The Magazine

A Few More Good Men

From the May 3, 2004 issue: What's needed to defeat the Iraqi insurgents.

May 3, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 32 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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EVERYTHING WE KNOW about fighting an insurgency like the one in Iraq suggests that a large part of the answer is to crush the insurgents as thoroughly and rapidly as possible. And when it comes to counterinsurgency, there is no substitute for U.S. troops--and lots of them. Why, then, does there seem to be a bipartisan consensus in Washington to avoid this hard truth?

At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Iraq last week, former Bush administration adviser Richard Perle testified that the "problem is not that we have too few troops, but that the Iraqis have too few well-trained, highly motivated troops and security forces." Sandy Berger weighed in for the Kerry camp at the same hearings in favor of "internationalizing" the military effort, adding that "more troops and more money is not a strategy." Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld meantime said that the administration is not considering sending more troops to Iraq now, although it is preparing to do so if it seems necessary down the road. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said, "It's hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army. Hard to imagine."

Is it possible Washington has learned nothing about the nature of insurgencies? Surely the relationship between American troop levels and the U.S. ability to train Iraqi soldiers to take over security is not that hard to grasp.

Counterinsurgency operations are inevitably troop-intensive. Soldiers must accomplish four major tasks simultaneously: (1) guarding fixed points, including cities, command posts, diplomatic compounds, etc.; (2) sealing the frontiers to prevent aid and foreign fighters from reinforcing the insurgents; (3) protecting supply lines, which insurgents like to attack because they are the softest military targets available; and finally (4) attacking the insurgents directly. The trouble is that the first three tasks are primarily defensive. The counterinsurgent can succeed in all of them without suppressing the insurgency. Only the fourth task really advances the counterinsurgent campaign, but the other three inevitably siphon off a large proportion of the available combat power.

Since the Bush administration is rightly serious about creating local Iraqi organs capable of maintaining themselves in power after the upcoming transition, U.S. forces must also train Iraqi soldiers and police. Only in the long term, though, will these new Iraqi forces reduce the need for U.S. troops. At the moment, that task also requires significant numbers of American forces, because it takes soldiers to train soldiers (and also to protect them while they are being trained).

The more coalition troops are drawn into a fight against insurgents, the fewer will be available to support this critical training. The more the Iraqis see real combat in their streets, the fewer Iraqi troops will be ready to take the field alone, or even with American troops alongside them. Until coalition forces get the insurgency under control, in other words, it is highly unlikely that the training of Iraqi forces will reach the necessary levels of quality and quantity.

But can the coalition get the insurgency under control with the forces it now has available? Only if it is very, very lucky. A wise strategy would be to immediately dispatch at least six more combat brigades (about 40,000 troops with their necessary support groups), sending one each to Falluja, Karbala, Najaf, and Mosul, one to strengthen the patrols along the Iranian border (we might even need one more along the Syrian border, given the recent violence there), and one for a reserve. We can already see sufficient dangers in these areas to warrant preventive reinforcements. If we increase our presence now, we might be able to deter new problems, with increased patrolling, and to solve some old ones--including the standoff with Moktada al-Sadr that has been allowed to drag on very dangerously.

Neither the Bush administration nor its critics seem to want to acknowledge that wars and counterinsurgencies are made up of a string of fleeting opportunities that, once past, can never be recovered. The coalition has received ample warning of the possibility of widespread violence erupting suddenly in Iraq. By sending more troops now, we stand a fair chance of preventing an explosion. If we wait until it has occurred, the prospects for success in Iraq will have dimmed dramatically.

More troops and more money may not, in themselves, be a strategy. Any sound strategy for dealing with the problems in Iraq today, however, will have to begin with more troops. A paucity of American forces in Iraq has been the central problem of U.S. policy since before the war began. It remains the central problem today. Until it is resolved, the outlook will remain grim.

Frederick W. Kagan is a military historian and the coauthor of While America Sleeps.