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U.S. Should Increase Troops in Iraq, Military Historian Says

November 1, 2006 at 3:41 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now, another of our conversations about what the United States can or should do next there in Iraq. And thus far, we’ve heard about ending the occupation, de-centralizing Iraq, improving the training of Iraqi security forces, and focusing on economic development. Tonight, it’s increasing U.S. military forces.

And Ray Suarez recorded this conversation yesterday.

RAY SUAREZ: And with me is military historian Frederick Kagan, a former West Point professor and now resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book is “Finding the Target: The Transformation of the American Military.” This summer, he briefed President Bush at Camp David about what to do in Iraq.

And what’s your best recommendation for achieving success in Iraq from hereon out?

FREDERICK KAGAN, American Enterprise Institute: The number-one priority in Iraq today is establishing security, primarily in Baghdad. Without security, there simply is no possibly that we’re going to be able to get the problem of the Shia militias under control or get the political process moving forward.

It’s simply too much to ask people in a situation where they have to wake up every day and worry about whether they and their families are going to survive the day to make the sorts of hard political decisions that we are asking them to make these days.

And we have right now really laid down a marker in Baghdad. We’ve said that the war is going to be won or lost in Baghdad, and that means that the number-one priority has to be making sure that we bring peace to the capital.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, establishing security has been a stated goal of this administration since the fall of Baghdad. What would do you to change the operational reality as it is on the ground there today?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Actually, establishing security really hasn’t been the goal of the administration or of the military. Our primary goal has been training up Iraqi security forces so that we could turn the task over to them.

Secondarily, we’ve been chasing terrorists around and going after certain limited insurgent enclaves when they may have posed major problems. But we have never actually set about – trying to establish and maintain security throughout the country. And that, I think, has been the principal failure of our military strategy in Iraq.

Increasing U.S. troops

Frederick Kagan
Military Historian
It's very clear, if you talk to soldiers and officers on the ground in Iraq, they know that they don't have enough troops.

RAY SUAREZ: So what do you do now?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Now we need to go in and do correctly the operation that the military did incorrectly -- Operation Forward Together -- which was just recently completed in Baghdad and, obviously, didn't succeed.

It didn't succeed because there were not enough troops. They went too slowly from neighborhood to neighborhood. And they did not leave American troops behind in the neighborhoods that they'd actually cleared, so that even when they cleared them, the insurgents came back in.

We need to go back, we need to redo that clear, and we need to leave significant American forces behind, partnered with Iraqi units, to maintain the stability that we can establish.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, how many more American troops would have to be on the ground in Iraq in order to leave behind a presence after an area's clear?

FREDERICK KAGAN: It's very hard for an outsider to estimate exactly how many troops are necessary, but my best guess would be somewhere around 50,000 additional American troops would probably be necessary to pull this off properly.

RAY SUAREZ: So what would that force of another 50,000 be able to do that the current approximately 150,000 can't?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, it would be able, really, to bring security and really to maintain security after it was there. It's very clear, if you talk to soldiers and officers on the ground in Iraq, they know that they don't have enough troops. They continually say that they don't have enough troops to perform the missions necessary to establishing security, and it frustrates a lot of them.

The Iraqis know this, and it frustrates the Iraqis, as well. We haven't had enough troops, but even more importantly, we haven't had the right strategy, and I think that's really the key point here. I do think we need more troops to pull this off, but we need above all to recognize that our primary task in Iraq now, from a military standpoint, has to be establishing security.

Addressing the situation in Baghdad

Frederick Kagan
Military Historian
We've been too incremental all along, because we've been focused on trying to maintain the lowest possible force levels in Iraq, which is not the way you actually go about winning any war.

RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned falling short of the goals in Baghdad. Does there need to be a different strategy for Baghdad than there is for the rest of the country?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, yes. I mean, Baghdad is a very large urban area. It's a very large population center. It's a very dense warren of streets and so on, and you do have to use different techniques from what we used, say, to clear Talafar in September of 2005.

But we have cleared neighborhoods in Baghdad successfully on a number of occasions, and we do know how to do this. The troops do know what techniques are effective. The problem is that we have never committed adequate resources to maintain our success after we had achieved it, because we're so focused on drawing down quickly and handing over to Iraqis who are not actually ready to accept the handover from us.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, we have increased the number of troops in Baghdad proper, and that hasn't had the result that you suggest would come.

FREDERICK KAGAN: The increase has been too small. We've been too incremental all along, because we've been focused on trying to maintain the lowest possible force levels in Iraq, which is not the way you actually go about winning any war, and it's not the way that you go about winning a counterinsurgency like this.

Security is the number-one military task, and we have been prioritizing all sorts of other things over security. What we need to do is flood the capital with more American troops, partnered with Iraqis, and really commit ourselves to making this happen.

The other problem is that the troops that we wend to Baghdad as in increase, inadequate as it was in Baghdad, had to come out of other areas of the country that were not pacified, with the result that the situation is deteriorating in Anbar and elsewhere. That's really unacceptable, because it's not going to be sufficient if we pacify Baghdad and the rest of the country goes to heck.

And that's the other reason why we need to send more troops, so that we can actually leave soldiers in the areas that are contested outside of Baghdad to prevent them from falling completely apart.

Implications of increased troops

Frederick Kagan
Military Historian
I think there's a dawning recognition that we're going to win or lose this based on whether we can secure Baghdad, but I'm not sure that all of the implications of that, as far as force levels and strategies, have really been internalized.

RAY SUAREZ: Does the fact that the number of troops in Iraq, the number of American troops in Iraq, has been slowly rising through this calendar year, a signal that already some in the leadership are acknowledging this?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, I think the problem is that the military has been trying to follow a very careful line of having the minimum necessary troops in Iraq to keep the situation from collapsing in the hope that the Iraqi security forces will be able to take over and that the political process will lead to success.

And the problem with that is it means that you're constantly on the edge of the abyss, and that's really where we've been all along. And so you've seen the numbers climbing back up, as the military had cut down too far with too optimistic scenarios about turning over to Iraqi troops and what the political process could do.

I don't think there's a real recognition yet in the military leadership that the focus on keeping our footprints small is misguided and that we need to start deciding that security is our number-one objective. I think there's a dawning recognition that we're going to win or lose this based on whether we can secure Baghdad, but I'm not sure that all of the implications of that, as far as force levels and strategies, have really been internalized.

RAY SUAREZ: Let's assume for the moment that this prescription gained acceptance. Aren't there some practical impediments, for instance political ones, to an abrupt raise in the number of troops?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, what political impediments do you have in mind?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, there's been a lot of talk in the United States, certainly in the political leadership, both on the Hill and in the executive branch, about starting to draw down. And there's an expectation that that's the next big move, rather than an increase.

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, unfortunately, I think the administration has put out the impression that success is going to look like a gradual drawdown. What the administration would have to do now is make it clear that, before we can actually begin a major drawdown, we have to have a bump-up first to establish real security, and then do a handover.

That will require changing expectations, and it will require significant political effort on the part of the president. On the other hand, my fear is, that if we don't actually change course, he's going to have the much harder political task of explaining why we've lost.

RAY SUAREZ: And one of the most frequently heard responses to the suggestion that the number of troops be raised significantly is that there really aren't that many troops left to send into Iraq who are ready for that mission and ready to be mobilized for that kind of work. Is this a practical suggestion?

FREDERICK KAGAN: It's a question of trade-offs. Right now, there are about 650,000 soldiers in the active Army, in the active Marines. We have 160,000 troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you look at the numbers, absolutely, we could find more soldiers and send them to Iraq.

It would require accepting greater risk. It would require hastening training timetables. It would require extending the tours of soldiers who are in Iraq. It would require in general asking for increased sacrifices on the part of our soldiers.

I feel very badly about that. I think it's very unfortunate that we're in a situation that it's necessary to ask for these sorts of sacrifices. But I'm much more worried about the consequences that defeat will have on the Army.

I think people have not really thought through what the scenario will look like as we pull out in defeat, as the ethic cleansing gets going in earnest, as our soldiers withdraw, as we have pictures on CNN and Al-Jazeera of atrocities being committed with American troops in the background, of women and children rushing at the FOBs, trying to get protection and having to be turned away.

This is going to be an incredibly searing, emotionally devastating defeat if we allow ourselves to be driven out right now. And I'm much more worried about the consequences of that on the morale of the Army than I am on the consequences of asking for some slightly greater sacrifices in order to stabilize the situation.

U.S. troops in Iraq--a hindrance?

Frederick Kagan
Military Historian
If we actually pulled out right now, the Iraqi army would collapse immediately. There's no one who understands the situation in Iraq who can imagine that the Iraqis will continue to be able to fight if we leave.

RAY SUAREZ: Some of the guests in the earlier ones in this series of conversations have suggested that a large number of American troops right now are an irritant and a target. The longer they remain in Iraq, it only makes it worse.

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, it is certainly true that American troops irritate Iraqis in certain circumstances, especially when they don't provide what the Iraqis most want, which is security. The question here is: Does it matter, from that perspective, if there are 140,000 American soldiers or 180,000 or 100,000?

I don't think it makes any difference when we're talking about the scale of what we would actually have to leave to prevent the situation from collapsing.

Keep something in mind right now: The Iraqi army is currently almost entirely dependent on the American soldiers to do its logistics, its supply, to provide it with food, to provide it with shelter. If we actually pulled out right now, the Iraqi army would collapse immediately. There's no one who understands the situation in Iraq who can imagine that the Iraqis will continue to be able to fight if we leave.

So we're going to have to have some sort of presence in country if we're going to have anything other than immediate catastrophe. And, in my view, it really doesn't matter very much how large that presence is.

Keep something else in mind: The American presence in Iraq is so heavily confined to forward operating bases, we're so reluctant to do large-scale search and cordon and search operations, large-scale raids, most Iraqis don't see Americans most of the time.

This is not a very heavy-handed, very widespread occupation. And so I just think this notion that the major problem is our presence really misses a lot of fundamental facts of the case.

RAY SUAREZ: Frederick Kagan, thanks for joining us.

FREDERICK KAGAN: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: Tomorrow, our conversation will be about diplomacy with Iraq's neighbors.