Senior U.S. military commanders in Baghdad, eager to shift the fight in Iraq to that country's army, are advancing a plan that could more than double the number of American troops involved in training Iraqi soldiers.This last concern -- that U.S. advisors will be at greater risk when deployed in small numbers with Iraqi forces -- is valid only so far as the Iraqi army continues to be unprepared for major combat operations. There is always vulnerability when embedding advisors with training units, which has been going on in Iraq now for at least a couple of years. Moreover, the increase in training takes place alongside a last major U.S. troop buildup of about 20,000 additional soldiers, which the Bush administration is pushing as a way to stabilize the country before a redeployment of U.S. troops takes place.
The tentative plan, which calls for breaking up some big U.S. combat units into military-training teams, reflects a major shift in U.S. tactics, and meshes with one of the key recommendations of a high-profile report released Wednesday by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.
The new approach isn't expected to require a marked change in the overall number of American troops in Iraq. But it would increase the number involved in advisory roles to as many as 10,000, from the current 4,000, senior military officials said.
The plan, drawn up over the past two months, reflects the growing belief among U.S. officials that the Iraqi army is the only truly national institution that exists in an increasingly fractured country, and thus is the best hope not only to provide security, but also to hold Iraq together.
Though it hasn't received formal approval by top U.S. military officials in Iraq, the plan could be presented to incoming Defense Secretary Robert Gates when he visits Baghdad in the coming weeks, a senior military official said. Whether to implement the plan could be one of the first big decisions Mr. Gates makes in his new job. Though he has been confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Gates won't officially start work until Dec. 18.
Senior military officials are betting that larger U.S. military training teams that would live and work with Iraqi units could speed the development of an Iraqi army force that has shown some promise, but is still bedeviled by corruption, absenteeism and logistical problems. How quickly the Iraqi army improves could ultimately determine how quickly U.S. troops could withdraw from the country.
However, even the staunchest advocates of building up the Iraqi army warn that the strategy carries significant risks that could derail it. In the near term, commanders say, shifting more U.S. troops into training and advisory jobs could lead to an increase in sectarian violence in Baghdad, because there would be fewer U.S. troops patrolling the streets. Iraqi army units and their U.S. trainers would have to pick up the slack.
The idea of shifting more U.S. troops into training roles has been kicking around in Baghdad and the Pentagon at least since spring. Multiple internal studies by the U.S. Army have concluded that its current training teams in Iraq, typically 10 to 12 U.S. soldiers per an Iraqi battalion, are too small to be effective.
But this summer, with sectarian violence rising in Baghdad, U.S. military commanders chose instead to concentrate U.S. troops in the capital. The hope was that they could stem the rising chaos and help the weak Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to build support among the Iraqi people.
By late October, however, it was clear the crackdown wasn't working. With American patience running thin, commanders began considering an expedited effort to build up the Iraqi military, which is made up of nearly 135,000 troops. In recent months, senior Iraqi officials have also started to press U.S. officials to speed up the development of Iraqi army forces.
Under the plan, some big U.S. units would be broken into teams of 20 to 25 men to train and advise Iraqi army forces and some border guards and police units. The remaining U.S. troops in Iraq would focus on more traditional missions, such as backing up Iraqi army units, conducting patrols, and working on local reconstruction projects. The U.S. military currently has about 15 combat brigades in Iraq, each with about 3,000 to 5,000 troops.
With the U.S. midterm elections over and a new defense secretary taking over in Washington, the plan isn't the only one in the works aimed at turning the tide of violence in Iraq. It comes as Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is preparing his own recommendations to President Bush on how to move forward militarily. His report is likely to be wrapped up by late December.
Mr. Bush has said he would be particularly receptive to whatever advice his military commanders in the Pentagon and in Iraq offer in coming weeks.
After meeting yesterday with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mr. Bush called the Iraq Study Group's report, which offered up a strong rebuke of his Iraq policy, "worthy of serious study," but didn't endorse any of its recommendations.
The study group, led by former Secretary of State James Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, called for the withdrawal of the majority of U.S. combat troops by March 2008, as well as for far-reaching changes in U.S. policy across the Middle East.
The group, which recommended tripling or quadrupling the size of the U.S. training teams at the expense of larger U.S. combat forces, raised deep concerns about the Iraqi army's ability to hold Baghdad together. "Can I assure anyone that we won't end up training an Iraqi army that ends up fighting others or turns against itself?" asked Former Defense Secretary William Perry, the top military expert in the group. "No, I can't."
But Mr. Perry said in an interview that the U.S. had no choice but to turn to the rudiments of an army in Iraq as the best hope for a long-term solution. "The only truly national institution in Iraq is the Iraqi army," he said. Mr. Perry described the panel's robust recommendation for "embedding" significant numbers of U.S. troops into all Iraqi units as a form of "supervised on-the-job training."
A big concern with the plan is how to protect U.S. soldiers serving on advisory and training teams. These troops would be prime targets for insurgents and sectarian militias seeking to stymie the progress of Iraqi units. They would also be vulnerable if their Iraqi units were overrun by the enemy.
See my post on "The Drawdown Option" in Iraq for more information.