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September 18, 2006
Would More Troops In Anbar Help?

The New York Times takes a look at a question that has plagued the Iraq mission from the beginning, and which continues to stir debate to this day. With the latest alarming reports coming out of Anbar, Thom Shanker asks whether more troops would improve the situation -- and gets a mixed response:

IN the lawless villages and empty deserts of Anbar Province, the Sunni heartland that provides safe haven for indigenous insurgents and foreign terrorists, what could an American commander do if more troops showed up?

This tantalizing “what if?” is being debated with renewed intensity after it was revealed last week that a Marine Corps intelligence assessment said Anbar’s dire security situation could be improved only by injecting more economic aid and a division’s worth of troops to reinforce the current 30,000-strong coalition contingent. ...

The answer is, they would help, in the short term. But many military analysts also warn that sending in another division — anywhere from 12,00 to 15,000 troops — could create more problems. An extra division could flood the zone in Anbar, a province the size of Louisiana stretching from the west of Baghdad to the Syrian border.

Currently, the American military is continuing its “clear, hold and build” policy: pushing insurgents from key towns, sending in Iraqi and coalition forces to maintain security and trying to rebuild local governments and businesses. Despite the return of some insurgents, the military points to successes in cities like Falluja. But troops can’t begin to secure other important towns like Ramadi, Haditha and Hit.

In my debate at Macalester College last week, the same question got asked of the panel, and I had no ready response. In the beginning, the light, fast-moving force that toppled Saddam Hussein appeared perfectly designed for the mission. We left a small footprint and moved like lightning into Baghdad, surprising Saddam and his henchmen and crushing his regime in three weeks.

Since then, the numbers have not appeared strong enough to maintain law and order, especially in the beginning. Many wondered why the US disbanded the Iraqi Army, but in truth the army disbanded itself; they deserted as soon as the Coalition cut them off. Saddam's police also disappeared, leaving the cities and towns in a state of chaos, a situation that the Pentagon anticipated but in smaller scope.

As a result, the Coalition forces wound up policing Iraq as well as fighting an ongoing insurgency, and that has stretched the forces in Iraq farther than anyone desired. The US had no choice but to train new security forces, recruiting from the people oppressed by Saddam Hussein before the invasion, a process that necessarily takes a long time to accomplish. Three years after the end of Saddam's reign, the elected Iraqi government and the US has finally begun to field enough Iraqi troops to start securing entire provinces.

Not Anbar, however, and Shankar reports that adding another division would create as many problems as it would solve. At a point in time where the Iraqis expect to see fewer Americans and more Iraqis on patrol. They could help in securing the Syrian border, a particular problem in Anbar, and perhaps do more rebuilding in some areas. It could also help hold down the insurgency in cities such as Ramadi.

The US wants to have its end-game strategy in place, and adding new troops -- even if we could find them -- would not appreciable alter what the Pentagon and the Iraqi government see as the trajectory of the mission. The key remains the training and deployment of native Iraqi forces. The US can clear areas, but it takes the Iraqis to hold them, and adding more troops will not alter that fact. A larger deployment in the beginning would have made the job easier, perhaps, but not at this point.

What will likely happen is that US forces freed from assignments elsewhere will go to Anbar and Baghdad instead of coming home immediately. Iraqi forces have taken over one province entirely and are poised to replace Coalition forces in three or four more before the end of the year. American troops in those areas will almost certainly get shifted to the hot spots in an effort to play the string out a little longer while Iraqi security forces come up to speed. As Anbar commander Maj. General Richard Zilner tells Shanker, the ultimate solution will have to come from the Iraqis.

UPDATE: This news helps, of course:

Nearly all the tribes from Iraq’s volatile Sunni-dominated Anbar Province have agreed to join forces and fight Al Qaeda insurgents and other foreign-backed “terrorists,” an influential tribal leader said Sunday. Iraqi government leaders encouraged the movement.

Twenty-five of about 31 tribes in Anbar, a vast, mostly desert region that stretches westward from Baghdad to the borders of Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, have united against insurgents and gangs that are “killing people for no reason,” said the tribal leader, Sheik Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi.

The Times tries to pour a little cold water on the announcement, questioning how much enthusiasm will accompany their efforts, but the public nature of the agreement carries a lot of weight. It looks like Zilner has made quite a bit of effort to fulfill his own prophecy by winning support from the tribal leaders.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at September 18, 2006 5:49 AM

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