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Understanding General Petraeus's Strategy

Testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

10:00 AM, Jun 27, 2007 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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Testimony delivered by Frederick W. Kagan, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Wednesday, June 27, 2007.

American military forces in Iraq are now entering the second phase of their kinetic operations even as political efforts continue on a separate but linked track. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus are in the midst of a multi-faceted program that will not proceed in a linear way and will not generate clear and consistent metrics in all of its phases. The early signs are positive in a number of respects, although difficulties and challenges clearly remain. But it is too soon to evaluate the outcome of an operation that is just moving into the first of several phases intended to produce significant positive change in the situation overall.

It is now beyond question that the Bush Administration pursued a flawed approach to the war in Iraq from 2003 to 2007. That approach relied on keeping the American troop presence in Iraq as small as possible, pushing unprepared Iraqi Security Forces into the lead too rapidly, and using political progress as the principal means of bringing the violence under control. In other words, it is an approach similar to the one proposed by the ISG and by some who are now pushing for political benchmarks and the rapid drawdown of American forces as the keys to success in the war. It is no more likely to work now than it was then. Political progress is something that follows the establishment of security, not something that causes it. The sorts of political compromises that Iraq's parties must make are extraordinarily difficult--one might even say impossible--in the context of uncontrolled terrorism and sectarian violence. And the Iraqi Security Forces, although significantly better than they were this time last year, are still too small and insufficiently capable to establish security on their own or even to maintain it in difficult and contested areas without significant continuing coalition support.

For all of these reasons, the president changed his strategy profoundly in January 2007, and appointed a new commander in General Petraeus and a new Ambassador in Ryan Crocker to oversee the new approach. This new approach focuses on establishing security in Baghdad and its immediate environs as the prerequisite for political progress. It recognizes that American forces must be in the lead in many (but not all) areas, and that they will have to remain in areas that have been cleared for some time in order to ensure that security becomes permanent. The aim of the security strategy is to buy space and time for the political process in Iraq to work, and for the Iraqi Security Forces to mature and grow to the point where they can maintain the dramatically improved security situation our forces will have helped them to establish.

The scale of the problem required an increase in American forces in Iraq, which the president ordered in January, of around 40% (from the equivalent of 15 brigade combat teams to more than 21). It also required a multi-phased approach on both the military and the political side of the equation, which has been begun.

The first phase began on January 10th with the announcement of the new strategy and the beginning of the movement of the 5 additional Army brigades and Marine elements into the theater. That deployment process was only completed at the beginning of this month--in fact, critical enablers for those combat forces are still arriving in theater. As the new units entered Iraq, the U.S. military commanders began pushing those that were already in the theater forward from their operating bases into Joint Security Stations and Combat Outposts in key neighborhoods in Baghdad and elsewhere. The purpose of these movements was not to clear-and-hold--the units present in theater were not sufficient in numbers to conduct such operations. The purpose was instead to establish positions within those key areas and to develop both intelligence about the enemy and trust relationships with the local communities that would make possible decisive clear-and-hold operations subsequently. During this phase of the operation, additional Iraqi Security Forces deployed to Baghdad in accord with a plan developed jointly by the U.S. and Iraqi military commands. All of the requested units appeared in the first Iraqi Army rotation, and the Iraqi military has just completed its second rotation of units into Baghdad--again, all designated units arrived, and their fill levels were generally higher than in the first rotation.