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
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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.