Many months into the debate over finding a new strategy in Iraq, two myths continue to cloud the discussion. The Washington Post recently proclaimed: "The United States and its allies in Iraq would need at least 500,000 and perhaps more than 1 million troops" to bring order to the country. Incoming House majority leader Steny Hoyer declared: "As a practical matter, there are no troops to increase with." Neither of these statements is true. The persistence of these myths forecloses serious consideration of the only option likely to bring peace to Iraq.
Relevant historical examples do not support the notion that hundreds of thousands more troops are needed to improve security in Iraq. A study of post-conflict operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and elsewhere conducted by Ambassador James Dobbins showed that success in those operations--characterized by severe ethnic and sectarian violence--required force ratios of 1 soldier per 100 inhabitants. Iraq poses challenges that are in some respects more severe, at the moment, but it also offers its own rules-of-thumb. Successful clear-and-hold operations in Tal Afar required a force ratio of around 1 soldier (counting both U.S. and Iraqi troops) for every 40 inhabitants. On the other hand, in 2004 Major General Peter Chiarelli suppressed a widespread uprising in Sadr City (an area inhabited by about 2.5 million Shiites) with fewer than 20,000 U.S. soldiers--a ratio of about 1 to 125.
Then there's the question of the size of the population to be pacified. Most of Iraq is relatively calm. Instances of violence in the Kurdish north and the Shia south are rare. No responsible analyst advocates sending large numbers of troops into either area--they are not needed and would not be welcomed. Disarming the Shia militias is a process that must be undertaken only after the Sunni Arab insurgency is under control, and it cannot be undertaken primarily by American forces directly confronting the Shiite population. Using all of Iraq's 27 million people as a baseline for estimating force ratios is, therefore, an invalid approach.
The U.S. command repeatedly and correctly points out that about 80 percent of the violence in Iraq occurs within a 35-mile radius of Baghdad, among a population of perhaps 10 million. Baghdad itself has roughly 6.5 million inhabitants, including the 2.5 million Shiites in Sadr City. These figures provide the basis for a more realistic estimate of the force levels needed. Applying the high-end ratio used in Tal Afar over the entire metropolitan Baghdad area would generate a requirement of 250,000 troops--both U.S. and Iraqi. There are currently about 100,000 Iraqi army troops that the U.S. command considers trained and ready. There are almost 150,000 American troops in Iraq now, including perhaps 70,000 combat troops. Conducting Tal Afar-type operations across the entire capital region all at once would require concentrating all available forces in the area and a "surge" of about 80,000 U.S. soldiers--a large number, to be sure, but very far from the "hundreds of thousands" or even "millions" generated by the use of specious historical examples.
But the situation is not even this dire. Not all areas of the capital region require such an intensive deployment. Indeed, previous successful operations even in Baghdad did not require such high force ratios. What's more, skillful military planners conduct operations in phases, and that is exactly how this one should be prepared and executed. The recent unsuccessful effort to secure Baghdad, Operation Together Forward II, was broken into a series of phases. U.S. and Iraqi troops working together succeeded in clearing the neighborhoods they entered one after the other. But that is not why the operation failed. The problem, according to much anecdotal evidence and the recent testimony of the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, General Michael D. Maples, is that the U.S. military command did not leave American forces behind in the areas that had been cleared. That mistake allowed insurgents to reinfiltrate those neighborhoods and begin the cycle of violence again.
There is every reason to believe that a reformulated operation, proceeding in phases to clear Baghdad neighborhood by neighborhood, but with sufficient force levels to leave significant American troops behind in the cleared areas, would be much more successful. It is impossible to estimate precisely how many more U.S. troops would be needed in the capital area, or in Iraq, without proposing a detailed military plan. But since the high end of estimates for doing the whole area at once produced the requirement for a surge of 80,000 or so, it is very likely that a surge of 50,000 American troops would be sufficient to stabilize the capital. Subsequent phases of the operation would then move on to stabilizing al Anbar and other restive areas of the country, although we must keep in mind how much the situation in Iraq would be transformed for the better if violence in the capital were brought under control.
This approach is not just a matter of throwing more troops at the problem. It involves a fundamental change in U.S. military strategy in Iraq. The U.S. military has never set itself the goal of establishing and maintaining security. It has always prioritized training Iraqi forces and allowing them to undertake such operations on their own. This strategy might have had some merit when the principal problem in Iraq was the Sunni Arab insurgency (although it was dubious even then). It has little or no merit today, when sectarian violence is the most important challenge. More resources are needed to support a changed strategy, but changing the strategy is essential.
Establishing security in Iraq should be our primary objective, with training Iraqi forces a close second. The U.S. military, partnered with Iraqi army units capable of assisting, needs to clear and hold troubled neighborhoods in order to bring the sectarian conflict under control. At the same time, the coalition must reinvigorate its efforts to reconstruct cleared areas, bringing jobs, food, and water to the Iraqi people along with safety. Only in this context will it be possible to recruit an effective Iraqi police force or more Iraqi soldiers and to develop effective Iraqi institutions of central, regional, and local government. And only in this context will the Iraqi government be able to disarm militias that now derive their primary justification from the ongoing attacks on their communities.
Many who oppose the idea of sending more troops to Iraq have abandoned the argument that more troops wouldn't help and retreated to what they believe is a more defensible position: that there are simply no more troops available to send. This view, supported to some degree by the testimony of CENTCOM Commander General John Abizaid, is wrong.
To begin with, the Defense Department has just announced plans to deploy over 50,000 troops to Iraq this spring, including more than 20,000 combat troops, as part of a rotational plan to relieve forces currently in the theater. If, instead of bringing those forces home, we extended their tours, we would immediately have generated a surge of 20,000 combat troops.
In truth, we could send more. As of October 1, there were approximately 81,000 active Army soldiers in Iraq, 21,500 active duty Marines, 15,600 Army National Guard, and a little more than 7,000 Army and Marine Reserves--in all about 125,000 troops (13,000 sailors and airmen and a number of other reserves brought the total up to 139,500). Since then, another 8,000-9,000 soldiers and Marines, mostly active duty, have also been committed to the theater. There are another 24,000 members of all services now in Afghanistan as well.
Looking just at basic numbers, it would seem obvious that there are many more troops to send. The active Army numbers about 500,000 soldiers, the Marines 150,000, and the Army National Guard 346,000. That's a pool of almost one million ground forces to draw from. This kind of argument may seem simplistic, but it is supported by no less a personage than the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, who declared this spring: "We have just over 200,000 U.S. service members in the [Persian] Gulf region right now. We have 2.4 million U.S. service members available to the country--active, Guard, and reserve. So you've got about 2 million U.S. service members who are not currently involved directly in the Gulf region. . . . We have sufficient personnel, weapons, equipment--you name it--to handle any adversary that might come along." Including, presumably, a surge of 50,000 troops into Iraq.
It's important to parse these numbers more closely, since soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen are not interchangeable parts. The active Army today has about 350,000 deployable combat troops, including combat and support (logistics) troops. The combat troops are organized into about 43 brigades, numbering around 170,000 soldiers. Marine combat forces usable in Iraq are organized into nine active and three reserve regiments (the Marine equivalent of the Army's brigades) totaling around 36,000 troops. The Army National Guard, currently undergoing a significant reorganization, has a combat force of 60,000-80,000 soldiers. In sum, counting only deployable units, there are at least 64 combat brigades available in the ground forces, of which around 15 are now in Iraq and another 3 in Afghanistan. Adding a further 10 brigades (40,000 combat troops with perhaps another 10,000 logistical troops) is definitely a realistic undertaking.
Sophisticated critics will argue that the devil is in the details. Almost all of the Army units not deployed or deploying to Iraq are rated not-combat ready. They would have to be trained before deploying. Many would have to be sent to Iraq less than a year after leaving the combat zone, violating the Army's current policy of requiring at least a year between deployments. Soldiers now in Iraq would have to stay there--many for considerably more than their expected one-year deployment. And the National Guard would have to be used more heavily than current plans call for. All of these facts would lead, it is asserted, to a significant fall in morale in the ground forces and to recruiting and retention problems. Such a "surge" would break up the planned rotational schedule for these forces, making it impossible to relieve them in a year if the situation still required a large-scale ground forces presence in Iraq. It is, some senior officers say (usually off the record), an unsustainable plan and would impose too much pain on the military.
These criticisms warrant serious consideration. As for training, it is certainly true that only the 20,000 or so troops now programmed to deploy to Iraq in the spring are ready to go. Others could be made ready only in months, and would require accelerated training schedules. Two solutions: Send forces that are not as well trained as one would like, or conduct the surge itself in phases, accelerating the deployment of the troops preparing to go in in the spring and sending a follow-on wave behind them. There are a number of ways of mitigating the resulting difficulties in Iraq. The most unsatisfactory would probably be to delay the beginning of the major security operations until the second wave was nearly ready. Another would be to proceed more slowly, spacing the clear-and-hold phases further apart to gain time. Still another would be to accept greater risk in areas outside the capital such as al Anbar province or the north in order to concentrate forces in the capital now, counting on the arrival of reinforcements in a number of weeks or months to repair any damage done in those areas by the temporary withdrawal. A variant of this approach would be to deploy U.S. forces at slightly lower levels of readiness into the more pacified areas of the country where they could complete their training in situ while also providing a basic military presence. This, incidentally, was what was done following Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, when many Army units completed essential training in Saudi Arabia (not in combat conditions but under sporadic missile attack) before launching the ground attack in February 1991. All such approaches carry risk; none is impossible or inconceivable.
The problem of sustaining the surge deployment is also real, but there is a solution. Almost every major defense analyst, many retired generals, congressmen, senators, and even the New York Times now believe the size of the U.S. military--especially ground forces--should be expanded. Recruiting and training more volunteers and forming them into units will take time. But if we started right now, we could have new soldiers coming on line within a year, with more on the way behind them. Simply starting the process of expanding the force would go a long way to addressing the basic issue eating at the morale of the ground forces today: the sense that no help is on the way. Combining the promise of relief from repeated deployments with clear efforts to win in Iraq might well offset soldiers' frustrations with extended tours and reduced time home.
There are, indeed, certain mysteries about why the military is having such a hard time managing the current deployment anyway. A force of 15 combat brigades requires, in principle, a base of 45 brigades to sustain a one-year-in-three deployment cycle. The Army is now using a one-in-two cycle, which should require only 30 combat brigades. Going up to a 25-brigade deployment should require a base of only 50 or 75 deployable brigades, depending on the frequency of deployment. Even counting the ground forces elements in Afghanistan, the necessary base shouldn't climb higher than 60 or 80 brigades at the most. There are more than 50 brigades in the active Army and Marines right now, not counting the National Guard and Reserves. It would be worth examining what impediments are preventing us from making full use of currently available resources. That might be a worthy first challenge for the new secretary of defense.
This brief examination shows two things. First, that a surge of on the order of 50,000 soldiers into Iraq is highly likely to be meaningful if it supports a changed strategy. Second, that such a surge is doable with the forces currently available. There is risk in any military operation, and it might prove to be the case that securing Baghdad or Iraq is impossible or would require more force than this. It is also true that deploying more forces to Iraq would require accepting greater risk elsewhere. These concerns are worth discussing. Any surge, moreover, should be accompanied with a massive effort at reconstruction, political undertakings, possibly even regional negotiations. Risks and costs of all kinds must be weighed before a decision is made. I have argued elsewhere that the situation in Iraq today both requires and justifies taking such risks and accepting such costs, but that is not the point here. The point is that a surge of forces accompanying a change in strategy is possible and offers the promise of being very helpful. The ultimate decision must be taken on the basis of that reality.
Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Finding the Target: The Transformation of the American Military (Encounter).