February 5, 2007
By John M. Donnelly, CQ Staff
When President Bush told the nation last month that he was sending more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq, most of them to Baghdad, he made a point that they would not bear the whole burden of pacifying the city. Iraqi units would be in the lead, he said, with U.S. troops working alongside them, “embedded in their formations.”
That left a question in the minds of military experts and members of Congress — even some supporters of Bush’s troop increase — about who exactly would be in charge of the new U.S.-Iraqi strategy on the ground.
It is one thing to say that the two militaries would work side by side — from strategy sessions down to small-unit patrols — but how would that operate in practice? What would happen, for instance, if a platoon of U.S. soldiers and a platoon of Iraqis went to clear out a building of snipers and their commanders disagreed on the tactics? Who would make the call?
That is what Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona was getting at when he questioned Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the incoming allied commander in Iraq, at an Armed Services Committee hearing Jan. 23. “I’m very concerned about unity of command,” McCain said.
“Sir, I share your concern,” Petraeus replied.
“We need to get that sorted out, General,” McCain said.
This ad hoc command arrangement, which depends on a working partnership between two very different armies, could imperil the administration’s new strategy in Iraq, according to experts in the field. “It actually risks the success of the operation,” Jack Keane, the retired Army vice chief of staff, told the Armed Services Committee two days after Petraeus testified. Keane, along with military analyst Frederick W. Kagan, is credited with persuading Bush to pursue the buildup, but in their White House briefing they proposed that U.S. officers be in charge of the operations. “You need one commander,” Keane said.
Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, a senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, which he chaired for almost eight years, is so worried about the command structure that he included a provision on it in the compromise version of a non-binding war resolution the Senate is scheduled to debate this week. His provision recommends that military leaders clarify how the chain of command operates, thus ensuring, Warner said, “the protection of our forces and that the command structure works.” Calling the Shots
Administration officials and Pentagon leaders have made at least one thing clear: U.S. troops will serve only under U.S. command. But beyond that, the Pentagon has not explained which side will be making the decisions.
Adm. William J. Fallon, who has been nominated to be the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, told the Armed Services Committee last week, “I have no idea what the structure is that the ground commanders over there have in mind. But whatever it is has got to be one in which we can effectively employ our forces and we have the confidence that we can safeguard their well-being.”
“As I understand it,” Petraeus told the Armed Services Committee in written testimony, “the Baghdad plan is to be an Iraqi plan, devised by the Iraqis in consultation with and supported by” U.S. and coalition forces.
The vague arrangement appears to be the result of administration policy that Iraqi forces begin to assume a greater role — or appear to be assuming a greater role — in dealing with the current violence.
The Army’s new manual for fighting insurgencies, which Petraeus helped to put together last year, says that political considerations might make unity of command impractical in some conflicts.
“Political sensitivities about the perceived subordination of national forces to those of other states,” the manual reads, “often preclude strong command relationships.”
It could be possible, as some experts believe, to devise a joint headquarters and clearly defined rules for dividing jobs in a multinational operation. Indeed, some say, it has been done before when U.S. forces have fought alongside or even subordinate to foreign forces, including in World War II.
Retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, a former commandant of the Army War College, said the broad outlines of the Baghdad operation sound similar to the arrangements used everywhere from Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan.
“We’ve been doing it for a long time,” Scales said.
More important than organizational charts, Scales and others said, are the bonds established between U.S. officers and their foreign counterparts. and a shared sense of purpose before missions are launched. Running Risks
But the command question is particularly important because of the chaotic nature of the fighting in Iraq, and Baghdad in particular, where small units of U.S. and Iraqi troops face constant stress.
The way the structure is outlined by U.S. officials, an Iraqi general will lead the military in Baghdad. The city will be divided into nine security sectors, each with an Iraqi army brigade that includes not only subordinate battalions of Iraqis — units of up to 1,000 soldiers — but also one U.S. battalion. U.S. forces could be embedded in smaller Iraqi units down to company size.
Keane, the proponent of the surge in U.S. troop strength, told the Armed Services Committee it would be beneficial to allow Iraqis “to sort of flap their wings a little bit and demonstrate some control here,” but the parallel lines of authority need to be made one somehow.
“When Petraeus gets on the ground over there, I hope he puts his two big feet right in the middle of this thing and tries to get this resolved,” Keane said.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, says it should have been resolved already. “They must agree down there on those streets: Yes or no, are we going into that house or not?” Levin said.
On the streets, decisions must often be made instantly with no time for debate. Retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who commanded the 1st Infantry Division in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, said, “If you don’t have unity of command, at the end of the day, you put our soldiers at risk, and that is unacceptable.”
Although there are precedents for successful operations with multiple lines of command, they typically have involved U.S. troops working with NATO or U.N. forces, with whom they share procedures and, to varying degrees, culture and language. Even then, there have been failures when lines of authority have been divided.
If such problems have arisen in organizations that are used to working together, they are even more likely to occur between two militaries that are dissimilar.
“As units become more different, the risks go up,” said retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, the first Army officer to oversee training Iraqi forces and a supporter of the surge.
“Fighting a pretty violent counterinsurgency with a country we haven’t cooperated with to the extent we have with the British, for example, is going to create some huge potential problems,” said Seth Jones, an insurgency analyst with the Rand Corp.
The experts’ doubts are compounded by the failure of Iraq on several occasions to provide forces to help the U.S. military, or to provide reliable forces. The troops sent sometimes aggravated sectarian strife rather than dampened it.
In a future Baghdad operation comprising U.S. and Iraqi forces, the mission could be imperiled by a command disagreement — if the Iraqis, for instance, withheld forces thought to be en route to combat a militia. “The 60 or 70 people that were going to help you do this task all of a sudden are gone,” said Keane. “It is more dangerous.”
The confusing urban battlefield increases the odds of miscommunication or misunderstanding between forces that are unfamiliar with each other and responding to two different bosses.
Warner has several times asked what would happen if an Iraqi lieutenant wanted to go left and his U.S. counterpart wanted to go right. There is little time to work out command relationships in a firefight, he said.
“On the battlefield, decisions have to be made in a matter of seconds, from the platoon level right up the chain of command,” said Warner. U.S. Forces Under Foreign Flags
The armed forces of the United States have sometimes served under foreign command, though almost always as large units. In World War I, Gen. John J. Pershing insisted that troops fight together under their own commanders rather than be distributed among French and British divisions, setting an unofficial precedent. Some did, however, serve under British command in 1918. Some other instances: WORLD WAR II:
U.S. units were attached to British forces and put under their command in several operations in Italy, Normandy, Arnhem, and in the China-Burma-India area. KOREA:
Since 1992 a South Korean general has been in overall command of combined U.S. and Korean ground forces, which include an Army division. PERSIAN GULF:
Within the allied force structure for the 1991 war, a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division was under the operational control of the French 6th Light Armored Division. BOSNIA AND KOSOVO:
Commanders from several NATO countries have been in charge of peacekeeping forces in the Balkans, which include U.S. troops. SOURCE: Congressional Research Service