The U.S. generals running the war in Iraq presented a new assessment of the military situation in public comments and sworn testimony this week: The 149,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq are increasingly part of the problem.
During a trip to Washington, the generals said the presence of U.S. forces was fueling the insurgency, fostering an undesirable dependency on American troops among the nascent Iraqi armed forces and energizing terrorists across the Middle East.
For all these reasons, they said, a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops was imperative.
American officials backtracked on their expectations of what the U.S. military can achieve in Iraq months ago. But this week’s comments showed that commanders believe a large U.S. force in Iraq might in fact be creating problems as well as solutions.
“This has been hinted at before, but it’s a big shift for them to be saying that publicly,” said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It means they recognize that there is a cost to staying just as there is a benefit to staying. And this has not really been factored in as a central part of the strategy before.”
The generals’ comments reflect an evolving outlook that senior military officials and even Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have articulated in recent months. The battle against Iraqi insurgents will not be won by the U.S. military, they have said, and the insurgency will persist long after U.S. troops have left.
“If [the insurgency] does go on for four, eight, 10, 12, 15 years, whatever ... it is going to be a problem for the people of Iraq,” Rumsfeld said in June.
“They’re going to have to cope with that insurgency over time. They are ultimately going to be the ones who win over that insurgency.”
The generals’ words also represent a less ambitious definition of military success than what President Bush has put forth in recent statements.
At his ranch near Crawford, Texas, in August, Bush said that “when the mission of defeating the terrorists in Iraq is complete, our troops will come home.”
More recently, Bush has offered a more nuanced view of success, emphasizing the importance of training Iraqi troops as part of the U.S. mission to defeat the insurgents.
But the ground commanders told Congress on Thursday that the number of Iraqi units at the highest state of combat readiness had dropped from three to one since June. And they pointed this week to problems caused by the presence of U.S. troops.
During his congressional testimony, Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said that troop reductions were necessary to “take away one of the elements that fuels the insurgency, that of the coalition forces as an occupying force.”
A smaller U.S. presence could alleviate some of the anger feeding the insurgency, Casey suggested.
The same approach may prove helpful across the Middle East, commanders said. The Central Command’s Gen. John P. Abizaid, who supervises all U.S. troops in the region, said the broader fight against Islamic extremism required the United States to “reduce our military footprint” across the region and push governments in the Middle East to fight the extremists themselves.
Although Abizaid advocates a troop reduction, he does not favor total withdrawal. He envisions such an exit preceded by the establishment of stable governments in Iraq and Afghanistan and accompanied by an assured flow of oil and enhanced regional security networks.
A smaller U.S. contingent would also encourage greater self-reliance among Iraqi forces in the face of an insurgency that could last a decade or more. A reduction in American forces is essential to push more Iraqi troops onto the front lines, Casey said.
“This is about dependency,” he said.
Even among themselves, military officials have differed in their assessments of the number of Iraqi troops ready to take on the mission.
During a briefing Friday, Casey was asked whether there were enough Iraqi troops in Tall Afar to permanently keep insurgents out of the western town, where U.S. and government forces recently launched a major offensive.
“We do have enough force,” Casey said.
Yet the U.S. commander of the Tall Afar operation, Army Col. H.R. McMaster, said Sept. 13 that it would be some time before the town had enough trained Iraqi troops to keep insurgents from filtering back.
“Is there enough force here right now to secure this area permanently? No. Are there opportunities for the enemy in other areas within our region? Yes,” McMaster said.
Among Americans, support for the war continues to dwindle, as growing numbers conclude that U.S. troops should be partially or completely withdrawn. Only 32% of those surveyed for a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released last week approved of Bush’s handling of Iraq, compared with 40% in August and 50% earlier this year.
The survey also showed that 59% considered it a mistake to have sent U.S. forces to Iraq, up from fewer than half during the summer. And 63% said the troops should be partially or completely withdrawn, up 10 percentage points from August. Just 21% of those surveyed believed U.S. forces would win the war, while 34% said they considered the conflict unwinnable.
Military officials and others familiar with Casey’s strategy in Iraq say the U.S. plans a phased withdrawal, first pulling its troops out of the 14 provinces that commanders believe are most secure. Initially, they would maintain a presence in the predominantly Sunni provinces of central Iraq, where most of the violence is occurring and the U.S. military suffers most of its casualties.
“Withdrawing from the secure areas would be a good signal to the rest of Iraqis that this is coming for them eventually,” said a Central Command advisor who has traveled frequently to Iraq and requested anonymity because he was speaking about a classified strategy.
The advisor said that U.S. commanders were concerned that Iraqi troops could become too dependent on the American presence, but that there were no plans for a hasty pullout from the violent provinces before the Iraqis were up to the task.
“There’s a line between what constitutes casual dependence and what constitutes not being ready to fight,” he said. “For the most part, [Iraqi troops] are not ready to do the job. And stepping back is just going to leave them vulnerable to a battle-tested army of insurgents.”