Friday, February 23, 2007

Why We're Staying in Iraq
Why We're Staying in Iraq
The Petraeus plan will have U.S. forces deployed in Iraq for years to come. Does anybody running for president realize that?
By Michael Hirsh

Feb. 22, 2007 - The British are leaving, the Iraqis are failing and the Americans are staying—and we’re going to be there a lot longer than anyone in Washington is acknowledging right now. As Democrats and Republicans back home try to outdo each other with quick-fix plans for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and funds, what few people seem to have noticed is that Gen. David Petraeus’s new “surge” plan is committing U.S. troops, day by day, to a much deeper and longer-term role in policing Iraq than since the earliest days of the U.S. occupation. How long must we stay under the Petraeus plan? Perhaps 10 years. At least five. In any case, long after George W. Bush has returned to Crawford, Texas, for good.

But don’t take my word for it. I’m merely a messenger for a coterie of counterinsurgency experts who have helped to design the Petraeus plan—his so-called “dream team”—and who have discussed it with NEWSWEEK, usually on condition of anonymity, owing to the sensitivity of the subject. To a degree little understood by the U.S. public, Petraeus is engaged in a giant “do-over.” It is a near-reversal of the approach taken by Petraeus’s predecessor as commander of multinational forces in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, until the latter was relieved in early February, and most other top U.S. commanders going back to Rick Sanchez and Tommy Franks. Casey sought to accelerate both the training of Iraqi forces and American withdrawal. By 2008, the remaining 60,000 or so U.S. troops were supposed to be hunkering down in four giant “superbases,” where they would be relatively safe. Under Petraeus’s plan, a U.S. military force of 160,000 or more is setting up hundreds of “mini-forts” all over Baghdad and the rest of the country, right in the middle of the action. The U.S. Army has also stopped pretending that Iraqis—who have failed to build a credible government, military or police force on their own—are in the lead when it comes to kicking down doors and keeping the peace. And that means the future of Iraq depends on the long-term presence of U.S. forces in a way it did not just a few months ago. “We’re putting down roots,” says Philip Carter, a former U.S. Army captain who returned last summer from a year of policing and training in the hot zone around Baquba. “The Americans are no longer willing to accept failure in order to put Iraqis in the lead. You can’t let the mission fail just for the sake of diplomacy.”

Many U.S. military experts now believe that, if there is any hope of stabilizing Iraq, the Petraeus plan is the only way to do it. The critical question now, they say, is whether we have anywhere near enough troops committed to the effort, and whether America has the political will to see the strategy through to the end.

“This is the right strategy: small mini-packets of U.S. troops all over, small ‘oil spots’ [of stability] spreading out. It’s classic counterinsurgency,” says one of the Army’s top experts in irregular warfare, who helped draft the counterinsurgency manual that Petraeus produced while commander at Fort Leavenworth last year—the principles of which the general is applying to Iraq. “But it’s high risk and it’s going to take a long time.”

How long? At his confirmation hearings in January, Petraeus was asked by Sen. Ted Kennedy about a timetable for the surge plan. "I can't give you dates at this time," he said.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates was only slightly more specific at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Jan. 11. "I don't think anybody has a definite idea about how long the surge would last," he said. "I think for most of us, in our minds, we're thinking of it as a matter of months, not 18 months or two years." A White House spokeswoman said Thursday she could find no record that the president, National-Security Adviser Stephen Hadley or any senior administration official had volunteered anything more specific than that. But the Army expert in irregular warfare notes that insurgencies take on average 10 years to defeat. And while technically we’re about four years into this one, the Pentagon was in such denial for so long about confronting the Iraqi insurgency—and wasted time on so many errant alternatives—that America may be at square one in fighting it, or possibly even “in negative numbers,” this expert says.

The Petraeus plan returns U.S. troops to the role they played in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion (although back then there was no partnering with Iraqis at all). Paul Rieckhoff, a former U.S. Army reservist and the author of “Chasing Ghosts,” a harshly critical look at the Iraq war, says he is disheartened that Petraeus is moving his troops back into the same turf that Rieckhoff’s Third Infantry Division Brigade, under Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey, controlled in 2003. The Dempsey approach to U.S.-led policing was similar to Petraeus’s, but it was abandoned in early 2004. “The 82nd Airborne is now returning to the area of Adamiyah [a neighborhood in central Baghdad] we left in 2004,” Rieckhoff says. As a result of all the lost time, the anonymous irregular warfare expert worries about “whether we have the support of the American people for the multiyear commitment it will take,” adding: “This is how great powers lose small wars.”

America’s political will may depend, in turn, on whether the casualty rate stays the same—or goes even higher, as is likely for a time. An attack on a U.S. outpost north of Baghdad on Monday highlighted some of the hazards of the new approach. Insurgents sent suicide vehicles into an abandoned police station manned by a small contingent of U.S. troops, killing two American soldiers. “The troops are certainly more vulnerable than they are on super bases,” says John Arquilla, who teaches irregular warfare at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. “The mission now is less force protection of American troops and more protection of the Iraqi people.”

Yet like two planets spinning away from each other in different orbits, the Petraeus plan developing on the ground and the Iraq debate generating headlines back home seem to be disconnected, increasingly so. On Wednesday, most of the Democratic candidates for president gathered in Carson City, Nev., and pitched their various schemes for capping funds for the war and thus forcing at least a partial U.S. withdrawal. Back on Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi threw her support behind a proposed bill by Rep. John Murtha that would reduce the U.S. presence in Iraq by requiring troops to spend one year at home between deployments, among other provisions for readiness.

Can any of these efforts succeed, when the highly esteemed Petraeus will be making regular visits to the Hill pleading for more time? Phil Carter, who is also a lawyer, believes the congressional efforts to cut off Petraeus will fall flat—although he’s also skeptical that the general’s plan can work without several hundred thousand more troops, which Congress is highly unlikely to authorize. “I just don’t see Congress stepping up and drawing a line in the sand,” he says. The analogy one hears most often is to the end of the Vietnam War, when Congress cut off aid to the South Vietnamese government. But Carter believes that comparison is a false one. “The myth on Vietnam is that Congress did it, but by the time they did Nixon had pulled out all the U.S. troops anyway,” he says. “This is different.”

Even so, because the Petraeus plan will likely extend well into the next presidency, much will depend on the views and actions of whoever is elected in 2008. Ultimately, if we do withdraw prematurely, we may end up doing what embattled British Prime Minister Tony Blair has just announced he's doing in the southern Iraqi city of Basra: declare victory (though there is scant evidence of one), and go home. But not if Dave Petraeus and his dream team can help it.