The Fogginess of War
While politicians debate, the troops pack up and head off
When publicly assessing the Iraq war, U.S. military leaders are often at pains to point out that the enemy has a vote, by its actions, and that vote tends to change conditions on the ground. But last week, it was Republicans licking their wounds from an election trouncing and Democrats flush with a new mandate who repeatedly reminded the top military commander for the Middle East that the American people have voted and, by their actions, expect to see a new course in Iraq.
What course exactly? Washington is buzzing with possibilities-a number of which were swatted down by Gen. John Abizaid, head of Central Command, in testimony last week before the House and Senate Armed Services committees. The most popular option, a sizable troop withdrawal in the next six months, would inflame sectarian violence, he warned. Partitioning the country along ethnic-religious lines, he said, is "not viable" and would create a Sunni state that would be little more than an al Qaeda safe haven. And though Abizaid did not rule out temporary troop surges to reinforce efforts to tamp down the turmoil-even as 2,200 Marines were being dispatched to the volatile Anbar province from ships stationed offshore in the Persian Gulf-he added that more troops could ultimately undermine the credibility of the fledgling Iraqi government. Just how weak the government is was highlighted by last Tuesday's brazen mass kidnapping of dozens of employees from the Sunni-run Ministry of Higher Education by gunmen wearing old and new national police uniforms.
"Whole different mission." Such is the stark reality facing the 18,500 soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division as they depart Fort Hood, Texas, to take over security responsibilities in Baghdad. Much has changed on the ground since many of his soldiers were there before, says Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who commanded the 4th Infantry Division during a previous tour in Iraq from 2003-04-and who next month becomes the No. 2 commander of American forces there. "It's a whole different mission," he tells U.S. News from his Fort Hood headquarters chockablock with packing boxes. "As a division commander then, I was much more focused on toppling a regime. Now we know that it's about getting confidence in the Iraq government so that it becomes credible. It's much more complex and we've got to understand that."
Key to that credibility is security in Baghdad-the "No. 1" priority for U.S. troops, says Odierno. On that front, "there is progress," he says, "but it's baby steps." To get the city under control, he adds, the Iraqi government must stand up its security forces, "and we've got to help them." Abizaid's testimony emphasized the need for more U.S. military training teams to be embedded within the Iraqi security forces as a vital part of any American exit strategy. U.S. military officials estimate that they may boost numbers from a dozen per Iraqi battalion (which can range from 200 to 700 soldiers), to some 60 U.S. military trainers. In addition, says Odierno, "You might have a division where you have a very large [U.S. transition team] that travels around, spending a couple of days with different battalions." He adds, "We have to continue to analyze what are the real capabilities in these teams."