Saturday, January 13, 2007

Senior leaders offer mixed reviews on surge

By Sean D. Naylor - Staff writer
Posted : Saturday Jan 13, 2007 6:52:35 EST
The Air Force Times


Active and retired officers with Iraq experience are divided as to whether President Bush’s “surge” stands any chance of success.

A senior U.S. officer in Baghdad said the plan is what’s needed.

“We support the surge,” the officer said. “It will be enough. ... We have no choice — the capital must be secure.”

But a field-grade officer who has spent a year in Iraq derided the new strategy as “too little, too late.”

President Bush announced Jan. 10 that he intends to deploy an additional 21,500 soldiers and Marines to Iraq over the next five months, with most of them concentrated in Baghdad.

The numbers game

“It’s wacky — 20,000 is nowhere near enough,” the field-grade officer said.

He pointed to a Jan. 10 statement from Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., that the Bush initiative is “a dangerously wrong-headed strategy that will drive America deeper into an unwinnable swamp.”

Kalev Sepp, a retired Special Forces lieutenant colonel who served two years as a counterinsurgency expert on the “strategy team” of Gen. George Casey, the outgoing senior U.S. commander in Iraq, also said it does not appear the additional forces will be enough to quell the insurgency and interethnic violence in Baghdad.

“The force as described can cover about 2 million of the population, in a city of 5 to 7 million,” Sepp said.

But retired Gen. John Keane, a former Army vice chief of staff who has made repeated trips to Iraq, said the surge could turn the tide in Baghdad — precisely because Bush’s plan included enough forces to secure about 2 million of Baghdad’s residents.

“The force levels are right to deal with the problem,” said Keane, a major influence on “Choosing Victory,” a paper by American Enterprise Institute scholar Frederick Kagan that bears a striking similarity to the Bush plan.

“You can’t look at Baghdad as a six-million population city and [say] that’s what we’re going to protect,” he said.

Keane described Baghdad as a city divided roughly into thirds: Sunni enclaves in the west, vast Shiite slums in the east and mixed neighborhoods in between. These neighborhoods, where most of the sectarian violence occurs, have a combined population of about 1.8 million and represent Baghdad’s “key terrain.”

Securing that terrain should be the coalition’s initial priority, Keane said.

The five Army brigades the Bush administration proposes to deploy to Baghdad, combined with the U.S. and Iraqi forces already there and additional Iraqi security forces promised by the Iraqi government, will be enough to secure the populations of the mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods for the first time since the insurgency flared, Keane said.

A matter of culture

But Sepp questioned whether force ratios that appear favorable on paper would translate into success in the sprawling metropolis of Baghdad. Though the raw numbers suggest that the allies would have enough forces to control the mixed neighborhoods, Sepp doubted that those troops would have the requisite cultural and linguistic skills to cope with the challenge.

“The American troops don’t speak Arabic,” Sepp said. “Most of the [Iraqi] troops that are supposed to be brought in are going to be Kurdish. While they’re reasonably well-trained, they also have a language barrier, not to mention cultural and ethnic issues with putting them inside Baghdad.”

For the new strategy to work, U.S. forces would have to demonstrate “evenhandedness” between the Sunni and Shiite communities, Keane said.

That means offering an equal level of protection to each group, while retaining “shoot-to-kill orders for al-Qaida, for the insurgency and also for the Shi’a death squads, and if they try to contest us, so be it,” he added.

After securing and investing significant reconstruction funds in the mixed neighborhoods, Keane would put “the bare minimum” of forces into western Baghdad’s Sunni enclaves, together with an economic package aimed at revitalizing those neighborhoods.

“There’s not a lot of violence there,” he said.

Addressing the militias

That would leave the Shiite neighborhoods, particularly Sadr City, the vast slum that is the power base of Shiite politician Moqtada al-Sadr and his 60,000-man militia, the Mahdi army.

Despite mounting pressure from the U.S., the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has seemed unwilling or unable to bring Sadr and his militia to heel. Instead, the Mahdi army and the Badr Corps, another Shiite militia, have extended their influence throughout the Iraqi government.

“The issue becomes Sadr City,” Keane said. “Do we go in there or not? After we’ve secured the Shi’a population in the mixed neighborhoods for ‘X’ number of weeks and months, I think Maliki, for the first time, truly has some leverage with the militia leaders.”

While U.S. politicians have criticized Maliki for not reining in Shiite militias, Keane said these criticisms failed to take account of realities on the ground.

“What does Maliki do to stop them?” he said. “What is the leverage he has?”

Keane sympathizes with the Shiite militias’ attitude, which he articulated as: “Look, I waited 2½ years for the United States and the coalition to protect the Shi’a people. That has not happened.”

That failure “is why they unleashed horrific violence,” he said. “If we protect the Shi’a population to the degree that I think we can, along with the Sunnis, it gives Maliki the opportunity to leverage those leaders and to say to them for the first time, ‘Look, I am protecting your people, you can tell that we’re serious about this — stop offensive operations, get behind your barricades.’ ”

At the same time, it will be essential for the coalition to use the coming surge to force the Sunni insurgents to the bargaining table by convincing them they cannot win militarily, Keane said.

“Since the end of ’04, they have believed they’re winning, and that only has been enhanced by the erosion of American will that took place in ’05 and the complete loss of patience with this in ’06,” he said. “They’ve been successful, obviously, in provoking the Shi’as to raise the level of violence.”

The coalition cannot “lose sight of how critical it is to take away the thought that ... armed conflict will get them their objectives, which is to return to [a position] of control and influence in Iraq,” he said.

“This operation in Baghdad and eventually in Anbar and the other provinces will take away that military option as being viable for them,” Keane said.

“You’re forcing them to reconsider their objectives, and then, for the first time, seek political accommodation.”

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