WASHINGTON, (AP) -The Pentagon is laying the groundwork to extend the U.S. troop buildup in Iraq. At the same time, the administration is warning Iraqi leaders that the boost in forces could be reversed if political reconciliation is not evident by summer.
This approach underscores the central difficulty facing President Bush. If political progress is not possible in the relatively short term, then the justification for sending thousands more U.S. troops to Baghdad — and accepting the rising U.S. combat death toll that has resulted — will disappear. That in turn would put even more pressure on Bush to yield to the Democratic-led push to wind down the war in coming months.
If the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki does manage to achieve the political milestones demanded by Washington, then the U.S. military probably will be told to sustain the troop buildup much longer than originally foreseen — possibly well into 2008. Thus the early planning for keeping it up beyond late summer.
More than half of the extra 21,500 combat troops designated for Baghdad duty have arrived; the rest are due by June. Already it is evident that putting them in the most hotly contested parts of the capital is taking a toll. An average of 22 U.S. troops have died per week in April, the highest rate so far this year.
“This is certainly a price that we’re paying for this increased security,” Adm. William Fallon, the senior U.S. commander in the Middle East, told a House committee Wednesday. He also said the United States does not have “a ghost of a chance” of success in Iraq unless it can create “stability and security.”
The idea of the troop increase, originally billed by the administration as a temporary “surge,” is not to defeat the insurgency. That is not thought possible in the near term. The purpose is to contain the violence — in particular, the sect-on-sect killings in Baghdad — long enough to create an environment in which Iraqi political leaders can move toward conciliation and ordinary Iraqis are persuaded of a viable future.
So far the results are mixed, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this week during a visit to Iraq that he wants to see faster political progress by the Iraqis. “The clock is ticking,” he said, referring to the limited time the administration can pursue its strategy before the American public demands an end to the war.
Gates also said he told al-Maliki that the United States will not keep fighting indefinitely.
Gates’ remarks reflected the administration’s effort to strike a balance between reassuring the Iraqis of U.S. support and pressuring their leaders to show they can bring the country together and avert a full-scale civil war.
Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq watcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Friday that even if the Iraqis pass the desired legislation, it probably would take months longer to find out if it proves workable.
“The U.S. should definitely keep up the pressure on the Iraqis, but we should have no illusions,” Cordesman said. “Iraqis are driven more by their own politics than outside pressure.”
When Bush announced the troop boost in January, administration officials pointedly left unclear how long the extra troops would remain in Iraq. Some, including Gates, suggested that troop levels could be reduced to the previous standard of about 135,000 as early as September — assuming the addition of 21,500 combat troops and roughly 8,000 support troops this spring proved to be an overwhelming success or a clear-cut failure.
Three months later, with troops still flowing into Baghdad, the Pentagon is beginning to take steps that suggests it expects to maintain higher troop levels into 2008 and beyond, yet officials still won’t say whether the increase is intended as a short-term move. Some believe the lack of clarity is a mistake because it adds to the strain on troops and their families and it may lessen the psychological pressure on the belligerents.
Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, whose January report on changing the U.S. military strategy in Iraq was largely adopted as part of Bush’s new approach to the war, said in an interview Thursday that it appears the administration believes it will have to sustain the troop buildup much longer.
“They seem to be taking the steps that would make it possible to sustain it for longer, which is good,” Kagan said. “But they seem to be reluctant to commit to a willingness to do that, which I think is unfortunate.”
Kagan says the troops, the Iraqi government and the insurgents all ought to be convinced that U.S. forces will keep up the pressure, particularly in the most contested neighborhoods in Baghdad, for at least another year.
“If I were running the show I would say, ‘Look, everyone should assume that we’re going to sustain this through 2008 — the Iraqis should assume that, too — and if we can turn it off sooner, then everyone would be happy,” Kagan said.
Gen. James T. Conway, the commandant of the Marine Corps, takes a similar view. In an interview earlier this month he pondered the thought process of a U.S. commander in Iraq evaluating the way ahead. “In six months, if it’s working, is he going to say, ‘OK, it worked, now you guys can go home’?” Conway thinks there is a reasonable chance for success, and for planning purposes he is preparing to sustain the troop buildup.
The Marines added about 4,000 to their contingent in western Anbar province, the focal point of the Sunni Arab insurgency. In March the Marines made a little-noticed move that gives them the flexibility to continue at the higher rate in Iraq at least into 2008. They extended the tours of Marines in Okinawa, Japan, which freed up other Marine units in the United States to deploy to Iraq later this year instead of Okinawa.
Also, the Pentagon announced earlier this month that normal tours of duty in Iraq will be 15 months instead of 12 months. Gates said that gives the military the capability to maintain the higher troop levels in Iraq until next spring.