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U.S. Troop Increase Underway in Baghdad

February 9, 2007 at 5:10 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: An additional 21,500 U.S. soldiers and Marines are in Iraq or on their way. We get two perspectives on the buildup. Ann Scott Tyson covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post. And author and New Yorker writer George Packer is just back from Iraq.

Ann Scott Tyson, let’s begin with you. Let’s talk about how this worked. It’s not as if there’s a pot of 21,500 troops who are being moved to Iraq. Explain for our audience how you get this buildup?

ANN SCOTT TYSON, Washington Post: Well, Judy, it’s actually — you should think of it in terms of an overlapping. What you have is about 17,500 troops, additionally, headed to Baghdad, and about another 4,000 Marines that are headed to Anbar province, which is a Sunni stronghold in western Iraq.

But that’s not done automatically, as you implied. It’s done by extending some forces. And they’ve extended one brigade in Iraq already, of the Army. And they’ve extended about 4,000 Marines for Anbar.

Then it also comes by accelerating the flow of troops that were going to go to Iraq eventually. And the ones that are being accelerated are the 82nd Airborne, which already has a brigade active in Baghdad. And over the next several months, through May, about every month you will have one additional Army brigade flowing into Baghdad, but that’s going to happen, again, about one brigade a month.

Sufficient troop training periods?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Given the acceleration, Ann, do these troops have the training? Because we know some of them are new to the military. Do they have the training that they need? And do they have the equipment they need?

ANN SCOTT TYSON: Well, they certainly don't have as much training as they would like. They're making shortcuts by, for example, instead of going out to California for their normal training exercise, in some cases, they are having the mobile training units come to their base and train them there.

Also, obviously, if you're getting new privates to a unit, they won't have as much time to acclimatize themselves. Because these units are only back in the States for about a year, the entire training process has been compressed down to a few months, because when they come back, they lose a lot of people. They have to repair their equipment, and they can't start training again until they get that equipment and those people back.

Similarly, in terms of equipment, you know, about 40 percent of Army and Marine Corps equipment are in Iraq right now, including some of the crucial items, like up-armored Humvees, that they don't have here to train on. They can't. They can't afford to spare those from theater.

So a lot of items such as those, night-vision goggles, jammers, other weaponry, they will be getting only when they get to Kuwait and maybe in Iraq.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So a shorter training period with this equipment, with some of this equipment?


'An extremely difficult strategy'

JUDY WOODRUFF: George Packer, let's turn to you and talk about what these troops will be doing. Baghdad is a city of, what, 6 million people, give or take. What is your understanding of what they'll be doing that's different from what's already been done?

GEORGE PACKER, The New Yorker: Well, the new strategy in Baghdad is really based on sort of the classic counterinsurgency doctrine of, first, protecting and securing the civilian population. So these new troops, together with the ones who already in Baghdad, are going to be rotating in and out of combat outposts, which are very small bases, in the critical neighborhoods where sectarian conflict has been most intense.

They'll be working with Iraqi police and Iraqi army units, in sort of communication centers, as well as on patrols and raids, in order to establish a presence in the neighborhoods for a prolonged period of time.

So that, rather than clearing these neighborhoods and then moving on, which is what we've done in Baghdad from the beginning of the war, this time the plan is to stay in these neighborhoods, to secure them, and to begin to rebuild them economically and politically, before turning them over to local security forces. So it's an extremely difficult strategy to execute.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If it's a good idea to do this now, why wasn't it done sooner?

GEORGE PACKER: Because the Pentagon strategy for the past 18 months or so has been to hand over responsibility to the Iraqi army and to leave. And that strategy, over the course of 2006, saw Americans pulling back to the large bases around Iraq and turning over the cities to Iraqi units. And those cities saw increases in violence, especially Baghdad, where sectarian violence raged out of control over the last year.

And so the strategy failed. And it was a strategy that was devised at the White House and at the Pentagon and executed by General Casey. And most people now admit it was a failure, that the Iraqi security forces were incapable of picking up the job.

And so the American forces are now going back into the cities to try to do what they have really never done in Baghdad, which is actually securing civilians in that city, civilians who are actually leaving in very large numbers now because of the violence.

'Slim' chances for success

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you've just come back from Iraq. Based on what you saw, what do you think the prospects for success are?

GEORGE PACKER: I think they're slim. I think this may well be too little, too late. I think, two years ago, this strategy would have had a much better chance of success and with more forces.

But now the Army is stretched so thin, as Ann just described, the state of violence is so extensive, and basically the confidence of the Iraqi people is almost gone. And that is expressed in the fact that most of the middle class has left Baghdad or is leaving and is going to neighboring countries.

And so those on whom we would have depended, as partners in rebuilding that city, have pretty much cleared out or are leaving. And so really what we're trying to do is prevent the worst hemorrhaging from completely emptying out civil society, so that Iraqis can see enough progress that those people will begin to come back.

But I think, given how late we are in the war and how scant our resources and our leverage with the Iraqi government are, I'm afraid the chances are pretty slim that this is going to succeed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And if that's the perspective that George Packer has from coming back from Iraq, what are they telling you from the Pentagon about why they think this will work?

ANN SCOTT TYSON: Well, it's interesting. This week during testimony, Defense Secretary Gates acknowledged that the plans for a successful operation in Baghdad is what he described as the best-case scenario, the best-case scenario being that this relatively short surge -- I mean, this surge is only planned to last for about nine months -- will provide the Iraqi government with the time it needs to create some sort of reconciliation and stabilize the situation.

But he also acknowledged that he's planning for other scenarios. He said he would not be responsible if he did not do that. And those scenarios, one of which he indicated might have been having U.S. forces pull back again to situations where they were out of danger, which I took to mean perhaps out of the major cities, and repositioning them that way. But that wasn't really a full answer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, in other words, they're planning for -- in the event this doesn't work, that it fails, is that what you're saying?

ANN SCOTT TYSON: They are already making such plans, yes.

New military leadership in Baghdad

JUDY WOODRUFF: George Packer, you have -- we know that General Petraeus has gone over to Baghdad to take charge this week. He's bringing with him a group of colonels. You followed their careers and what they've done. What does your knowledge of them tell you about what can happen?

GEORGE PACKER: Well, what's happened is that the best minds of the military in counterinsurgency, Colonel HR McMaster, an Australian civilian at the State Department named Dave Kilcullen, Colonel Pete Mansoor, and others, are finally being brought to Baghdad, in order to do what some of them have been arguing for all along, which is what McMaster did in Tal Afar a year or a year-and-a-half ago, secure the city and then try to bring about reconciliation.

That was not our strategy all along. It's very late for us to be turning to it. We're now turning to, I think, some of the most impressive military minds that we have.

But the question is, can a few very capable individuals, starting with General Petraeus, turn around a situation that is deep into civil war, in which the Iraqi population itself has lost confidence in its own government and in the American forces, to the extent that they're leaving the country by the thousands?

I think it's going to be very nearly beyond the capability of even these most capable officers to execute this strategy at this stage of the war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ann Scott Tyson, when you talk to people inside the Pentagon -- you were telling us about the testimony on Capitol Hill, but when you talk to people at the Pentagon, what do they say to you?

ANN SCOTT TYSON: Well, I think that they do say that -- I mean, this is a strategy that not everyone is in favor of, but they do think it's their last best shot.

I mean, on one hand, there will be a large increase of U.S. forces in Baghdad. I mean, there are about seven brigades now, so this is bringing it up to 12 brigades.

But I think one real question is the competency of the Iraqi forces. I mean, one reason the strategy of handing over to the Iraqis was problematic is the loyalty of those forces are now in question. How many of the Shiite forces are truly loyal to the central government?

That's what's going to be put to test. And it's going to be put to test with U.S. soldiers side by side with the Iraqis in the center of Baghdad.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what, George Packer, did you learn in Baghdad about the capability and the mindset of these Iraq soldiers?

GEORGE PACKER: I think that we've always focused on their training, and equipment, and supplies, but those are technical issues. The real issue is, as Ann says, their political views. What are they fighting for? Who are they fighting for? Are they fighting as Iraqis or as Shiites, and Kurds, and Sunnis?

And the real question mark about this new plan, it's only a military plan. The political plan doesn't seem to be there. It's the same political strategy as before, which is to try to bring about reconciliation between Sunnis and Shia in Baghdad.

So far, at least, I don't see anything that would suggest that we're going to get closer to that than we have been in the past. There is no new strategy on the political front to complement the military strategy. So all the onus is on the shoulders of these sort of former dissident officers who have now been given the chance to turn around a desperate situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the new strategy getting under way right now. Thank you, George Packer. Thank you, Ann Scott Tyson. Thank you both.