Explaining Bush's Plan to Secure Baghdad

Here are a backgrounder by the Council on Foreign Relations explaining the Bush's plan to secure Baghdad, which is at the heart of the security section of the U.S. new Iraq strategy, and some responses to this strategy by the CFR scholars.

My comment on the U.S. new Iraq strategy is available here.

Bush’s Plan to Secure Baghdad

By Lionel Beehner, CFR Staff Writer
January 18, 2007


At the heart of President Bush's new stabilization plan on Iraq is securing Baghdad, depicted in this interactive map. A large percentage of the additional 17,500 U.S. forces going to the capital will be deployed to protect the local population. Unlike previous efforts to secure Baghdad, the plan calls for more American soldiers to be embedded with Iraqi forces, to remain in cleared areas around the clock, and to be given greater freedom to take on Shiite militias as well as Sunni insurgents. Once security is established, the U.S. military will then focus on economic reconstruction and handing security operations over to the Iraqi authorities.

What are the specifics of the Baghdad plan?

The plan relies on U.S. soldiers, working with their Iraqi counterparts, to establish a stronger physical presence in neighborhoods rife with violence. Unlike previous missions, analysts say, the nature of the plan is more defensive than offensive: to help Iraqi forces secure Baghdad's population, not kill large numbers of insurgents. Some specifics of the plan:

  • The number of U.S. forces in Baghdad, currently twenty-four thousand, will be initially boosted to thirty-one thousand—an addition of two brigades. There are also three additional brigades (roughly ten thousand troops) that could be "put in the pipeline on the U.S. side that are on orders to go," according to the congressional testimony of Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
  • U.S. forces will be scattered throughout Baghdad's nine zones, each of which will be patrolled by one Iraqi police or army brigade and one American battalion (roughly 600 soldiers divided into four companies of 150 each). The number of Iraqi security forces in Baghdad will eventually grow from forty-two thousand to fifty thousand.
  • U.S. troops will be housed in the neighborhoods they patrol in so-called "joint security stations" (essentially thirty-odd police stations outfitted with beds) with their Iraqi counterparts. Unlike previous missions in which U.S. soldiers departed areas soon after clearing operations, U.S. soldiers will remain in clear areas "24/7," as one military official put it.
  • Two of the three Iraqi brigades sent to Baghdad will be Kurdish peshmerga forces, which are highly disciplined but may trigger resentment among Sunni Arabs. Gen. Pace told Congress that Kurdish forces should help "balance" the forces and mitigate Shiite-Sunni divisions.
  • An Iraqi commander, Lt. Gen. Aboud Qanbar, will oversee the security plan, with the help of two jointly appointed division commanders to oversee operations east and west of the Tigris River. U.S. and Iraqi officers will be paired down the chain of command, though it was not immediately clear whether Qanbar would have command authority over U.S. forces.
  • The U.S. military plans to double or even triple the number of military transition teams, which are embedded with Iraqi security forces to train Iraqis on policing, security, and counterinsurgency operations.

Which neighborhoods will be targeted?

Gen. Pace says mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhoods, particularly those in Baghdad's center, will be targeted first. This includes areas around the fortressed Green Zone and east of the Baghdad International Airport. Frederick W. Kagan, research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and architect of the surge plan, advises against incursions into Sadr City, a slum of some two million Shiites, because it may damage the prime minister's political base and provoke street-to-street fighting between the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia, and the U.S. military. But some American officials say Sadr City remains the source of the violence in Baghdad and must be drained of its sectarian militias.

How is this plan different from earlier efforts to secure Baghdad?

Unlike previous efforts to clear and hold neighborhoods that have failed, U.S. forces will have, in effect, freer rules of engagement to target Shiite militias. Last October, when U.S. forces apprehended a top commander of the Mahdi Army, Shiites protested and the prime minister ordered him released. Now, U.S. forces will be given more freedom to target Shiite militia strongholds without interference from the prime minister. Under the plan, U.S. forces will also remain once particular areas are cleared of insurgents instead of relying on Iraqi forces to hold them. This, military experts say, was what doomed the Operation Together Forward plan to secure Baghdad last summer.

Does the current plan only include Baghdad?

No. It also calls for around four thousand U.S. troops to be deployed to Anbar Province, principally to target al-Qaeda and other insurgents in the region west of Baghdad. Kagan writes that the violence in Baghdad and the insurgency in Anbar are inextricably linked because of "spillover effects." The plan also calls for doubling the number of so-called provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs)—civil-military development units in rural parts that have had some success in Afghanistan—to twenty-two and a fivefold increase in the number of reconstruction specialists to five hundred nationwide. An additional $10 billion will also be given to the Iraqi authorities to accelerate reconstruction efforts.

What does the Iraqi government think of the plan?

It's unclear. In late November, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reportedly proposed a drawdown of U.S. forces out of Baghdad and redeployment to the city's periphery and Anbar Province, thus allowing Iraqi Shiite and Kurdish forces to restore order in the capital. Advisers to Maliki, as well as members of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a large and influential Shiite political party, have gone on record opposing more U.S. troops in Baghdad. But after a long telephone conversation with President Bush, Maliki later signed onto the White House's surge plan. It remains unclear if Maliki or Qanbar, his appointed commander, will be in charge of the Baghdad operation. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in her testimony before the Senate, stressed that Bush's plan was based on input from Maliki as well as senior U.S. military officers on the ground.

What are the timelines to carry out this plan?

While the U.S. military has not laid out any definite timelines or benchmarks to meet, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told lawmakers he expected results within a matter of months, not years. "With these kinds of counterinsurgency campaigns, you'll know if you've failed probably within six months," says Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "But you won't know if it's completely successful for about ten years." Kagan predicts the plan would require at least eighteen months to show results.

What evidence is there that such a plan may work?

Some experts point to previous success stories in Tal Afar and Mosul where counterinsurgency operations worked and insurgent strongholds were cleared and held. But not everyone agrees these models can be applied to Baghdad, a city of six million inhabitants, given its size and sectarianism. "The bottom line is we've been touting up Tal Afar [as a model] for the past two years, but we've never done it," says Exum. "The idea that we're going to do it now [in Baghdad] seems ridiculous." But proponents of the plan say the appointment of Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, a top counterinsurgency expert, signals the mission will be managed better than previous efforts. "He'll act with vigor," a former CIA officer tells Harpers.org. "There'll be no more micromanagement from Washington."

What are some common criticisms of the plan?
  • It's a military solution to a political problem. "We don't know with any clarity exactly what the new political objectives that the administration is trying to achieve are," says Gen. Charles G. Boyd, who heads Business Executives for National Security, in an interview with National Interest online. "There is a very good understanding that, in the end, you're not going to solve [this war] with military force." CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Vali R. Nasr agrees. "There is violence in Iraq because there is no political agreement among Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds," he writes. "The new strategy presents no roadmap out of this."
  • It's only temporary. The surge of forces into Baghdad cannot be sustained indefinitely, military experts say. "Insurgents and militias have an incentive to wait us out by hiding their weapons, melting into the civilian population and reemerging as soon as conditions improve for them," writes CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle .
  • Force ratios are insufficient. Some advocates of the surge originally sought between eighty thousand and one-hundred thousand troops to secure Baghdad and Anbar province. They point to a preferred force ratio of one soldier per forty or fifty civilians (Baghdad's six million residents would require a joint U.S.-Iraqi troop presence on the magnitude of over one hundred thousand).
  • Chain of command is unclear. U.S. military officials stress that the new plan is Iraqi- conceived and Iraqi-led, but Gen. George Casey, the head of multinational forces in Iraq, says "American forces will remain under American command, period."
  • Iraqi forces are unreliable. Secretary Rice, testifying before Congress, said she was "confident" Prime Minister Maliki would provide the troops he promised in a timely fashion. But there are increasing doubts among lawmakers in Congress about the reliability of the Maliki-led government in Iraq to deliver on his promises of more Iraqi forces.

Does this kind of urban warfare portend greater U.S. casualties?

It is very likely, military experts warn. "We must expect more Iraqi and American casualties," said President Bush in his January 10 address. Much will depend on how and in which parts of Baghdad the U.S. forces are stationed. "If you start more aggressive patrolling you should expect more casualties," says Exum. "Especially if they try to take on the militias, you'll see really intense heavy fighting." Similar efforts to secure Iraqi cities led to spikes in American combat casualties, most notably Fallujah in November 2004 (seventy-one killed) and Baghdad in July 2006 (around eighty killed). Analysts say casualties are typically higher in the early stages of any counterinsurgency campaign than later on.


CFR Scholars Respond to Bush's New Iraq Strategy

Max Boot, Senior Fellow for National Security Studies

Will the troop surge work? Beats me. But does anyone have a better idea? Pulling out now could turn Iraq into a Rwanda-style genocidal civil war. My sense is that most Americans recognize this and still want to salvage an acceptable outcome if possible. Given that our current strategy clearly is not working, there are only two realistic alternatives: decrease or increase the size of U.S. forces. The former strategy runs a great risk that the Iraqi Security Forces, even if provided with more U.S. trainers, will disintegrate in the face of greater sectarian violence. The latter strategy is far from foolproof but offers probably the greatest chance of improving conditions on the ground.

However, there is a big question that remains about President Bush's increased deployment: Will 21,500 extra troops make a big difference? Based on classic counterinsurgency calculations (1 soldier or policeman per 40 or 50 civilians), pacifying Baghdad, a city of 6 million people, requires a force of some 150,000. The beefed-up U.S. force in Baghdad still will be less than 40,000 strong. Even if the Iraqis provide some reliable forces to work with them, this would be sufficient to control only a portion of the city—Sunni and mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhoods. Sadr City, where some 2 million Shia live, would probably remain in the grip of the Mahdi Army. This is far from ideal, but if a mixed Iraqi-U.S. force could have success in stabilizing even a good chunk of Baghdad this would represent major progress. At best the troop surge will buy time for much-needed reforms, assuming that the Iraqis are willing to make them. At worst it will have no impact at all. But I think it is worth one last shot before we throw up our hands in despair and concede defeat.

Stephen Biddle, Senior Fellow for Defense Policy

Under previous U.S. strategy, the odds for success in Iraq were very poor. Does the new strategy improve them? The answer is: some, but not very much. There is some good in the new strategy. Changing the mission of U.S. troops to emphasize population security for Iraqi civilians, for example, is a step in the right direction. So is the replacement of the old, open-ended U.S. commitment with a new willingness to make our presence conditional on Iraqi political progress toward reconciliation. But there are also some important shortcomings. In particular, the new troop commitments still leave us well short of the usual rules of thumb for the number of troops needed to pacify a city the size of Baghdad, much less the rest of central Iraq. And if our presence is insufficient to provide real security, then the political leverage we get from a threat to leave or a promise to stay is correspondingly limited.

So the new strategy is a long-shot gamble. The odds are a little less long than before, but only a little. Are the odds too long? There is no objective analytical answer. The issue turns on one's personal tolerance for risk and cost, and reasonable people will judge the same odds differently. After all, failure in Iraq would do grave damage to U.S. interests—it may be worth a long shot gamble to get even a small chance at averting disaster. But the chance offered us here is not very great, and the cost of the gamble in American lives is heavy. It is not unreasonable to judge that the odds are now too long, and the cost too high.

Steven Cook, Douglas Dillon Fellow

In announcing a plan to send an additional 20,000+ troops to Iraq over the course of the next few months, the Bush administration seems to want to correct past mistakes, but does not have the resources to do so effectively. More interesting than the so-called "surge" is the administration's emphasis on devoting additional resources to reconstruction and job creation for Iraqis. In the abstract, these initiatives are positive, but they are based on the premise that economic development can ameliorate the logic of sectarian and insurgent violence in Iraq. This is a dubious assumption as it gives short shrift to the primary political issues that contribute to uncertainty and instability in Iraq. The Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds have widely divergent views about who should control Iraq, how the country's resources should be distributed, and how the basic governing institutions will function. Unfortunately, given circumstances on the ground there is very little the United States can do militarily or politically to alter this state of affairs. It is difficult to admit, but Iraq may very well be lost.

Michael Gerson, Senior Fellow

The speech was direct, strong and detailed. But the policy announced tonight matters far more than the words—and that policy represents a major shift. For the first time since the fall of Baghdad, the president has set out a realistic plan to secure the citizens of that city in order to allow political and economic progress to move forward. Much will depend on the performance of the Iraqis themselves, but America at least has defined a necessary, measurable goal, and promised the resources and troops to meet it. In the process, the president has shown that he is unimpressed by the conventional foreign policy wisdom. Instead of going to Iran as a supplicant, he is sending a carrier strike group to the region. Instead of abandoning a struggling democracy, he asserts that democracy is worth fighting for, and that our long-term security depends on democratic progress. Instead of seeking cover for retreat, he points out that retreat may also have unintended consequences, including genocidal levels of violence in Iraq. This new approach is likely to put his critics on the defensive, at least for a time. The commander-in-chief has proposed a new course, and skilled military leaders believe it will work. Given the stakes, it is hard to argue that America should not even try.

James Hoge, Editor, Peter G. Peterson Chair

The Bush plan to send more troops to combat insurgents and militia in Iraq faces huge obstacles to success. Iraq's Maliki government has to date proven incapable and unwilling to allow political and economic developments necessary to stabilization. And it has failed to stem Sunni insurgents and has refused to suppress Shia death squads. Meanwhile, the insurgency has gained new recruits among despairing Iraqis and increased the effectiveness of its tactics. In the U.S. Congress, critics are scrambling to set limits on the amount of resources and the time allowed for them to work. Opinion polls show a large majority of Americans doubt the tide can be turned or that U.S. security requires it. Counterinsurgency experts find wholly inadequate to the security challenge the number of additional troops and the short time envisioned for their activation. Unless conditions in Iraq noticeably improve, Bush will lose his remaining leverage and will finish out his presidential term isolated and marginalized. As the 2008 elections draw near, division will grow sharper within Republican ranks between supporters and doubters of escalation. And Democratic presidential candidates will feel heat from the party's base to embrace a quick disengagement. The most realistic outlook is for civil strife between Shias and Sunnis to rage on for a number of years until there is a clear winner, a compromise borne of exhaustion or a break up of the country. The challenge for the United States will be to keep the entire, oil-rich region from descending into chaos. No more important crisis faces the United States in the year ahead.

Gideon Rose, Managing Editor, Foreign Affairs

The changes the president has suggested to the Bush administration's policy in Iraq are generally sensible, and the logic behind them is sound. But given how badly the situation there has deteriorated over the last three and a half years, the new approach is unfortunately much too little, much too late. Stuff has happened, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, and there is no good reason to believe that Iraq's descent into further chaos and open civil war can be reversed. The president is correct to point out that failure will be a disaster for Iraq, the Middle East more generally, and the United States itself. One can only wish that his administration had taken this concept to heart from the beginning and planned and acted accordingly. Unfortunately, the real tasks at hand now are managing the failure so as limit its fallout and transitioning to a post-Iraq American foreign policy.

Gary Samore, Vice President, Director of Studies

The president's plan is intended to buy political space for national reconciliation in Iraq. The hope is that an influx of additional American and Iraqi (mainly Kurdish) forces into targeted areas of Baghdad will suppress Sunni terrorism and Shia death squads long enough to allow the emergence of a centrist Iraqi government that represents the majority elements of the Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish communities, while isolating extremists from each group. Unfortunately, prospects for the plan's success are not great. The additional forces may not be enough to make a sustained dent in the daily insurgent and sectarian death toll, especially because groups opposing the U.S. may believe they are on the verge of victory. Even if violence is temporarily reduced, the mutual tensions and divergent interests of the main political players in Iraq may be too great to overcome on such central issues as the sharing of power and oil revenues. If the president's plan fails to show results, demands for a 'phased redeployment' of U.S. forces—in effect a retreat—will become much stronger and perhaps irresistible. Unfortunately, an American withdrawal from Iraq under current conditions is likely to leave Iraq itself and the region as a whole in even greater peril.

Steven Simon, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies

The administration must be seen to be taking the initiative in Iraq, yet there are no plausible paths to recovery. The temporary deployment of additional troops is one way out of this bind. By framing the effort as "a supporting role," the president puts the onus on the Iraqi government to staunch the violence and work harder to lure Sunnis into a unity government. So the new approach serves two purposes: it responds to Americans who want to see a change of course, while creating the impression that if it does not work, it will be because the Iraqis have failed us. The reality therefore is that the troop increase is necessarily cosmetic. At this point, the United States does not have enough deployable troops to "clear, hold, build," even as the president's reluctance to acknowledge the growing chaos in Iraq has undermined public confidence in his judgment. The resulting lack of both military capacity and popular support suggest that the "surge" will probably turn out to be just a stage on the way to a withdrawal by the party taking office in January 2009.

The president certainly believes that terrorism will get worse if the United States withdraws. He has said: "If we fail in Iraq, it's going to embolden al Qaeda types. It will weaken the resolve of moderate nations to stand up to the Islamic fascists. It will cause people to lose their nerve and not stay strong." This suggests that the president is unaware that the jihadists already think they have won because America confirmed their narrative so comprehensively by invading Iraq to begin with and because they can plausibly—if not entirely accurately—claim to have thwarted Washington's imperial designs. Both factors undoubtedly contribute to recruitment. It also suggests that the president is unaware of the degree to which the chaos in Iraq has strengthened the very authoritarian regimes in the region the United States had hoped would embrace a modicum of political reform. It is true, nonetheless, that al-Qaeda has gotten a toehold in western Iraq, which it will expand and use as a base of operations if left unhindered. This will be a security challenge for the United States in the years ahead. Jordanians have already paid a heavy price in blood. Whether the best way to counter this development is a long term presence in Iraq—"fighting them over there so that we don't have to fight them over here…"—is open to serious doubt. Since the surge strategy allocates only a small part of the additional troops to Anbar province, the new administration strategy is not likely to resolve this uncertainty.


Nassim Yaziji's Neo-Internationalism

Nassim Yaziji's perspective


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