TCS Daily

Wanted: Fewer Troops in Iraq

By Greg Buete - July 1, 2003 12:00 AM

Citing chaos, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean told NBC's Tim Russert, "We need more troops in Afghanistan. We need more troops in Iraq now." This issue is a hot topic as coalition soldiers are ambushed almost daily. Besides Dean, other Democrats have made similar arguments. Left-leaning think tanks, the media, and even a few Republicans are now all harping on a perceived lack of troops in Iraq even as the Bush administration plans for heavy reductions by the end of the year.

But if the Bush administration orders more soldiers into Iraq as peacekeepers it will worsen, not solve, the problem. Demands for more peacekeepers in Iraq are based on feel-good populism, not logic, and are knee-jerk solutions determined by archaic thinking.

Every conventional soldier added to Iraq will become another target for ex-Baathist and Islamic militants. Thus, sending more troops into Iraq could actually increase, not decrease, the rate at which our soldiers are ambushed. Those killing our troops are not masses to be "peacekept," and our soldiers are not neutral referees in a civil war; we are fighting insurgents, a group that by definition has a natural advantage over the more-constrained conventional soldier. Sending additional conventional troops will play to the strength of the insurgent, who thrives by remaining hidden in the target-rich environment his enemy has unwittingly provided.

This is not to say that the 158,000 coalition troops in Iraq (although perhaps still too many) don't have a role, but rather that they are not best suited for combating irregular forces. The Army's 4th Infantry Division commander said "his troops battle 'almost daily' with Baath Party loyalists, militant Islamic fundamentalists and Iraqis 'who are poor and are being paid to attack U.S. forces.'" This is not the 4th Infantry's optimum role -- conventional armies were created to fight other conventional armies. Most of the U.S. conventional forces finished their war the day Saddam's statue fell. Due to the sheer size of Iraq conventional soldiers are, for now, needed to help conduct searches for irregulars, but the task is best suited for Special Forces. Massing even more conventional troops in Iraq will put those troops on the defensive, leaving them open to attack while patrolling or conducting other routine activities.

The answer is to make our military the insurgent force. That is, over time the US military should reduce its overt conventional presence, but increase its covert Special Forces presence. Special Forces operators are more mature and experienced combat veterans; they are virtually autonomous and utilize their own intelligence collection. They hunt irregular enemies with their own irregular means, which history shows as fatally effective.

Concurrently, the U.S. must create a well-financed, highly trained Iraqi military that is loyal to the notion of a secular democratic Iraq. That appears to have started, but will take time; until that force is stable the US will need conventional troops to perform that role, which is why reduction of conventional troops in Iraq will occur slowly (and thus opportunities for ambush will remain high for now).

The U.S. military must stay the course. But it appears that once again politics is attempting to overpower the best military solution. Historian Robin Moore explained the mistake of using conventional forces unconventionally in his book "The Hunt for Bin Laden: U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan." While one cannot make a direct comparison between Iraq and Afghanistan consider that just 100 U.S. Special Forces killed tens of thousands of Taliban and Al Qaeda irregular troops who often hid amongst civilians. Special Forces in Afghanistan excelled at guerilla warfare, relying on conventional assistance only as backup.

Given the tools they need, and without micromanaging, the Special Forces brought down the Taliban in less than 30 days. All that remained were holed up in Tora Bora. However, that's when the war got needlessly political. Moore explains:
Some operators claimed that the staff officers at K2 [in Uzbekistan] and at Central Command in Tampa feared a lone Green Beret buck sergeant whacking bin Laden on his own and denying the top brass their moment of shining glory. The conventional military wanted the capture or death of bin Laden to be a "team effort," and it meant the big team: Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. It meant that generals sitting thousands of miles away were part of the act... This mentality would come back to haunt America, just as it had doomed the Delta Force rescue mission in Iran in 1979 and countless other operations.

Additionally, Moore cites other factors including military leaders stuck in an old conventional-warfare mindset, and their fears that a limit of role would equal a loss of budget.

On several occasions this conventional mindset, mired by bureaucracy and slow response, ensured the escape of Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar. In one example Special Forces confidently identified, and were just 30 minutes from, bin Laden's position. But the generals in Tampa decided the attempt too risky and that conventional forces were needed. Bin Laden escaped before a response was organized. Nonetheless, even constrained by politicos and military brass Special Forces routed Tora Bora in November 2001 -- losing none while killing 450 Taliban and Al Qaeda troops.

Sadly, Operation Anaconda in March 2002 at Gardez would not fare as well. Moore blames Pentagon leaders, including Gen. Tommy Franks, for restraining Special Forces in favor of conventional military. The result? The U.S. military lost more lives in that five-day operation than during the entire war; Special Forces lost more than in the previous eight years.

Maybe Moore is too hard on conventional forces, but the tally remains indisputable: Thousands of conventional troops and Special Forces used as backup suffered high losses while killing only 500 al Qaeda at Anaconda. Conversely, in the first half of the war only 100 Special Forces operators using conventional military as the backup, and acting as independent snipers, bomb guiders and leaders of the Northern Alliance, killed tens of thousands of al Qaeda and Taliban with no Special Ops deaths from enemy fire. Lesson: let Special Ops be Special Ops.

Moore summarizes how politics crept into military decisions, which in early 2002 jeopardized all the gains Special Forces made in the first weeks of the war in Afghanistan:
In the end the lessons of Vietnam and Afghanistan's prior history [Soviet rule] were lost on those convention officers in command. They would build a powerful conventional presence that would ultimately lead to a reversal of roles -- the Taliban and AQ [al Qaeda army] would now be guerrilla fighters and U.S. forces would now be the defenders. However, one man, at the very top of the food chain, Donald Rumsfeld, would "get it." In late August 2002, Rumsfeld would reject Franks' plan for U.S. peacekeeping forces, and direct Green Berets to continue training a national defense force, whereby Afghanistan would develop their own peacekeeping force. Rumsfeld was engaging in SPARTAN [Special Proficiency at Rugged Training and Nation-Building], and allowing the Green Berets to do what they knew how to do; defeat terrorists and build nations.

If you think the headlines from Iraq are bad now just add more peacekeepers and count the increased body bags. If the Bush administration surrenders to current political pressure, and to the proponents of old-school conventional military thinking, then they will have failed to learn the lessons relearned at Anaconda. Now is the time to increase aggressive Special Operations in Iraq, not conventional forces and defensive peacekeeping.

In the days ahead we'll see if Rumsfeld still "gets it." As he has often said, we're in a marathon not a sprint. The Iraq war began conventionally, but is now fully unconventional. Despite political pressure from the proponents of conventional forces, who still do not understand the unconventional nature of the war on terror, Rumsfeld is pursuing the proper plan in Iraq -- Special Forces; lowering conventional profile as permitted; rebuilding the former enemy's army in our image. Recently, while reiterating the coming reduction of U.S. conventional troops in Iraq, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz noted, "The key to stability in Iraq and Afghanistan is get the Iraqis and the Afghans to keep the peace in their own countries." And the key to defeating an unconventional enemy is to think and fight more unconventionally than they.

Greg Buete writes frequently for TCS about military and defense issues.

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