The Magazine

The Dangers of Deadlines

Let conditions on the ground dictate troop levels, not politics.

Sep 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 01 • By KIMBERLY KAGAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

There is perhaps no greater danger to the success of American efforts in Iraq than the prospect of a congressionally mandated timeline for withdrawal. Depriving commanders on the ground of the ability to make decisions about required force levels dramatically increases the likelihood of losing our recent hard-fought gains. And congressional attempts to legislate a timeline based on the military command's current estimates of its ability responsibly to reduce American forces in Iraq will restrict our ability to respond to unforeseen developments in a complex and rapidly changing situation.

Various members of Congress want to wind down the U.S. military commitment in Iraq. Some are starting to discuss "nonbinding" timelines that express Congress's desire for the military command to reach force-level targets by certain times. Some want to restrict the mission of the remaining troops to counterterrorism and support activities--a return to the reactive posture of 2006, when sectarian violence in Iraq spiked to record levels. All of this would be a huge mistake.

Generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno, the U.S. commanders in Iraq, oppose any legislated timeline for drawing down U.S. forces. On September 7, the New York Times reported that "even in internal administration deliberations [Petraeus] had described conditions that must be met before a reduction." General Odierno has said repeatedly that any drawdown of American forces must be deliberate, gradual, and based on conditions on the ground. The generals' emphasis on a "conditions-based" drawdown is far from rhetoric. Rather, their support of a "conditions-based" drawdown reflects the sophisticated military concepts underlying the counterinsurgency strategy.

Petraeus, Odierno, and their division commanders have spoken repeatedly of three basic phases in a counterinsurgency: clearing the enemy from safe havens; controlling neighborhoods (assuring that U.S. and Iraqi forces can move through them, but the enemy cannot); and retaining these neighborhoods with Iraqi Security Forces.

"This new plan involves three basic parts: clear, control, and retain," explained General Joseph Fil, commander of Coalition forces in Baghdad, on February 16, 2007. "The first objective within each of the security districts in the Iraqi capital is to clear out extremist elements neighborhood by neighborhood in an effort to protect the population. And after an area is cleared, we're moving to what we call the control operation. Together with our Iraqi counterparts, we'll maintain a full-time presence on the streets, and we'll do this by building and maintaining joint security stations throughout the city."

General Odierno, the commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq, has already demonstrated the value of deploying units properly to set conditions for successful operations. As new forces arrived in Iraq during the first half of this year, Odierno carefully prepared for "the battle for the belts," the areas around Baghdad where al Qaeda had its safe havens. He deployed two of the new brigades to Baghdad and three to the belts around the city. He divided brigades so that each area had the optimal combination of battalions--light and heavy infantry, cavalry, and artillery. During this deployment, General Odierno began preliminary operations to encircle Baghdad and to establish U.S. forces within the city. He launched a Baghdad-wide offensive, Operation Enforcing the Law, to set the preconditions for clearing enemy sanctuaries there.

These operations set the conditions for Phantom Thunder, the corps offensive that began on June 15--a coherent operation using all of the resources at General Odierno's command. Phantom Thunder cleared al Qaeda from its safe havens in the ring around Baghdad, and from its urban sanctuaries in Dora (within the capital) and Baquba (35 miles to its northeast). General Odierno has followed Phantom Thunder with another corps offensive, Phantom Strike, which has cleared the remnants of al Qaeda from the Diyala River valley, and then forced those remnants into an ever-contracting wedge between the Tigris and Diyala rivers. This same offensive is driving al Qaeda and Shia extremists from areas south of Baghdad.

The flexibility to attack and pursue the enemy is essential to the new counterinsurgency campaign--and it comes from having enough U.S. troops to clear areas, to hold them alongside Iraqi forces, and to combine them properly. These operations are not possible without sufficient troops. Reducing the U.S. presence prematurely, or restricting American forces to their bases, would permit the enemy to re-establish safe-havens from which to begin its own counteroffensive against us and the Iraqi Security Forces.

We've been down this road before. U.S. troops cleared neighborhoods in their 2006 Baghdad offensives. They then rapidly turned them over to Iraqi Security Forces, which were unprepared for the complexity of the urban counterinsurgency fight. Sectarian, militia-affiliated actors within the Iraqi Security Forces, and particularly in the National Police, conducted sectarian cleansing in Sunni neighborhoods. U.S. forces, serving mainly as rapid-reaction forces based on forward operating bases, tried to respond to major crises when the Iraqis called them. But they could not watch over the malign actors within the security forces or help hold on to the gains made by the clearing operations. "The key difference of our ongoing operations is that we are not giving up any of the hard-fought gains," General Odierno explained. "We are staying until the Iraqi Security Forces have the ability to control that battlespace."

Joint Security Stations (JSS) and Combat Outposts (COP) have been the hallmark of the new counterinsurgency campaign in Baghdad, Ramadi, Baquba, and in rural areas. These fortified buildings grouped U.S. and Iraqi troops in Baghdad's neighborhoods and allowed them to spread throughout the city. The JSSs and COPs were also, from the outset of the surge, designed to enable U.S. and Iraqi forces to retain the territory they cleared.

But Joint Security Stations are only one part of General Petraeus's "retain" phase. The surge of forces, and the Sunni rejection of al Qaeda, have presented an opportunity to secure neighborhoods more effectively by creating "concerned citizens groups" and other formations of local volunteers under the auspices of the Iraqi Security Forces. Hitherto, Iraq has relied on nationally and regionally recruited police forces to secure the population. This approach is less effective in a counterinsurgency, however. Local populations have a much better capacity for identifying enemies, and a much greater incentive to secure their neighborhoods from them. So pairing the rapidly growing number of "concerned citizens groups" with Iraqi army and police to defend neighborhoods against terrorists and insurgents is effective. Locally recruited police increase the level of security that the JSSs and COPs can provide, and allow U.S. and Iraqi forces to hold more territory, more securely. But this process takes time, and it proceeds unevenly across Iraq. Only the commanders on the ground can evaluate its progress and prospects in any given area.

U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, developed under General Petraeus's supervision in 2006, refers to counterinsurgency as a "mosaic war." This metaphor conveys the variations that occur at the local level in an insurgency, likening these variations to the individual tiles of a mosaic. The social fabric of neighborhoods; their leaders; their positions along roads; the buildings that they contain; their ethnic, sectarian, economic, and political composition--all account for significant differences in friendly and enemy behavior at the local level. In other words, in counterinsurgency operations the problems and solutions are different for every neighborhood.

Yet, as in a mosaic, there is also an overall pattern to the problems and solutions. The ability to respond to local variations is vitally important to combat commanders when fighting, when securing the population, or when reducing forces. One must also consider the varying strengths of elements of the Iraqi army. "There's no one solution, a cookie-cutter solution that you can move to immediately" in order to draw down, Odierno said. "We have some areas where Iraqis can take control much faster than other areas. . . . As we build our plan, [the transition will] be slower in some areas, it will be faster in other areas, and that will be based on . . . the security situation in that area as well as the status of Iraqi security forces."

The key point is that there is no "cookie-cutter solution" to reducing American forces in Iraq. Our commanders in Iraq are able to grasp the complexities of an extraordinarily complex problem. They are rightly asking for the flexibility to develop the complex, adaptive solutions that alone can address such a problem. And they deserve that flexibility, just as the soldiers they are commanding deserve to be able to fight the enemy, support the Iraqis with whom they are partnered, and protect themselves without constraints and restrictions imposed upon them for purely political purposes. There is no question that the new U.S. military strategy in Iraq, supported by the increase of forces, has produced remarkable gains on the ground. All of those gains, and America's vital interests in Iraq and in the region, will be threatened if Congress decides to allow political or symbolic considerations to undercut an effective military strategy that is on its way to winning this war.

Kimberly Kagan is executive director of the Institute for the Study of War.