was asked about the growing debate in Washington over whether to send more troops to Iraq on top of the nearly 150,000 there who are taking near-record high casualties.

Today, standing next to the Indonesian president who wants U.S. troops to leave Iraq, President Bush wouldn’t commit one way or the other.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I haven’t made any decisions about troop increases or troop decreases, and won’t until I hear from a variety of sources, including our own United States military.

KWAME HOLMAN: The White House, the Pentagon and the congressionally-mandated Baker-Hamilton commission all are in the midst of preparing recommendations on Iraq policy. Press reports quoting Pentagon sources have prompted speculation that the U.S. military is planning for a last big push in Iraq, a short-term build-up before leaving the country.

In Congress, the issue has split Republicans. Senator John McCain of Arizona has proposed to send in more troops.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: We’ve got to arrest the momentum of the death squads. We’ve got to continue training the Iraqi army and American presence in Iraqi units and put Americans into the police force. Do we have enough troops to do all that? No, we do not.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the outgoing chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Duncan Hunter, said it should be Iraqis, not Americans, taking the bigger combat role.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R), Chair, Armed Services Committee: And before we start juggling deployments and planning a blueprint for a different strategy that requires different levels of troops, let’s use what we’ve got, what we’ve trained.

KWAME HOLMAN: And congressional Democrats continued to press for a timetable for withdrawal.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), Michigan: We must tell the Iraqis that we would begin, starting in four to six months, a phased reduction of our troops, because if you don’t do that, they’re going to continue to have the false assumption that we are there in some kind of an open-ended way.

KWAME HOLMAN: Before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East warned against setting a timetable, saying it would limit the military’s flexibility. And in a colloquy with McCain, Army General John Abizaid also turned aside the idea of a big troop buildup, saying there were enough American boots on the ground.

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID, Top U.S. Commander in the Middle East: We can put in 20,000 more Americans tomorrow and achieve a temporary effect. But when you look at the overall American force pool that’s available out there, the ability to sustain that commitment is simply not something that we have right now with the size of the Army and the Marine Corps.

KWAME HOLMAN: Yesterday, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the BBC that a “clear military victory” in Iraq no longer is possible.

HENRY KISSINGER, Former Secretary of State to Presidents Nixon and Ford: I think we have to re-define the course, but I don’t believe that the alternative is between military victory, as it has been defined previously, or total withdrawal.

KWAME HOLMAN: Kissinger, who has become an important outside adviser to President Bush on the war, also argued against a fast American withdrawal from Iraq.

The availability of troops

Frederick Kagan
American Enterprise Institute
I don't think that there's any real prospect for getting the political process back on track... for helping the Iraqis to get control of the situation until we have actually gone in and helped them to establish a basic level of security.

JIM LEHRER: Now for our own version of the debate, two men who've advised President Bush on Iraq policy this year. Frederick Kagan is a military historian, former West Point professor, now resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book is "Finding the Target: The Transformation of the American Military."

Michael Vickers is director of strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington research institute. He's a former Army Special Forces and CIA operations officer.

Mr. Kagan, you support sending more U.S. troops, correct?

FREDERICK KAGAN, American Enterprise Institute: Yes. Absolutely, I do.


FREDERICK KAGAN: Because I think that the critical problem that we're facing in Iraq right now is the lack of security and the fact that the sectarian violence is spinning out of control. And I don't think that there's any real prospect for getting the political process back on track, for training Iraqi soldiers, for retraining the Iraqi police, for helping the Iraqis to get control of the situation until we have actually gone in and helped them to establish a basic level of security.

JIM LEHRER: How many troops would it take?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, it's hard to estimate that precisely. I think that on the order of 50,000 more American combat troops would make a tremendous difference and would allow us to move forward in a very positive way.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about that, Mr. Vickers?

MICHAEL VICKERS, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments: Well, I don't think 50,000 troops would be available, I think they might find 20,000 troops, and it would achieve potentially a useful temporary effect, but the problem would be sustaining it.

I don't think American troops are going to win the Iraqi war. I think the problem is fundamentally Iraqi politics, and the most important thing we can do is strengthen our support for the Iraqi security forces through advisers and trainers.

JIM LEHRER: But what about Mr. Vickers' point that nothing is going to happen on the political front until the place is safe and the only way to do that is by using American troops to do it?

MICHAEL VICKERS: Well, I don't think 20,000 more troops are likely to achieve security that will solve the Iraqi...

JIM LEHRER: What about 50,000?

MICHAEL VICKERS: I don't think 50,000 troops are really available.

JIM LEHRER: Well, let's say they were.

MICHAEL VICKERS: I'm still not sure the effect would be achieved, because Iraqi politics are really divided very sharply on sectarian lines. There's no progress on oil-sharing. The violence is exacerbating those tensions.

And during the period of this past year where we've had 125,000 to 140,000 troops there, the number of attacks have almost tripled. Increasing them by 15 percent or 30 percent is unlikely to dramatically change the security situation.

Shifting U.S. strategy

Michael Vickers
Former CIA Official
[O]ne thing that insurgents can always do is decline to fight... so, even if you can achieve temporary effects in some neighborhoods, as Fred just described, then the problem is: What happens when the insurgents come back, which they do.

JIM LEHRER: Why do you feel differently, Mr. Kagan?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Because I'm not just talking about an increase in troop strength. I'm talking about a fundamental shift in our strategy.

The U.S. military has never set out as a matter of priority to establish security in Iraq or to help the Iraqis establish security directly. Our strategy has always focused very heavily on training the Iraqis and having them do it for themselves.

And what I'm proposing is actually a fairly radical break with that, and that's why I think, with the almost 150,000 troops that we have now in Iraq, with an additional 50,000 -- and I do believe that they could be found if we decided this was an urgent enough priority -- that it could make a tremendous difference.

JIM LEHRER: How would they be deployed?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, I would propose in the first instance prioritizing getting Baghdad under control. I think that there were a lot of good things...

JIM LEHRER: Meaning going door-to-door, if it was necessary, street-to-street, just in a military way, just batten the place down?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, in the first instance, what we need to do -- Operation Together Forward II, which is still under way -- it began in August -- was successful in some respects in that it cleared neighborhoods. But it was unsuccessful because we did not leave American forces behind to help keep them cleared.

And I think that that model and other models, such as what happened in Sadr City in 2004, what happened in Tal Afar 2005, provide hope that we could get this under control, if we had the right approach.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think this could be done?

MICHAEL VICKERS: Baghdad's a city of 6 million people. Tal Afar was a few hundred thousand. It's a totally different environment. And then we remember we have an Iraqi sovereign government that doesn't want -- that depends on Shiite coalition to make it function -- doesn't want us going into Sadr City. So are we going to revert back to being sole occupying power? What are the rules of engagement? As you said, it's how you use the forces, and that's why I think it's really up to the Iraqis.

JIM LEHRER: But just on a military basis, if there were another 50,000 troops deployed, and they said, "OK, secure Baghdad, make Baghdad safe," could U.S. forces do that?

MICHAEL VICKERS: I'm not sure, Jim. I think it's a very uncertain question. And the problem then is holding it for a long time.

Remember, one thing that insurgents can always do is decline to fight. I mean, this insurgency is really a lot of low-level violence that is having a cumulative effect. And so, even if you can achieve temporary effects in some neighborhoods, as Fred just described, then the problem is: What happens when the insurgents come back, which they do.

JIM LEHRER: What about that? You're talking about a long-term project here, I mean, a long-term increased troop involvement, or are you talking about something temporary?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, I'm talking about a surge by which I mean on the order of 12 to 24 months...

JIM LEHRER: That's two years.

FREDERICK KAGAN: ... worth of surge.


FREDERICK KAGAN: Probably beginning to draw down -- it's hard to say. As Mike says, these things are very unpredictable. But I think it's important to realize that we're not just dealing with an insurgency here. We're dealing with rising sectarian violence, which is self-organizing and which is existing because there's a power vacuum and chaos in the capital.

What I'm saying is that, if we do not act urgently to get that under control and create a space in which it's possible to think about building up the Iraqi army and the Iraqi political system, then we're very unlikely to have any sort of success in building that up.

Iraq compared to other operations

Michael Vickers
Former CIA Official
I think the debate is really about staying where we are, starting a drawdown in a shorter period of six months, or doing this temporary surge, but all aimed at the strategy of handing things over to Iraqis after that six-month period.

JIM LEHRER: What about that idea, you've got to get things under control first?

MICHAEL VICKERS: Well, I'm all for getting things under control, but I think the Iraqis really have to sort this out and get it under control.

And I just want to give you some numbers to say that numbers aren't the problem, Jim. In Vietnam, counting the South Vietnamese security forces and the American forces, we had about one security force, friendly security force, for 15 South Vietnamese in the population. We lost the war.

In Iraq, it's about one to 70 right now, except a lot of the Iraqi force is not very reliable. In El Salvador, it was one to 125, and we won the war. It's clearly more about politics than it is about numbers. There's not a linear relationship.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Kagan?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, that's true, but I think -- first of all, we can have a discussion about the relevance of any of those particular analogies to this. This is not an insurgency in the same way. Cases are always different.

But I think, in addition, you know, the numbers are complex. It took about a ratio of one to 40 in Tal Afar to secure that. Blow that up into neighborhoods in Baghdad and you come to, you know, about a couple of hundred thousand that you would need, U.S. plus Iraqi soldiers. That's very far from being out of our reach if we wanted to try to do that.

And then we also need to keep in mind that this isn't something that we do all at once. This is something that you would want to do in phases, and that changes the troop requirements, as well. And I think we make a mistake when we say, "Let's just a template given force ratio on the entire country. Whoops, we don't have that, so we can't do this." That's not the way skillful military planning works.

MICHAEL VICKERS: And, again, to replicate the Tal Afar model to Baghdad, one would need not just 50,000 more troops, but counting Iraqi and American, which is the relevant metric, you need something on the order of 150,000 more troops, or something like that.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Kagan, now all of this has come up since the midterm elections, and all the talk going on the other side of the election was actually trying to figure out a way to draw the U.S. troop strength down, not raise it. What's going on now?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, this actually predates the midterm elections. And we have been increasing -- and General Abizaid pointed out that our targets were to be down to 12 or 10 brigades, and we're now up around 15.

JIM LEHRER: It just wasn't being discussed in such a public way as it is now.

FREDERICK KAGAN: No, it wasn't. I think it was brought to the public's attention very dramatically, mostly because Operation Together Forward, about which tremendous expectations had been raised -- I think unrealistically, and I agree with Mike about that.

JIM LEHRER: That was the program to secure Baghdad, and it didn't work.

FREDERICK KAGAN: Exactly. I think, in the wake of that, as it's been clear that that has not been successful, that's also brought to the fore the notion that this is hopeless. And I think, rather than coming rapidly to that conclusion, it's worth looking very carefully at that operation to see why it didn't work, what worked about it, and what models there are to use.

It's worth keeping in mind that, in 2004, when the country was exploding, including Sadr City, General Chiarelli went in with the 1st Cavalry Division -- about 20,000 guys -- and he got it under control. It's a population of 2.5 million.

Circumstances are different. We couldn't do that in Sadr City now. But the point is that it's very easy to toss around numbers to show that this is absolutely impossible. But I think, if you look at it carefully in a professional military planning sort of way, talking about phases, it is feasible.

JIM LEHRER: Mike Vickers, is this going to get serious consideration or is this just kind of a, "Hey, we've got a problem here. Let's at least explore the idea of sending more troops, rather than taking them out," which is what was on the table politically, at least going into the elections?

MICHAEL VICKERS: I think serious consideration right now would be the option of a temporary surge of maybe on the order of 20,000 troops for a period of under six months.

JIM LEHRER: Which is not what you're talking about.

MICHAEL VICKERS: Which is not what Fred is talking about. That doesn't mean that Fred's option wouldn't get some analysis, but I think the debate is really about staying where we are, starting a drawdown in a shorter period of six months, or doing this temporary surge, but all aimed at the strategy of handing things over to Iraqis after that six-month period.

Political support behind strategies

Frederick Kagan
American Enterprise Institute
I don't think anyone has been imagining that there's a military victory, and I'm not proposing a military victory, either. I think the most important thing that Secretary Kissinger said is that we must not cut and run now...

JIM LEHRER: The speculation or the punditry on this issue has been also, if John McCain weren't supporting it publicly, it would not even be seriously in the public discourse at the moment. Do you agree?

MICHAEL VICKERS: I think there's more support than just John McCain. And Fred may be better positioned to talk about that than I, but I think this is still a minority option.

JIM LEHRER: Minority option, John McCain only?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, since I've been working very hard to put this in the public discourse, I'd like to think that it would be there even if McCain weren't backing it, but it's not just McCain. It's also Senator Lindsey Graham, who's now come out and said that he backs this.

And I thought there was a lot of body language and even implication in the questioning at the SASC, implying that there was support for this. And I believe that there is support for this option within the military, as well. But it's, you know, very difficult for senior military officers to talk about it publicly.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about Henry Kissinger's comment that this war is not winnable militarily?

MICHAEL VICKERS: Well, I don't know what he meant by that. I mean, the important metric is really winnable politically, and military is the supporting element there, and, of course, the Iraqis have to be out front.

I do think Secretary Kissinger is right about one thing, in that the timetable for democracies that are supporting this is really a critical metric. That is our center of gravity, American support to sustain this across administrations.

You don't defeat insurgencies through blitzkriegs, or big pushes, or six-months or even 24-month pushes. You defeat them typically over a decade or more, and the locals do it with support. And so Kissinger, I think, is right in that sense to call our attention to, what are we doing the next two years? And are we positioning ourselves to succeed over the longer term.

JIM LEHRER: What's your reaction to what Kissinger said?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, I largely agree with Mike. I don't understand what's meant by military victory. I don't think anyone has been imagining that there's a military victory, and I'm not proposing a military victory, either.

I think the most important thing that Secretary Kissinger said is that we must not cut and run now, and we can't simply pull out. The consequences would be hideous, and I think that's dead-on.

JIM LEHRER: He said, "It is not a choice between military victory or total withdrawal." That's what he's saying, but he doesn't think it's winnable on the ground militarily, the way I guess...

MICHAEL VICKERS: I think Iraqi politics are first and foremost at the center of this. I mean, if you look at the three-and-a-half years of this war, that's what's really driven to where we are now. That's really the way forward.

I agree with Fred. I don't think there's a reason to have despair right now that this is unwinnable. The question is: How do we go forward?

JIM LEHRER: All right. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.