A Plan for Victory in Iraq
Defeat the insurgents militarily--here's how.
May 29, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 35 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
In eastern Ramadi, U.S. Army Capt. Joe Claburn visited a house beside an alley from where four guerrillas . . . had attacked a guard tower on a U.S. base. . . . Claburn asked the man if he was willing to signal U.S. troops when insurgents turned up. "I'm telling you sincerely, I cannot cooperate with you," the man replied, shaking his head. "We know you are trying to protect us, but the insurgents would cut off my head. We are too frightened to do anything. They're everywhere. They're probably watching us right now."
The security environment and continuing strength of the insurgency have made it difficult for the United States to transfer security responsibilities to Iraqi forces and progressively draw down U.S. forces. The security situation in Iraq has deteriorated since June 2003, with significant increases in attacks against Iraqi and coalition forces. In addition, the security situation has affected the cost and schedule of rebuilding efforts.
THE MOST BASIC FUNCTION OF ANY GOVERNMENT is to provide security to its people. That the Iraqi government is currently failing at this task in large areas of the country reduces the Iraqi population's willingness and ability to support the counterinsurgency effort, undermines the government's legitimacy, hinders the political process, and derails reconstruction. It is the single most serious problem in Iraq today. Yet coalition forces have not stepped in to fill the security gap.
Establishing security throughout Iraq has always been a stated goal of the coalition forces, but it has never been their clear priority. Operations against insurgents have consisted mostly of raids and isolated sweeps, apparently divorced from any larger strategic aim. The coalition has never devised a deployment, or planned an operation, aimed at establishing security in the unstable areas of Iraq on a large scale. Coalition strategy has tended to focus instead on minimizing the role of coalition troops in handling the insurgency and pushing indigenous forces into the front of the fight, sometimes even when they were unprepared for such a role. The Bush administration did articulate the strategy of "clear-hold-build" in late 2005, declaring it a "strategy for victory." But U.S. forces have not, on the whole, been ordered or permitted to execute that strategy, and do not currently seem to intend to do so.
One of the reasons for this reluctance is the conviction, reinforced by the first battle of Falluja in early 2004, that coalition forces cannot really perform such missions. Generals John Abizaid, George Casey, and many others have argued that the mere presence of U.S. forces is an irritant, and their active operations against insurgents alienate more Iraqis than they win over. Yet a number of developments in 2005 should have called this assumption sharply into question.
Coalition forces partnered with Iraqi units were able to put down an uprising in Sadr City, a huge predominantly Shiite district of Baghdad, in early 2005 and then clear out a major insurgent stronghold in Tal Afar in September. In both cases, skillful preparation, the intelligent and discriminate use of force, and attention to vital "nonkinetic" parts of the operation (efforts to change local attitudes by improving water and sewer systems, building schools and clinics, handing out military rations, and so on) led to great and lasting success. These operations seriously undermine the argument that only the Iraqis can successfully prosecute such clear-and-hold missions, though they also show that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) will not be ready to conduct them on their own for the foreseeable future. In fact, the present course of "muddling through" while attempting to draw down as rapidly as possible is almost certain to prolong the insurgency, and with it the American troop presence in Iraq.
Such a prolongation has always been problematic from a political perspective, but it has become worrisome from a regional perspective as well. The United States has ground and air forces stationed on both the western and eastern borders of Iran at a time of crisis over Iran's nuclear programs. In principle, that presence should give the United States leverage in Tehran; the Iranians clearly feared this in the immediate wake of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But the oft-repeated American determination to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan as rapidly as possible, together with the continuing violent insurgencies in both countries, has turned the tables. The Iranians now derive leverage from America's difficulties on their borders, and may be emboldened to press harder on the nuclear issue than they would otherwise find comfortable.
Common wisdom, especially among senior military leaders, holds that any thought of combining military power with diplomatic, political, economic, and other nonkinetic tools to bring the violence in Iraq rapidly under control is absurd. When pressed on the applicability of the Tal Afar model to problems elsewhere in Iraq, officials of CENTCOM (the central command responsible for U.S. security interests from the Horn of Africa, through the Arabian Gulf region, into Central Asia) dismiss the relevance of that success by pointing to the uniqueness of that town and of the brilliant commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which conducted the operation, Colonel H.R. McMaster. They also dismiss as unattainable the troop levels needed to replicate Tal Afar "throughout Iraq." There is no alternative, they declare, to the current strategy.
As a result, the road not taken--a strategy of actually fighting the insurgency to defeat it--has never been examined seriously. But is it really impossible to replicate Tal Afar and Sadr City elsewhere in Iraq? Are the troop requirements (usually placed in the hundreds of thousands) really so large as to make such efforts ridiculous to contemplate? The only way to answer these questions is to think through a battle plan with care. And when appropriate models are applied, the answer that emerges is likely to be: It is indeed possible to imagine a campaign that would bring more rapid success. No individual could devise such a plan alone, and the considerations that follow do not pretend to be a finished blueprint. Rather, they amount to a kind of opening bid, intended to invite a serious examination of the question.
Military operations alone will not solve Iraq's problems. Yet they are essential to maintain political progress, support economic and infrastructure development, and lower intersectarian and interethnic tensions. Iraqi forces must play a central role in any such operations, especially during the process of clearing out insurgents, and they would be the ones to hold and build after the coalition had cleared. Even thinking about such integrated political-economic-military efforts executed jointly by the coalition and the ISF was not possible until about six months ago. The ISF did not have the capability to function even on this basic level, and coalition forces were only beginning to work through the complexities of integrated planning. The experiences of 2005, the rapid growth in the capability of the ISF, and the seating of a permanent Iraqi government now coincide to make possible a strategy for victory such as the president suggested last year. The plan offered here addresses only the military component of what would necessarily be a multifaceted program.
The Security Problem in Iraq
Iraq today presents four military challenges: insurgency among the Sunni Arabs, the growth of Shiite militias, Islamist terrorism conducted by "Al Qaeda in Iraq" and related organizations, and a breakdown of law and order in some areas. American military strategy since the beginning of the insurgency has largely focused on Islamist terrorism. After the February bombing of the al-Askariya mosque in Samarra, however, General John Abizaid testified at a Senate hearing that, as the New York Times put it, "sectarian violence in Iraq was replacing the insurgency as the greatest threat to security and stability." From the beginning of the insurgency, American strategy for handling the Sunni insurrection has centered on helping the Iraqis to defeat the rebels, rather than doing it for them. Coalition efforts to clear out specific trouble areas, such as Falluja, Tal Afar, and the Upper Euphrates river valley have been largely reactions to immediate dangers rather than parts of any strategy for establishing security throughout the country.
Today, the Sunni Arab insurgency is the single most powerful force for disorder and violence in Iraq. Shiite militias, present since the beginning of the occupation, have grown in power in response to the spectacular bombings conducted by Islamist terrorists. Those terrorists, some of them foreigners, rely on the Sunni Arab community for safe havens, supplies, and other necessary assistance. They receive that support primarily because fear and disorder prevail. The breakdown of law and order in parts of the country reflects the difficulty of establishing a robust Iraqi police force in the face of the insurgents' continuous attacks.
There is little the coalition can do to disarm the Shiite militias directly. Attempts to deploy coalition forces in Shiite communities, or to disarm the militias by force, are likely to backfire. The best hope of persuading the Shiite militias to disarm voluntarily lies in removing the threat to their communities that prompted the formation of those militias in the first place.
The coalition has had considerable success in disrupting the Islamist terror networks in Iraq, although it has not captured the senior-most leaders, and it has been unable to prevent those organizations from conducting significant attacks on Shiite holy sites and gatherings. It is not clear that these results have been worth the effort expended upon them. As long as the Sunni Arab community provides safe haven and support (and a small number of recruits) to the Islamist terrorists, military operations aimed at the terrorist networks are unlikely to eliminate the danger from them. The best approach, again, would be to eliminate the violence and disorder caused by the insurgency, since these are what fuels both active and passive Sunni Arab support for the Islamist terrorists.
The problems with law and order in Iraq are also unlikely to disappear while the insurgency continues. Police forces can be truly effective only if they are locally recruited, and in areas with ongoing insurgent activities, fear of reprisal hinders recruitment and retention. The violence also means that police receive training and equipment more appropriate to light infantry. The development of effective police forces, then, requires the virtual elimination of significant insurgent activity.
For all these reasons, the Sunni Arab insurgency is the crux of the military challenge in Iraq, and the coalition should bend every effort to defeating it.
The Shape of the Sunni Insurgency
One of the most common arguments against directly attacking the Sunni insurgency is that it can't be done. It would require the entire U.S. Army and Marine Corps, some say, to replicate throughout the country the success in Tal Afar. This argument is never presented in any detail, but rests on vague extrapolations of force ratios in Tal Afar to the entire population of Iraq or of Baghdad. In truth, it is quite possible to design a campaign to attack the Sunni insurgency using few more troops than the United States has already had in Iraq.
Extrapolations from the force ratios in Tal Afar to either the country as a whole or the capital are irrelevant. The Sunni Arab insurgency exists in particular regions, dispersed among discrete cities and villages. Baghdad and Mosul, the two large cities wracked by insurgent violence, are ethnically mixed and broken into neighborhoods. Not all neighborhoods are hostile; not all are violent. Nor is the insurgency likely to spread beyond its current limits. Sunni Arab insurgents who venture into the Kurdish-held north are likely to die very quickly. They are unlikely to find a welcome among the Shiite tribes in the south, or in heavily Shiite Sadr City. In 2004 it was possible to imagine some "national front" uniting Sunni Arab and Shiite rebels, but the rise of sectarian violence and the integration of Moktada al-Sadr into the political process dim the prospects for such an occurrence. The challenge today resides primarily, therefore, among 6 million or so Sunni Arabs, not 27 million Iraqis.
Nor are all Sunni areas equally dangerous. Al Anbar is an enormous province, and the task of policing it, along with Nineveh, Salahuddin, and Diyala provinces (and Baghdad), seems a major challenge. The vast majority of the province, however, is open desert, with small, isolated communities. Although the coalition has devoted resources to chasing terrorists around the desert, most of Anbar is nearly irrelevant to the urban insurgency. If the coalition could drive the insurgents out of the cities and towns of the Sunni Triangle and into the deserts of Anbar and Nineveh, the insurgency would rapidly fade to insignificance.
The heart of the insurgency lies, instead, in Baghdad and a handful of cities and towns along three river valleys: the upper Euphrates, stretching from west of Baghdad to the northwest via Ramadi and Haditha to al-Qaim and the Syrian border; the upper Tigris, running north from Baghdad through Taji, Balad, Tikrit, Samarra, and Baiji toward Mosul and the Turkish border; and the Diyala, which extends northeast of Baghdad through Baquba and Mukhdadiya in the direction of Iran. Mosul, Tal Afar, and the other villages and towns in the far north form another nexus of military challenges, although these are mitigated by the mixed population of Mosul and the stability of the Kurdish areas to the northeast, as well as by the recent joint coalition-ISF success in Tal Afar.
A campaign plan to break the back of the Sunni Arab insurgency should therefore concentrate on four areas: the upper Euphrates, the upper Tigris, the Diyala, and Baghdad. Let us first consider how many troops military planners could reasonably expect to have available to them, and what models are most useful for determining the force-ratios necessary for success.
The basic unit that can conduct sustained independent military operations in the U.S. Army is the brigade combat team; in the Marines, it is the infantry regimental combat team. The Army is in the process of reorganizing itself, so that divisions will consist of four brigades; each brigade will have two maneuver battalions (and many other support units) and will number about 3,500 soldiers all told. The Army aims to have 43 active and 34 reserve brigades. Although by no means all Army units have been converted, the discussion here is based exclusively on the new organizational scheme (and treats Marine regiments as equivalent to Army brigades) for the sake of simplicity.
The current American deployment in Iraq consists of 15 brigades, with one battalion in reserve in Kuwait (another reserve battalion was committed to Iraq in the wake of the Samarra mosque attack in February). These units represent approximately 55,000 of the 130,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines in Iraq. The rest are primarily support units, including military police, trainers working with Iraqi troops and police, and logisticians to support not only coalition combat forces, but the Iraqi Security Forces as well, since Iraqi support systems are not yet fully capable.
The 15 brigades represent the lowest American troop presence in Iraq since the start of the insurgency. At its height, the U.S. deployment reached 20 brigades; for the several months surrounding the elections of late 2005, the United States maintained more than 160,000 soldiers in Iraq. It is worth noting that that level of deployment coincided with a significant reduction in violence and permitted two peaceful elections.
It should be possible to increase the available combat power in Iraq by about 7 brigades in the following manner. U.S. forces are in the middle of another rotation. In the past, CENTCOM has delayed the departure of units to achieve temporary increases in deployed combat forces as new forces arrive. This technique could be used again to generate an additional 6 brigades or so (about 21,000 soldiers--similar to the increase maintained through the election cycle). Committing the rest of the reserve brigade now stationed in Kuwait (and leaving the battalion already called forward into Iraq in country) generates an additional brigade. These 7 brigades (about 24,500 combat troops and a similar number of support troops) would join the 15 brigades already in Iraq, many of which are deployed in or near areas designated for active operations in the plan outlined below.
What, then, could the coalition do with such a force--a total of 77,000 American combat troops--to defeat the insurgency?
Evaluations of the number of troops required to perform particular missions in Iraq must draw on several sources. There are considerable historical data on the force ratios required for success in peacekeeping, stabilization, and counterinsurgency operations, many of them gathered in a 2005 RAND report entitled "Establishing Law and Order After Conflict." This work, using case studies including Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, concludes that a force ratio of at least one soldier for every 100 inhabitants is required to restore and maintain order in troubled societies. For Iraq as a whole, this would indicate a total coalition commitment of 250,000 troops. For the areas involved in the Sunni Arab insurgency, however, the commitment would range from 60,000 to 100,000 troops. This is the relevant estimate, since it would be unnecessary and unwise to send coalition forces into Kurdistan or most of the Shiite lands.
The recent operations at Tal Afar provide another model for determining the troops required to clear and hold a large, isolated urban center. During that operation, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment used approximately 3,800 U.S. forces, paired with 5,000 Iraqis, to clear a city of between 150,000 and 200,000 inhabitants (the precise population is impossible to determine because of major shifts before and during combat operations). Using the lower estimate of Tal Afar's population provides a force ratio of one American soldier to every 40 inhabitants.
The 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment achieved success in part by physically isolating Tal Afar (it built a sand-berm all around the city) and evacuating the inhabitants before beginning major combat operations. That technique may not be appropriate in a large city like Baghdad (although it was used with some success in Mosul), but the Sadr City model is available for urban operations. There, Multi-National Division-Baghdad, under the command of Major General Peter Chiarelli, suppressed a large-scale Shiite uprising led by Moktada al-Sadr. At their height, Chiarelli's forces numbered 12 brigades for all of Baghdad--about 40,000 American combat soldiers for a city of some 5.5 million. With a force ratio of about one soldier per 137 inhabitants, he was able to contain and then suppress the uprising in an urban district of some 2.2million people while also controlling the rest of the city.
General Chiarelli relied on different techniques from those Colonel McMaster would use six months later in Tal Afar. He focused heavily on efforts to restore electricity, clean water, sewage functions, and other essential services to the vast and impoverished Sadr City. His troops conducted a different style of military operation as well, infiltrating gradually, block by block, avoiding massive assaults that could have caused significant collateral damage and civilian casualties.
Neither approach is automatically transferable to other cities, villages, or neighborhoods of Baghdad. Sadr City was notoriously lacking in essential services. Emphasizing similar nonkinetic efforts in other parts of the capital might be less effective. Some neighborhoods of Baghdad are easier to isolate than others; the city is divided by two rivers and various causeways. The coalition already controls substantial territory in the capital, including the Green Zone, the airport, and several other large bases. Isolating trouble spots between these areas of control might be possible; isolating large, coherent Sunni neighborhoods might not be.
The key point is that General Chiarelli's and Colonel McMaster's operations, along with the historical studies summarized in the RAND report, provide a solid basis for estimating troop requirements. It is of course always necessary to adjust tactics, techniques, and procedures to suit the particular challenges of any operation.
Two principles would underlie any sound plan for routing the Sunni Arab insurgency: Many operations must occur simultaneously throughout the country, and follow-up operations must be readied.
U.S. forces have shown a marked reluctance to plan large-scale operations in several regions at once. One result has been to allow insurgents to melt away during a single large operation and move to new areas, destabilizing those areas and establishing new safe havens. Simultaneous operations in several of the problem areas would mitigate this effect, driving the insurgents out of the major population centers of the Sunni Arab lands.
It is not possible, however, to conduct such operations in the three river valleys and Baghdad at the same time with the forces available. It would be necessary to develop a campaign plan in two phases, with forces moving from the first operation to the second as rapidly as possible in order to prevent the insurgents from using any pause to regroup.
Each of these two operations would itself be broken down into three phases, as were the successful operations in Tal Afar, Sadr City, and elsewhere. In the first phase, small advance parties would move into the area. They (or U.S. forces already present) would collect intelligence about the local population and the nature of the insurgent threat. They also would begin to shape the situation in their area to prepare for operations. This might include work with local Iraqi troops and police, the building of relationships with local leaders, targeted strikes against known resistance leaders, and other kinetic and nonkinetic operations designed to create favorable conditions for the next phase.
In phase two, reinforcements would surge into the area and conduct large-scale cordon-and-sweep operations. For river valley towns and cities, part of the force would "screen" the population center, establishing observation posts, checkpoints, and other measures to isolate the population, while a joint force of U.S. troops and Iraqis would conduct a house-to-house search for insurgents. In Tal Afar, Iraqi troops were normally the ones interacting directly with the local population, while Americans provided support from armored vehicles and the air.
In phase three, the reinforcements would move out, leaving behind a robust contingent of Iraqi troops leavened by a substantial U.S. presence. The rule of thumb based on Tal Afar and other successful operations is that the "leave-behind" forces should be at about the ratio of one U.S. battalion for every Iraqi brigade. The American presence helps sustain the ISF, overawe any insurgents who might try to undo the effects of the operation, and restrain the Iraqi soldiers from reprisal attacks or other misbehavior that would undermine the initial successes. Only in this third phase, after basic security has been established, is it possible to recruit into the local police force and begin the transition from military to civilian rule. The first two phases normally last about 90 days each; phase three could last 12 months or more.
One of the factors confusing the discussion of how to proceed in Iraq is a misunderstanding about the nature of the forces required for the counterinsurgency effort there. Many people, including some senior officers, consistently play down the importance of armored and mechanized forces and argue for the primacy of light infantry. In reality, repeated operations have shown that mechanized forces are essential for success. Iraqi insurgents in prepared positions can readily wound or kill soldiers walking or riding in Humvees and trucks. It is far harder for them to destroy Bradleys and tanks, especially when they have no foreknowledge of operations or time to prepare.
In sum, the presence of American armored vehicles provides the sort of overwhelming power that can end firefights rapidly and even deter some insurgents from fighting. The value of armor was demonstrated not only in Tal Afar but even in the less successful operations in Falluja in 2004, where the critical intervention of small numbers of mechanized forces transformed what had been intractable tactical situations. General Chiarelli has argued on several occasions for the centrality of armored vehicles in his operations in Baghdad and Najaf.
Contrary to what one might expect, the presence of armored vehicles can also play an important role in minimizing collateral damage and civilian casualties. When light infantry formations find themselves under coordinated attack by insurgents using RPGs and machine guns, they frequently have no option but to call in heavy artillery support or even precision-guided bombs and missiles dropped from aircraft. Such infantry formations supported by armored vehicles can use the vehicles as shields behind which to advance--or can rely on their extremely accurate main guns to destroy precisely identified targets.
Some soldiers who fought in Sadr City argue that the high-explosive 120mm tank main gun rounds are actually best at minimizing collateral damage, since their blasts normally do not penetrate more than two rooms into a building. Even the machine-gun rounds of the Bradleys carry much farther, to say nothing of 2,000-pound bombs. Chiarelli's soldiers also developed (and have published) numerous techniques for overcoming the various vulnerabilities of armored formations in urban environments, addressing the problems of narrow routes of advance, tanks' inability to hit roof-top targets, and so on. This war cannot be won by armor alone--close interaction with the population and even with the enemy is essential. But to attempt to win it without armor would be to inflict unacceptable levels of collateral damage and further alienate the population.
Iraqi forces do not, on the whole, have armor. They are not capable of planning and conducting large-scale attacks against dug-in and prepared enemies. They are not remotely as proficient as U.S. forces at calling in and adjusting artillery fire and air support. They would find it extraordinarily difficult to take back safe havens such as Ramadi and Samarra on their own.
No one should expect them to. It is one thing to say that the ISF should be able to handle isolated pockets of insurgents and to maintain order once it has been established. That is a reasonable mission for a nascent military, and one for which many ISF battalions are now prepared. It is quite another thing to demand that a military that has only been in existence for a couple of years undertake large-scale, complex assaults against sophisticated defenses integrating infantry, armor they do not have, and airpower they do not control. Nor is it clear that it is even desirable for the ISF--which the coalition initially intended to be small and limited in its capabilities so that it would pose no threat to its neighbors--to have such capabilities.
A peaceful Iraq does not need a high-end, mixed infantry-armor force capable of conducting complex urban assaults. And U.S. forces will be in Iraq for a very long time indeed if we must wait for the ISF to reach this standard before we can leave. Pursuing the sound strategy laid out by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and General Abizaid of preparing the Iraqis to take care of their own problems, therefore, requires our handling the sorts of counterinsurgency missions for which they are not, and should not have to be, prepared.
This discussion, finally, is focused on military operations not because they alone can win the war, but because too often discussion of the military options has not been grounded in reality. Success in Iraq certainly requires continued commitment to nonkinetic assistance. Such efforts were key both to Chiarelli's success in Sadr City and to McMaster's in Tal Afar. Each clear-and-hold operation must be preceded and followed by intensive efforts to rebuild infrastructure, solidify local political organizations, and restore normal life. By no means all of these efforts are on track. The recent U.S. decision to cut off reconstruction aid not only reduces the prospects for rapid success but is actually a major step backward--a disturbing development at a time when the military has largely figured out how to deliver aid when given the resources. We've come a long way since the first battle of Falluja. Nevertheless, a detailed exploration of these critical enablers is unfortunately beyond the scope of this article.
With an additional 7 brigades devoted to active combat operations, it should be possible to conduct clear-hold-build operations in two phases, totaling perhaps 12 to 18 months of significant combat, followed by a longer-term commitment of substantially smaller numbers of "leave-behind" forces. The general concept of the operation is to move from the outside in.
There are two reasons for this approach. First, recently released captured Al Qaeda in Iraq documents reveal that the foreign fighters feel they are losing in Baghdad. They still see Falluja and Ramadi as strongholds that they can use to restore their fortunes, however, highlighting the tight interrelation, in their minds, between the center and the river valleys. Second, because of its size and complexity, Baghdad is the harder problem. It makes sense to attack the more manageable challenges of the river-valley cities and towns, thereby demoralizing the insurgents and making it clear to the resistance in Baghdad that defeat is near. In this way, the coalition can reasonably expect to reduce the difficulty of clearing Baghdad when it turns to that task.
The first phase of the operation would clear the three river valleys except for Ramadi. U.S. forces would advance town by town from the upper Euphrates, upper Tigris, and upper Diyala rivers toward Baghdad, clearing and holding as they went and leaving behind a significant ISF presence, leavened with U.S. forces, to consolidate. Because of its size and complexity, Ramadi, in the upper Euphrates valley, would not be cleared during the first phase of the operation, but additional forces would prevent insurgents driven out of the river-valley towns from taking refuge there or in Baghdad. These troops would also serve as a reserve in case of problems in Baghdad or unexpected difficulties in clearing the villages. Coalition forces would start the process of developing intelligence in Ramadi and Baghdad, and shaping the situation there to support coming operations.
This operation should require on the order of 10 U.S. brigades (about 35,000 combat troops) and 18 to 20 Iraqi brigades (90-100,000 ISF troops). The principal cities on the Diyala are Baquba (280,000 inhabitants) and Mukhdadiya (about 150,000). Using the force ratios of the Tal Afar operation, operations in these two cities would require a total of 3 U.S. brigades (10,500 combat troops) and 6 ISF brigades.
The main towns of the upper Tigris are Baiji (120,000), Tikrit (28,000), Samarra (201,000), Taji, and Balad (36,000). Clearing this area would require approximately 3.5 brigades, deployed roughly as follows: one in Baiji, one brigade plus one battalion in Samarra, a battalion in Tikrit, and one in Balad. Taji could be handled either in conjunction with operations in Samarra or by forces based in Baghdad. Coalition forces would be accompanied by about 7 ISF brigades. It appears there are already 2 brigades in this area, one in Taji and one in Samarra, so that it would be necessary to add only 1.5 brigades to conduct the clear-and-hold operations.
The upper Euphrates is long but relatively sparsely settled. The town of al-Qaim on the Syrian border is strategically important, but small; one battalion should suffice to clear it. Another brigade would deploy one battalion north and one south of Haditha to control movement along the river, catch fleeing or regrouping insurgents, and hold the key roads and small villages. Operations in Ramadi, a city of some 420,000 people, would be confined to preventing insurgents from using it as a refuge, gathering intelligence, and preparing for subsequent operations. There are currently about two brigades in and around Ramadi; one more would be needed. And there are about four brigades in Baghdad; one or two more would be deployed to screen Baghdad and to serve as a reserve. It appears that there are now roughly two Marine regiments in Anbar province and one Army brigade in Habbaniya (near Falluja). This force, reinforced by one or two additional brigades, should be sufficient to clear the upper Euphrates apart from Ramadi; with three or four extra brigades, it might even be possible to clear Ramadi at the same time.
When clearing operations were completed, the ISF troops that had participated would remain in place to consolidate, supported by about 5 American battalions (2.5 brigades). That would leave about 9 battalions (4.5 brigades), in addition to those already deployed in Iraq, to continue active operations in the second phase: clearing Ramadi and the southern suburbs of Baghdad, and beginning to clear Baghdad itself.
As General Chiarelli's operations in Sadr City show, the forces currently in the capital, reinforced by 2.5 more brigades, should suffice to allow the coalition to clear one neighborhood at a time. If additional forces became available after the clearing of the river valleys, it might be possible to clear two or more neighborhoods simultaneously. Considering that it is highly unlikely that predominantly Shiite Sadr City would rise during operations against Sunni insurgents, that the coalition already controls parts of the city, and that the Sunni insurgents would already have heard of the destruction of their bases in the river valleys, the clearing of Baghdad in this final phase is not a terrifying prospect, even with these relatively small troop numbers. In the worst case, it should be possible to proceed neighborhood by neighborhood over the course of several months. More optimistic scenarios are far more likely.
Most insurgents who shoot at coalition and ISF troops during clearing operations are not hard-core revolutionaries, but the young men of the local tribe who wish to defend their homes and follow the strongest and most successful local leaders. In areas such as Tal Afar before the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment's operation, Ramadi, and Samarra, coalition abandonment led to the rise of local leaders committed to the insurgency, and the young men followed them.
When Tal Afar was evacuated, large U.S. forces arrived, and their operations, both kinetic and nonkinetic, made it clear that the insurgents were about to lose, many insurgent shooters simply went home. Because of the solid ISF presence remaining in Tal Afar backed by U.S. support, they have mostly stayed home--or joined the Iraqi police or the ISF. There is no reason to imagine that operations in other river valley towns would be different, provided that they were conducted intelligently, with careful preparation of the situation prior to combat, and with the discriminate use of force.
Critics of this proposal see it as a plan for reducing every city in Iraq to rubble. They cite the first battle of Falluja. But in that battle, the Marines had none of the advantages U.S. forces can expect in future operations. There, the Marines advanced at short notice, unable to prepare the ground. They had inadequate manpower and armor, and so were forced to overuse artillery and air support to survive. There were virtually no Iraqi soldiers fighting with them. There is no reason to expect their grim experience to be repeated.
Countless examples, moreover, from Tal Afar to the clear-and-hold operations in the upper Euphrates before the December elections, show that there is no reason to imagine that the introduction of American forces into Sunni Arab villages would lead to uncontrollable explosions of rage. On the contrary, when overwhelming force is applied in a discriminate manner, most Iraqis, like most reasonable people, do not leap to fight it.
This plan, finally, is consistent with the idea of a small U.S. "footprint." The difference between 130,000 and 160,000-180,000 American soldiers in Iraq is not the difference between the Americans' being seen as liberators and as occupiers. It does, however, make a great deal of difference in what military operations U.S. forces can contemplate.
The assault on the Sunni Arab insurgency outlined here is but one of many possible variants. One could argue that the political significance of attacks in Baghdad is such that clearing the capital should receive priority, with pacification spreading out from the center along the river valleys. The main counterargument is psychological. Baghdad would be the hardest job. Tackling it first would probably mean taking on the insurgents at their strongest and most determined. By first clearing their outlying bases and demonstrating their weakening power--by showing the insurgency to be about to fail--the valleys-first strategy would probably prompt many Baghdadi insurgents to choose to go home rather than fight to the death.
Other variants of an offensive strategy might be designed to work with fewer forces, adding another phase, perhaps, by clearing first the Tigris and Diyala and only then approaching the Euphrates, then Baghdad. The details of any plan, of course, would have to be based on the best possible evaluations of the actual situation on the ground.
There is certainly risk in undertaking any offensive operations. U.S. commanders and troops less skillful than McMaster and Chiarelli might cause unacceptable collateral damage and alienate local leaders. Unlikely though it seems given their performance to date, Iraqi insurgents might prove more adept than expected at repelling attacks.
But much of the risk is more apparent than real. The troop-requirement estimates used here are based on the highest troop-to-inhabitant ratio of any of the available models--2.5 times higher than the ratios suggested by the RAND study of similar missions, and more than three times higher than General Chiarelli had in Baghdad.
Some might object that the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment was a special unit, since it has its own aviation assets to support its cavalry missions of scouting and screening. Line brigades, it is said, will not be able to perform at the same level. There is no doubt some truth to this assertion, although the techniques the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment used did not rely all that heavily on its special capabilities, and only two of its maneuver squadrons were present in Tal Afar (the third battalion in that operation came from the 82nd Airborne Division).
Mainly, though, the operations in Tal Afar and Sadr City were anything but "near run things." The force that even the relatively small units engaged there could bring to bear, after preparing the environment well, was overwhelming. Even with considerably less technological capability and leadership skill they would have prevailed. The biggest challenge in Tal Afar was figuring out how to design the operation. Now that that has been done, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps do not lack leaders and soldiers able to adapt the successful Tal Afar model to their given circumstances and execute it with competence and proficiency.
Finally, the risks that attend offensive operations must be set against the risks of passivity and reaction. Insurgent strongholds in Ramadi, Samarra, Baghdad, and elsewhere will have to be cleared out. American forces can do it piecemeal, driving the insurgents from stronghold to stronghold, stringing out the violence and prolonging the coalition presence in Iraq. We can wait for Iraqi forces to gain the requisite skills, allowing the insurgency to entrench itself and grow stronger and, again, prolonging the chaos and need for a U.S. commitment. Or we can simply pull out, turning the situation over to ISF troops we know to be unable to deal with the problems they would face, and thereby run the risk of the collapse of the nascent Iraqi state, with all the horrors therein entailed for the people of Iraq and the honor of the United States.
As we consider the alternatives, with the possibility of conflict with Iran ever on the horizon, it would be well to ensure that we are not overlooking the option that would best serve our strategic needs. It may be that the fastest way to turn Iraq over to the Iraqis and draw down American forces is not a steady decline of troop numbers. Instead, the fastest possible "exit strategy" may require one last surge effort to bring the insurgency down to a level that the indigenous forces can handle on their own. Above all, possible strategies must be considered and discarded only on the basis of a realistic assessment. No approach that offers hope of success should be ruled out without careful thought.
Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of The End of the Old Order: Napoleon and Europe, 1801-1805 (forthcoming). He is grateful to Daniel Barnard for assistance with this article.