The Magazine

Too Few Troops

From the April 26, 2004 issue: Resolve alone won't bring success. We need a military and political strategy that maximizes our odds of winning in Iraq.

Apr 26, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 31 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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AT HIS PRESS CONFERENCE Tuesday night, President Bush eloquently made the case for staying the course in Iraq. The next day, at City College in New York, Senator Kerry agreed: "It would be unwise beyond belief for the United States of America" to cut and run, and to "leave a failed Iraq in its wake." And the American people, despite the recent bad news, show no sign of panic: In a Time/CNN poll, 57 percent of respondents agree that the United States should "intensify" its military effort in Iraq.

Unfortunately, resolve alone won't bring success. Neither will well-delivered statements by the president. The problem in Iraq is not poor public relations, or a lack of will. Rather, it is the failure of policymakers at the highest levels to fashion a military and political strategy that maximizes the odds of success. That is what has been missing ever since Saddam's statue fell a little over a year ago.

The mere fact that violence has increased recently in Iraq is not by itself grounds for criticizing the administration's handling of the war. No sensible person believed that the effort to build a democratic Iraq would be without cost and dangers. No reasonable person expected administration officials and military commanders, either in Washington or in Baghdad, to be able to exercise unerring mastery over an inherently complex and always explosive situation.

Nor is the news from Iraq all bad. Several weeks ago we argued optimistically (perhaps too optimistically) that things were looking better, and we still believe there is much in Iraq to be gratified by: continued peaceful cooperation among Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders, despite many disagreements; an economy that seems to be improving; the fact that a large majority of Iraqis, as documented in polls, say their future is promising, reject political violence, and support an ongoing American presence. And much of Iraq remains, at the moment, relatively peaceful. All this is important progress.

Yet this progress can be undone. And while we certainly do not hold the administration responsible for everything that has gone wrong in Iraq, it is clear that there have been failures in planning and in execution, failures that have been evident for most of the last year. Serious errors have been made--and made, above all, by Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon. The recent violence in Iraq has confirmed that the level of American military forces has been too low to accomplish the president's mission ever since the invasion phase of the war ended last April.

On Thursday, the secretary of defense announced a three-month extension in tours of duty for about 20,000 troops in Iraq. This did not increase the number of troops on the ground, but it did undo a planned drawdown in military strength from 135,000 to 115,000, thereby maintaining current combat strength. But leaving 20,000 troops in Iraq for an additional three months will almost certainly not be enough. Close observers of the conflict in Iraq, civilian and military alike (military, of course, speaking off the record), say that at least two additional divisions--at least 30,000 extra troops--are needed in Iraq just to deal with the current crisis. Even more troops may well be needed to fully pacify the country. And it would be useful to have as many of those troops as possible there sooner rather than later.

The shortage of troops in Iraq is the product of a string of bad calculations and a hefty dose of wishful thinking. Above all, it is the product of Rumsfeld's fixation on high-tech military "transformation," his hostility to manpower-intensive nation-building in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, and his refusal to increase the overall size of the military in the first place. The results are plain to see: We are trying to carry out Bush's post-9/11 foreign policy with Clinton's pre-9/11 military. It is a wonderful military, but it is too small for our responsibilities in the post-9/11 world. As a result, it will not be easy to find the additional brigades to send to Iraq. Troubling reductions in our deployments elsewhere will be required, and an already stressed military will be asked to do more still. Unfortunately, there is no choice.

It didn't have to be this way. Back in August 2003, it was already clear that by early spring of 2004 there would be a shortage of forces to maintain stability and security in Iraq. Neither the military commanders in Iraq nor Rumsfeld pretended otherwise. But rather than prepare to increase American forces, Rumsfeld and General John Abizaid, the U.S. commander in the region, searched for stopgaps. One was the John Kerry solution: more foreign troops. Pentagon plans last fall called for the introduction of an additional international division on top of the one currently led by Poland. That second international division never materialized.