Monday, November 20, 2006

Iraq: Shrinking Options

Suddenly, it seems, the atmosphere on Capitol Hill on Iraq has followed Washington’s weather – it’s decidedly unstable and downright chilly. Undoubtedly, this is at least partially attributable to the effects of the congressional elections which hit both Houses like a Canadian weather front.

Many of those associated with the war policy have hunkered down, hoping that the various studies in train (Pentagon, White House, Baker-Hamilton) and the pronouncements of their predecessors such as Henry Kissinger will give them cover from the sudden cold.
Others who are summoned to Capitol Hill are experiencing a much hotter side of forty-three months of unfilled rosy predictions of “turning the corner” and needing only “four to six more months.” Even the generals, unable to provide unequivocal answers to unequivocal questions, seem to finally have exhausted whatever forbearance survived this year’s congressional election.

Last week graphically illustrated this change in atmospherics. General John Abizaid, Commander of the U.S. Central Command, appeared before Congress to update the armed service committees of both Houses on Iraq. Abizaid insisted more than once that he did not believe that more troops were needed at this time in Iraq. He also said he could not recommend removing troops even on a phased drawdown. But when challenged that this meant continuing the status quo, he categorically denied this was the case.

On what basis did Abizaid’s claim he did not advocate the status quo? In short, he and his subordinate generals planned to expand the U.S. “training teams” currently embedded with Iraqi units to 22 members from the current 11 troops per team. To do this without adding more troops, units currently conducting security patrols and sweeps would be redirected to the training mission. Overall, the plan would double U.S. forces accompanying Iraqi units to 8,000. (This number of advisors would be enough to put a 22-person U.S. team with each company in the Iraqi army – assuming four companies make up an Iraqi battalion, three battalions make up a brigade, and three brigades make up each of the ten Iraqi divisions.)

Then the confusion started. Responding to a query from Senator Bill Nelson, Abizaid said that although Anbar province was critical, “More critical than Al Anbar province is Baghdad. Baghdad’s the main military effort.” Abizaid then confirmed that he had ordered deployment to the volatile Anbar province in western Iraq of his theater reserve – the 2,200-strong 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit which has been aboard ships in the Persian Gulf.

Senator McCain reminded Abizaid that he had conceded that, before the invasion in 2003, then Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki had been right when he estimated that several hundred thousand troops would be required to occupy Iraq. And while Abizaid further conceded that “more American troops would have been advisable in the early stages of May June, July” 2003, he also suggested that more Iraqi security forces and more international forces “would have made a big difference.”

Even under McCain’s sharp questioning, Abizaid held firmly to the position that increasing U.S. troop presence would, over the longer term, only delay the day that Iraqis accept responsibility for their future. He also said that adding 20,000 U.S. troops, as Senator McCain has proposed, “is simply not something that we have [the ability to sustain] right now with the size of the Army and the Marine Corps.”

Which sounds a bit like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld infamous observation: “You go to war with the army you have. They’re not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

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