Global Policy Forum

US Commanders See Possible Cut in Troops in Iraq


By Eric Schmitt

New York Times
April 11, 2005

Two years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the American-led military campaign in Iraq is making enough progress in fighting insurgents and training Iraqi security forces to allow the Pentagon to plan for significant troop reductions by early next year, senior commanders and Pentagon officials say. Senior American officers are wary of declaring success too soon against an insurgency they say still has perhaps 12,000 to 20,000 hard-core fighters, plentiful financing and the ability to change tactics quickly to carry out deadly attacks. But there is a consensus emerging among these top officers and other senior defense officials about several positive developing trends, although each carries a cautionary note.

Attacks on allied forces have dropped to 30 to 40 a day, down from an average daily peak of 140 in the prelude to the Jan. 30 elections but still roughly at the levels of a year ago. Only about half the attacks cause casualties or damage, but on average one or more Americans die in Iraq every day, often from roadside bombs. Thirty-six American troops died there in March, the lowest monthly death toll since 21 died in February 2004.

Attacks now are aimed more at killing Iraqi civilians and security forces, and have been planned with sinister care and timing to take place outside schools, clinics and police stations when large daytime crowds have gathered. Several top associates of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant whose network has claimed responsibility for many of the most deadly attacks, have been captured or killed in recent weeks. American commanders say it now takes longer for insurgents to regroup and conduct a series of attacks with new tactics, like the one on the night of April 2 against the Abu Ghraib prison that wounded 44 Americans and 13 Iraqi prisoners.

While senior commanders say the insurgency is still mostly driven by Iraqis, small numbers of foreign fighters who carry out most of the suicide bombings are still sneaking into the country, mainly from Syria. The overall number of insurgents has remained virtually unchanged since last fall, even though hundreds, maybe thousands, have been killed or captured, suggesting that the insurgency can still attract the unemployed, disaffected and even enough true believers to keep the pool from drying up. American commanders also fear that the fledgling Iraqi government and security services are riddled with informants despite thorough vetting of applicants, officials say. The American military's priority has shifted from waging offensive operations to training Iraqi troops and police officers. Iraqi forces now oversee sections of Baghdad and Mosul, with American forces on call nearby to help in a crisis. More than 2,000 American military advisers are working directly with Iraqi forces.

More Iraqi civilians are defying the insurgents' intimidation to give Iraqi forces tips on the locations of hidden roadside bombs, weapons caches and rebel safe houses. The Pentagon says that more than 152,000 Iraqis have been trained and equipped for the military or the police, but the quality and experience of those forces varies widely. Also, the Government Accountability Office said in March that those figures were inflated, including perhaps tens of thousands of police officers who are absent from duty.

Interviews with more than a dozen senior American and Iraqi officers, top Pentagon officials and lawmakers who have visited Iraq yield an assessment that the combination of routing insurgents from their sanctuary in Falluja last November and the Iraqi elections on Jan. 30 has given the military operation sustained momentum, and put the Bush administration's goal of turning Iraq over to a permanent, elected Iraqi government within striking distance.

"We're on track," Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview. But the insurgency "kills virtually every day," he warned. "It's still a very potent threat." This view of steady if uneven progress is shared by virtually all senior American commanders and Pentagon officials interviewed, who base their judgments on some 50 to 70 specific measurements from casualty figures to assassination attempts against Iraqi government officials as well as subjective analyses by American commanders and diplomats. They recall how plans a year ago to reduce American forces were dashed by resurgent rebel attacks in much of the Sunni-dominated areas north and west of Baghdad, and in Shiite hot spots like Najaf. And they express concern that a huge, last-ditch suicide attack against a prominent target, like the new Iraqi National Assembly, could deal the operation a severe blow. "I worry about being excessively optimistic," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters on March 29.

Precisely when and how many American forces withdraw from Iraq hinges on several factors, including the security situation, the size and competence of newly trained Iraqi forces, and the wishes of the new Iraqi government. Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top commander in Iraq, told CNN two weeks ago that if all went well, "we should be able to take some fairly substantial reductions in the size of our forces" by this time next year. General Casey has declined to describe the size of any possible troop reductions, but other senior military officials said American force levels in Iraq could drop to around 105,000, or about 13 brigades, by early next year, from the 142,000 now, just over 17 brigades.

Even some of the administration's toughest critics now express cautious optimism about an Iraq operation that costs more than $4 billion a month, as the nascent political process and slowly improving economy appear to drain away tacit support for the insurgency from the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians the military calls "fence-sitters."

"We've gained some real military traction over the past several months, but we'd be naí¯ve to think that the insurgency is over," said Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and former officer in the 82nd Airborne Division. "We're there militarily for the long haul." American officials say the insurgency is still a mix of former Baath Party loyalists, Iraqi military and security service officers, Sunni Arab militants and terrorists like Mr. Zarqawi. Rather than focusing on their numbers, commanders say they are more concerned with what the insurgents can do. These groups are well armed and well financed, but are suffering some recruiting problems that are increasingly forcing them to form tactical partnerships to carry out their attacks, officials said.

"They're slowly losing," said Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, a senior aide to General Myers who commanded the Fourth Infantry Division in Iraq last year. Helping the situation is that, as the Iraqi security forces gain more confidence and experience, Iraqi residents have put more trust in them. "We are gaining more victories because people are now cooperating more with us," Maj. Gen. Adnan Thabit, the head of 11,000 Iraqi police commandos and other security forces, said in an interview.

Senior officers say the increased pressure on insurgents is driving many of them out of safe houses in cities like Mosul, Samarra and Baghdad, and into the desert. Senior officials say it is notable, although not clearly understood, how the insurgency seems to be moving in more of a set-piece fashion than it did in its early period. The Abu Ghraib attacks, for example, were coordinated, small-unit strikes by 40 to 60 insurgents, though they were largely ineffective, officers say.

"At this point, we are all concerned they may be changing tactics," Brig. Gen. John DeFreitas III, the senior military intelligence officer in Iraq, said in an interview. "It's still too early to tell." Commanders are also concerned that the attacks are being aided by a growing network of informants, some of whom appear to be in lower levels of the new Iraqi civilian administration and security forces.

"They have tentacles that reach all through the new government and the new military," said Lt. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan, the top American air commander in the Persian Gulf region. The concern about infiltration by former Hussein loyalists has slowed, to some degree, the reforming of Iraqi security forces at all levels. "Picking senior leadership has been slower initially than I think anyone liked because the vetting process had to be so carefully done," General Myers said, adding that the process now is "moving faster, and faster and faster."

Indeed, the biggest remaining challenges are recruiting new Iraqi leaders at all levels of command, and training the new Iraqi police, American officers say. Officials say that in training Iraqi forces as well as filling the ranks of the new Interior and Defense Ministries, they seek to strike a balance between pressing them to assume more responsibilities quickly, and not doing so before they are ready.

"We don't want a rush to failure," said Brig. Gen. Carter F. Ham, the Joint Staff's deputy director of operations, who recently ended a tour as head of American forces in northern Iraq. "There has been a steady increase, particularly since the elections, in the capabilities and numbers of Iraqi units," Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American trainer in Iraq, said in an e-mail message. "However, there is still a huge amount of work to be done to help them achieve the capability of conducting independent counter-insurgency operations."

How quickly those Iraqi forces take over security duties will dictate the timetable of the American withdrawal. General Myers said senior Iraqi leaders had discussed with him a possible long-term economic and security partnership with the United States, after most troops go home. Even then, sizable numbers of Special Operations forces, intelligence personnel and surveillance systems will probably remain in Iraq or nearby countries to help quell the insurgency. Gen. John P. Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff, said, "I think we're there for a long time."

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