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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The second proposed fix was to build an Iraqi security force capable of filling the gap. Original plans to build a force of 50,000-100,000 within a year were scrapped as too modest. By October, Rumsfeld boasted that up to 200,000 Iraqi forces would be available in a matter of months. In order to accomplish this feat, training schedules were radically shortened, and procedures for vetting Iraqi soldiers and police were loosened. Critics, including this magazine, warned that this hasty assembling of an Iraqi force carried significant risks: Either they would not be capable of fighting in the time allotted, or they would be unreliable. Both unfortunately turned out to be the case. General Abizaid now acknowledges that the Iraqi forces have proved a "big disappointment." Many would not fight during the recent violence. Some even defected to the other side.

So the present shortage of troops in Iraq is not a surprise. It was predictable. Without the hoped-for second international division and without a usable force of Iraqis, security in Iraq has fallen almost entirely to an American force too small to handle the job. The stresses we're under now cannot be chalked up to the "fog of war" or simple bad luck. Last September General Ricardo Sanchez, the top commander in Iraq, was asked if he had enough troops. He responded that he would not have enough to handle a new wave of conflict in Iraq. "If a militia or an internal conflict of some nature were to erupt," he told reporters in Baghdad, " . . . that would be a challenge out there that I do not have sufficient forces for." Eight months later, that conflict erupted, and, sure enough, there weren't enough troops to handle it.

We need to fix the situation. It would of course have been better to have planned for higher force levels from the beginning, rather than to have to scramble now, calling forces back from well-earned leaves and disrupting rotations. Had the proper number of forces been in place in Iraq from the beginning, some of the recent violence might have been deterred, or suppressed more speedily. Had the proper number of forces been in place, the military would have been able to act more aggressively and thoroughly to disarm, pacify, and secure Iraq. Instead, we tried to keep a lid on things, while terrorists became better organized and militias became stronger. Had the proper number of forces been in place early on, the looting that did so much damage to Iraq's infrastructure might have been stopped, munition dumps could have been secured, economic reconstruction would have moved ahead more easily, and more men and resources could have been devoted to the training of Iraqi soldiers. Perhaps we could even have reduced infiltration from Iran, lessening Tehran's ability to stir up trouble in the south.

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld famously talks about preparing for the "unknown unknowns." Yet the present crisis was hardly unforeseeable, and Rumsfeld did not ensure that the military was prepared to deal with it. He failed to put in place in Iraq a force big enough to handle the challenges at hand. That is a significant failure, and we do not yet know the price that will be paid for it.

The question is whether Rumsfeld and his generals have learned from past mistakes. Or rather, perhaps, the question is whether George W. Bush has learned from Rumsfeld's past mistakes. After all, at the end of the day, it is up to the president to ensure that the success he demands in Iraq will in fact be accomplished. If his current secretary of defense cannot make the adjustments that are necessary, the president should find one who will.

--Robert Kagan and William Kristol