New York Times
November 18, 2006
Pg. 8 Military Analysis
By Mark Mazzetti
WASHINGTON, Nov. 17 — In the fall of 2005, the generals running the Iraq war told the Senate Armed Services Committee that a gradual withdrawal of American troops from Iraq was imperative.
The American troop presence, Gen. John P. Abizaid and Gen. George W. Casey Jr. said at the time, was stoking the insurgency, fostering dependency among the Iraqi security forces and proving counterproductive for what General Abizaid has called “The Long War” against Islamic radicalism.
This week, General Abizaid, chief of the United States Central Command, told the same committee that American forces may be all that is preventing full-scale civil war in Iraq, so a phased troop withdrawal would be a mistake. What has changed, military experts and intelligence officials say, is that the insurgency of Baathists and foreign jihadists is no longer the greatest enemy the United States faces in Iraq. The biggest danger now, they say, is that violence between Shiites and Sunnis could destroy Iraq’s government and spill across the Middle East.
General Abizaid and other American commanders may continue to worry about the long-term consequences of keeping an American occupation force of more than 100,000 troops in an Arab country indefinitely.
But in his testimony to Congress on Wednesday, General Abizaid made it clear that he thought he had no option but to focus on the most immediate threat, the sectarian violence threatening to split Iraq apart.
The Pentagon, which long ago discarded the idea that it would be American troops that would defeat the Iraqi insurgency, has made the training of Iraqi security forces its primary mission in Iraq. But Iraqi forces are still far from capable of quashing sectarian violence, and that is the principal reason that American commanders say they believe that a substantial American troop presence is still needed.
On Wednesday, General Abizaid announced a plan to bulk up the number of trainers embedded with Iraqi troops, but few military experts believe that the capacity of Iraqi troops is likely to improve so much that a significant American troop reduction would be prudent in the short run.
“While it would make a great deal of sense to progressively turn things over to the Iraqis and reduce our presence, it is no more practical in the fall of 2006 than it was in the fall of 2005, and that’s the worrisome part,” said Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., a counterinsurgency expert and the executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Last fall, General Casey told the Senate that it was essential to cut the American presence in Iraq as a way of pushing more Iraqi troops onto the frontlines and reducing “dependency.” As late as this summer, he had been drawing up plans for a troop drawdown that would drastically cut the American presence in Iraq by the end of next year.
But these days, troop levels in Iraq are going up, rather than down.
A unit of about 2,200 marines that had been aboard naval warships in the Persian Gulf has begun moving into Anbar Province, the restive Sunni stronghold west of Baghdad. Some in the Pentagon have worried that Anbar Province — which includes the violent cities of Falluja and Ramadi — is particularly vulnerable with the American military currently focused on an offensive to secure the most violent neighborhoods of Baghdad, the capital.
On Friday, the Pentagon also announced a new set of deployment orders for troops that will enter Iraq early in 2007, most for yearlong combat tours.
American commanders had hoped by this point to be deploying fewer combat brigades into Iraq than the number rotating out, but the Pentagon is now planning to keep a base level of about 141,000 troops in the country, with the possibility of “surging” more troops as needed.
In his own testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, described how the spiraling violence would create new difficulties for American forces, whether in Baghdad or Falluja.
“The longer this goes on, the less controlled the violence is, the more the violence devolves down to the neighborhood level,” he said. “The center disappears, and normal people acting not irrationally end up acting like extremists.”
For his part, General Abizaid insisted that every commander running the Iraq war believed that the mission could ultimately succeed.
“It’s not a matter of personal pride,” he said. “It’s a matter of seeing that the enemy can’t win.”
General Abizaid, who has spoken eloquently in the past about what could be a decades long fight against Islamic radicalism, is also well aware that keeping such high troop levels in Iraq could also be the catalyst for a new generation of radicals committed to jihad.
Appearing shortly after General Abizaid, General Hayden said that the American presence in Iraq “gives life to Al Qaeda propaganda that they misuse and misrepresent to the larger Arab world.”
Pointedly, General Hayden declined repeatedly to characterize Iraq as “the central battlefront in the war on terror,” as senior Bush administration officials have described it.
Under questioning from Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, he referred to Iraq instead as an “absolutely critical battlefront.” Thom Shanker contributed reporting.