The Future of the Iraq Strategy

A change in strategy may be in order, but how much of a change will it be?

Iraqi Army units ‘in the lead.’ Map courtesy of MNF-Iraq. Click map to view.

The results of U.S. midterm elections will clearly have an impact on U.S. policy in Iraq. Less than one day after the Democrats took the House of Representative, and prior to the capture of the Senate, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tendered his resignation. President Bush immediately stepped up with an nomination for Rumsfeld’s replacement: Robert Gates, a former director of the CIA and a member of the Iraqi Study Group, the bipartisan team of experts assigned to search for answers to the problems in Iraq’s development.

STRATFOR’s Fred Burton has an excellent analysis of the political implications of the election on Iraq policy and Mr. Gate’s appointment as Secretary of Defense, which we will not replicate. There are two points which are worth highlighting.

First, Mr. Burton notes that the election, while a rejection of the current strategy in Iraq, does not equate to approval of calls for withdrawal. “What is clear is that the U.S. electorate has shifted away from supporting the Bush administration’s conduct of the war. What is not clear at all is what they have shifted toward. It is impossible to discern any consensus in the country as to what ought to be done,” said Mr. Burton.

This theory is backed by polling data from voters. While there is a clear majority that is unhappy with the current strategy, only one-third of the voters want a full withdrawal. A majority of the American public are searching for a solution, not the abandonment of Iraq. This has political implications on Iraq policy, and may temper the calls for withdrawal.

Polls of voters found a strong majority – about six in 10 – disapproved of the war in Iraq. About a fourth of those polled said they sided with Democrats on wanting to withdraw some troops from Iraq and another three in 10 said they want all troops withdrawn…

But while setting timetables may have helped Democrats win votes, they may have a tough time pushing their plan through Congress. Democratic incumbents are divided on how soon to pull troops out of Iraq, and the party risks being held responsible by voters in the 2008 presidential elections if an abandoned Iraq collapses into a full-blown civil war.

Second, Mr. Burton notes the appointment of Mr. Gates is an endorsement of the yet to be released Baker-Hamilton Commission’s report. “The question mark as to the president’s response [to the Baker-Hamilton Commission’s report] seems to have been erased, and the forthcoming ISG report soars in significance.” Appointing Mr. Gates, who worked with James Baker, is an implicit signal that President Bush is going to implement some or all of the commission’s suggestions.

But the real question is what is contained within the Baker-Hamilton Commission’s report? What are the recommendations? Military and intelligence sources inform us they are quite concerned about the recommendations, and fear the report will signify an acceleration of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq before the Iraqi Security Forces are capable of holding their own. The year of hard work getting the vast majority of the Anbar tribes to reject al Qaeda and cooperate with the government will be in jeopardy. And the U.S. would be leaving an al Qaeda sanctuary in Ramadi intact, with the potential loss of Anbar, Salahaddin, Babil and Diyala provinces, as well as failing to properly deal with Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iranian backed leader of the Mahdi Army. We would be allow the political process to be dominated by the worst elements of Iraq’s terror groups [Note: we disagree with Mr. Burton’s assessment that the Iraqi political process has collapsed.]

But without knowing the specific details of the report, it is difficult to determine how it will impact policy. One assumption is that U.S. forces will be pulled back to large bases to act as a ‘quick reaction force’ while the Iraqi Security Forces assume daily patrols and security responsibilities.

This process has been in the works for some time. The Iraqi Army has been ramping up its numbers and taking control of the battlespace over the course of the past year. This fall, the Iraqi government and Multinational Forces-Iraq announced the expansion of the Army by three divisions and increase the manpower of the Army by 37 percent over the next nine months. This includes:

– 18,000 new personnel to replace combat losses, desertions, etc.

– 12,000 new personnel to over-man the combat battalions at 110 percent (this will account for the Army’s liberal leave policy.)

– 18,700 new personnel to establish 3 new Division headquarters, 5 new Brigade HQs, 20 new Battalions and 1 new Special Operations Forces Battalion.

– 10,000 new personnel will be trained every 2 months.

The three extra combat divisions are obviously designed to replace U.S. combat troops at some point in the future (it appears the end of 2007 is a target date) and allow the U.S. to draw down to a single division, along with support/logistical personnel, advisers, Air Force, and Special Forces. The U.S. needs to ensure it maintains enough troops in country to fill the gaps when Iraqi forces fail – and they will from time to time – as well as dramatically increase the embedded trainers in the Army and police formations to nurture the development of the security forces.

Will the Baker-Hamilton Commission accelerate this process by setting timetables and establishing benchmarks to push the Iraqi government to make hard decisions? Will this create too great a burden on the Iraqis security forces to shoulder the responsibility before they are prepared? One thing is clear: a public, dramatic shift in U.S. troop numbers, as well as rhetoric to bring the troops home at all costs will only embolden the enemies of Iraq to increase their attacks and undermine the Iraqi government.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of The Long War Journal.



  • Bill Roggio says:

    A preemptive warning: This isn’t the place to discuss the evils of the political parties or the conduct of the parties during the election. Keep the comments focused on how the political shift will affect policy, without the political venom, and all will be well. Political attacks will be deleted without warning.

  • Nicholas says:

    Polls of voters found a strong majority – about six in 10 – disapproved of the war in Iraq.

    I imagine most Americans would get their information about what’s happening in Iraq from the MSM. Therefore I would word that sentence thus:

    Polls of voters found a strong majority – about six in 10 – disapproved of the media portrayal of the war in Iraq.

    I suppose nobody really has a full picture of what’s going on over there, but I very much doubt that those polled had any objective sources of information on which to make such a determination. Obviously, that is irrelevant in terms of how they vote. But I think it’s worth realizing just how much power the media has. By controlling perceptions, they are effectively able to hamstring the government.

    Make up your own mind about what biases the MSM may have—but there’s no doubt in mine, just as there’s no doubt that perceptions play a huge role in the political pressure which may well end up causing a serious fumble in Iraq policy.

    As for whether and how conduct of the war will be affected, at this stage I think it’s anybody’s guess. Very little could change. My greatest worry outside of the new SecDef is that critical spending bills are going to be hard to pass, however some creative veto-ing and deal-making could smooth that out. On the other hand, this Gates fellow’s history is a bit of a worry, but maybe he’ll do a good job. I hope he’s very smart and principled. One would hope only the most capable candidatate would even be considered.

    I hope this comment is sufficiently neutral for Mr. Roggio… I certainly don’t have a dog in this race, unless you count civilization in general.

  • Anand says:

    Good post. Is it okay to start a discussion thread here about the ISF and the situation in Iraq rather than the new shift in US policy on Iraq? If not, please feel free to delete this e-mail.
    DJ and anyone else,
    I am very surprised to hear that Babil province is in danger of being lost. Even with the death of the former head of Babil Swat, I thought that Babil’s state government was further along than the large majority of provincial governments. I further thought that Babil was going to assume provincial control, and that Babil Swat’s 800 man force and 8th IA [Iraqi Army] division were going to assume full security responsibility within less than 6 months–despite the slight stretch of Sunni Arabs in northern Babil. What’s gone wrong in Babil?
    How sectarian (infiltrated by Badr and Mahdi) is the 8th IA division? When will it be able to assume full actual responsibility for its AO (versus just being filled in green on the map), so that the few remaining US (and MNF) combat battalions can be redeployed North where they are badly needed. Part of this question depends on how Sadr handles extreme elements within Mahdi, as well as incorporates mainstream Mahdi into the ISF (appears to be a major objective of his).
    The report is correct that the situation has badly deteriorated in Diyala province. In my opinion, the 5th IA division is the second most disappointing IA division after 10th IA division measured in terms of actual performance relative to expectations. Didn’t the 5th IA division receive equipment ahead of the 4th IA, and perform far worse on the field than 4th IA. (4th stood its ground and made slight progress in Salahaddin province while 5th IA allowed a sharp deterioration in Diyala.) Even the 1st IA division, in the heart of Al Anbar, has avoided a sharp spike in violence in its AO.
    Does anyone know how much US military support 4th IA division requires to keep a lid on Salahaddin province?

  • Glenmore says:

    A majority of American voters disapproved of how the war in Iraq was being prosecuted. Most of those wanted the US out, now or soon, and to Hell with the Iraqis, they had their chance. But a lot wanted the US to increase their effort, not decrease or stay the same.
    ‘Stay the same’ is always a losing proposition in any discussion; it’s the fulcrum of the see-saw, a singularity. ALL other possible answers are lumped together in opposition. Only when one of those answers is implemented will we truly know how it stacks up against all the remaining others plus the former status quo.

  • andrew says:

    I would have sworn that Robert Gates was nominated for Sec Def.

  • Nicholas says:

    “Everybody sees that it isn’t working.”
    The thing is—how do you know that? We know counterinsurgency wars often take a long time to successfully prosecute (the shorter ones are ~6 years, some take 10 or longer). Often it isn’t obvious you’re winning until the other side collapses. In some senses it’s a contest to see who has the most patience.
    So isn’t declaring it futile a bit premature?

  • the nailgun says:

    Lisa – I think patience and perspective is the big problem. A lot of wars in this and previous decades went very well, very quickly but they didn’t really require territory to be held and occupied. Yet I think GWI etc has become the benchmark for all wars in the minds of the general populace and MSM.
    The only thing I can see that would greatly disappoint me in how the war is being run is if it became clear we could have successfully built up, trained and overseen a far larger ISF far faster. I don’t hear any experts like Bill suggesting that is the case so I’d say patience is what is required and more edication of the general population of what is actually required to win a counter insurgency as opposed to what journalists think.
    We also now have to live with the added complication of how the Iraqi Govt responds. Looking from the outside looking in it seems Al Maliki is going soft on Al Sadr. I really hope that this is perception and not reality.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Anand, Nicholas, The discussion is just fine, no complaints here.
    Lisa: General Batiste wants to INCREASE the number of US troops in Iraq to win, not draw down. The media only reported his criticisms, and not his support for the mission and desire to send in more troops.
    The average life of an insurgency is around 9 years. We’re 3 1/2 years into this.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    (If I misinterpretted your post, my apologies beforehand.) I did a series of posts on the Iraqi development of the Iraqi Army last summer,and said one of our mistakes was our original plan to create the Army on a national guard model designed to defend the country from outside threats was a mistake. We turned that around in the summer of 2004 (Gen. Petreaus did a remarkable job in my opinion), so the current Army is really only 2 years old. I fully agree, patience is needed.
    One of my interests in going back to Iraq is to see how the 7th Divison has developed in Anbar. That was the greenest formation in the military at the time.

  • Dudley Smith says:

    Bill, you are spot-on about the way the media treats Batiste. They always show his criticism of Rumsfeld, but then cut him off or don’t report the rest of his message, which is that we need to get this country thinking like it is WWII with everyone hunkered down for a long fight and significantly more troops on the front lines.
    I’m probably incredibly naive to hope for this, but IMO the Democrats could do themselves a huge favor by getting serious on Iraq now that they are in power. Increasing funding for the war, increasing troop levels, any public display of hawkishness would pay huge dividends to boosting the reputation of their single biggest weakness (national security) if Iraq settles down over the next few years. They could sell themselves as the “difference makers” for the favorable result and rehabilitate their overall image as a national party. I fear, however, that they will see these elections (falsely) as a mandate for the anti-war message of the extremists in the party, and simply use it as a chance to score cheap political points by accelerating failure in Iraq and tarnishing Bush’s legacy.
    I’d be happy to be wrong about Pelosi and Reid in this regard, even if it meant the Dems gaining long term party advantage.


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram