General John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. Central Command and the man with overall statutory responsibility for conducting the war in Iraq, testified last week in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Before coming to Washington, Abizaid had spent several days in Iraq, consulting with the military commanders on the ground. Considering the importance of this testimony and the effort Abizaid made to prepare for it, it is unfortunate that he offered an inadequate proposal for change in response to the deteriorating situation in Iraq.
Abizaid has been in command of this war for three years. General George Casey, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Abizaid's direct subordinate, has had his command since mid-2004. Both men remember the war in Iraq at its lowest point--when the Sunni Arab insurgency raged unchecked, insurgents controlled Falluja, Shiite troops under Moktada al-Sadr seized Najaf, and Shiites in Sadr City rose. They watched Iraqi troops flee battlefields and refuse to fight. They watched as U.S. Marines engaged in clearing Falluja were forced to desist because of political pressure from a weak Iraqi government. All of that happened in 2004.
Since then, they have seen improvements. Falluja was cleared in late 2004 and has been held. Tal Afar, cleared unsuccessfully twice before, was finally cleared and effective government established in 2005. Mosul soon followed. The Iraqi military that failed in 2004 was disbanded and replaced by Iraqi units that have subsequently fought well in Tal Afar, Ramadi, Baghdad, and elsewhere. No major Iraqi cities are under the control of insurgents as Falluja and Tal Afar once were. The Iraqi government has supported a number of clear-and-hold efforts around the country, including in many neighborhoods in Baghdad. All these developments are important and even heartening judged against the calamitous situation we faced in 2004.
But Abizaid and Casey are now captive of their successes. They are rightly impressed by these improvements and hope that continuing the policy that brought them will lead to further successes. They see validation for their conviction that victory lies first, last, and always with the Iraqis. They also have an almost theological devotion to the "light footprint" theory that U.S. troop presence and visibility need to be minimized, and to the "dependency" theory that too many U.S. troops provide an excuse for Iraqis not to step up.
Abizaid and Casey haven't rethought these views even as they've been mugged by the reality that lack of security does more damage than a heavy footprint, and that failure is more of a threat to responsible Iraqi behavior than dependency. But, just as important, they underestimate the changes that have occurred in Iraq since the February bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra--changes that threaten to unravel the successes achieved so far. In response to the clear fact that sectarian violence is unhinging the effort to turn responsibility for security over to the Iraqis, Abizaid simply demands an acceleration of that transition. This is a recipe for disaster.
The good news, at least, is that Abizaid and Ambassador David Satterfield, the State Department's Coordinator for Iraq, rejected outright any notion of immediate reductions in American forces in Iraq. Any such reductions, they declared, would seriously undermine the Iraqi government, spur sectarian violence, create safe-havens for al Qaeda, and lead to a humanitarian catastrophe. For similar reasons they rejected any idea of partitioning Iraq, which would lead to unacceptable violence and human suffering. Abizaid also rejected out of hand any notion of "re-deploying" U.S. forces to Guam, Kuwait, or anywhere else. A reduction in the American military presence in Iraq, he declared, would lead to rapid defeat.
He then proposed a solution to the crisis in Iraq today that seemed to many senators--most notably, John McCain--wholly inadequate. He listed a number of things that the Iraqi government must do--purging the Iraqi Army and National Police of those who would incite rather than control sectarian violence, disarming militias, accelerating the training and equipping of Iraqi forces, and so on. He identified only one thing that the United States must do: increase its efforts to train and equip the Iraqi military. To that end, the only concrete suggestion he offered was to increase the number of U.S. soldiers embedded in Iraqi military units. He specifically rejected the idea that the United States should undertake expanded efforts to establish security in Iraq, declaring that the Iraqis must do that for themselves, and he stated that it was the "professional opinion" of his commanders in Iraq that no more American soldiers were needed there.