New York Times
October 31, 2004
WASHINGTON, Oct. 31 - Senior American military commanders and civilian officials in Iraq are speaking more candidly about the hurdles that could jeopardize their plans to defeat an adaptive and tenacious insurgency and hold elections in January.
Outwardly, they give an upbeat assessment that the counterinsurgency is winnable. But in interviews with 15 of the top American generals, admirals and embassy officials conducted in Iraq in late October, many described risks that could worsen the security situation and derail the political process that they are counting on to help quell the insurgency.
Commanders voiced fears that many of Iraq's expanding security forces, soon to be led by largely untested generals, have been penetrated by spies for the insurgents. Reconstruction aid is finally flowing into formerly rebel-held cities like Samarra and other areas, but some officers fear that bureaucratic delays could undermine the aid's calming effects. They also spoke of new American intelligence assessments that show that the insurgents have significantly more fighters - 8,000 to 12,000 hard-core militants - and far greater financial resources than previously estimated.
Perhaps most disturbing, they said, is the militants' campaign of intimidation to silence thousands of Iraqis and undermine the government through assassinations, kidnappings, beheadings and car bombings. New gangs specializing in hostage-taking are entering Iraq, intelligence reports indicate.
"If we can't stop the intimidation factor, we can't win," said Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, the commander of nearly 40,000 marines and soldiers in western and south-central Iraq, who is drawing up battle plans for a possible showdown with more than 3,000 guerrillas in Falluja and Ramadi, with the hope of destroying the leadership of the national insurgency.
In some cases, senior officers say, their goals could inadvertently act at cross purposes. For example, Iraq cannot hold meaningful national elections if militants still control major Sunni cities like Falluja. Negotiations there have broken down and many officers predict a military offensive. But hard-line Sunni clerics say they will call for an election boycott if American troops use force to put down the insurrection.
"Getting Sunnis involved in the political process to me is the biggest thing that has to happen to help the security situation," said one senior commander. "If a good portion of Sunnis don't participate, then that may give life to a larger Sunni insurgency. That's worrisome."
Some pivotal political decisions, including those shaping the election process and setting a time to attack militants in Falluja, rest with Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and his government, leaving American officials in the position, at best, of just trying to influence their outcome. Despite these obstacles, these officers and officials still express optimism that their detailed campaign plan and its military, political and economic elements have provided the blueprint for retaking rebel-held cities and navigating a tumultuous period when violence will undoubtedly intensify as insurgents seek to delay or scuttle the elections. That plan, adopted in August, is refined every two weeks by top American and Iraqi generals.
"I'm guardedly optimistic," said Brig. Gen. John DeFreitas III, the military's chief intelligence officer in Iraq. "If you look at Najaf, Tal Afar and Samarra, I think we are having good effects."
For the first time, military officers also disclosed that the United States could begin withdrawing its 138,000 troops from Iraq in July, if Iraqi security forces have established control and the threats plaguing Iraq now have lessened. "It's a mark on the wall," said one senior officer.
The Military Answer
But when pressed in interviews and informal conversations - mostly not for attribution, because of fear that their more candid remarks could be used as campaign fodder back home - senior commanders and civilian officials voiced misgivings about how their plans could go awry, reflecting the unpredictability of events in Iraq.
"It's a very complex country, and there are many things to worry about," said one senior officer. "But we're trying to work through all the unforeseen results of an insurgency that becomes more robust."
Senior military officers say they are under no illusion that military might alone will resolve Iraq's problems. At best, using force to retake rebel-held cities will help establish an environment secure enough to allow political and economic programs that will ultimately defeat the insurgency, they say.
Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top American commander in Iraq, compares the priorities in Iraq to two giant locomotive engines, one generating new Iraqi security forces, the other producing reconstruction gains, aides say. The two are intended to generate "irreversible momentum" that demonstrates to Iraqis and to the American public that steady progress, even if sometimes halting is being made.
Each morning General Casey's command briefing includes a slide called "Drumbeat," a detailed compilation of progress made in security, governance and the economy. No accomplishment is too minor for mention, from the opening of a new hospital to the signing of contracts for water projects. General Casey presses his commanders to show that reconstruction projects are under way and "turning dirt," and not just on the books. Right now there are about 700 such projects, with 1,800 scheduled to be under way by year's end, officers said.
Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of training and equipping Iraqi security forces, has a more colorful analogy. Succeeding in Iraq, he says, is like a cattle drive from Texas to Wyoming in the Old West: the cattle are the myriad tasks that need to be done in Iraq, and American and Iraqi trail bosses are battling insurgent rustlers, treacherous conditions and daunting logistical problems to keep the herd moving. "I don't think it's too late to succeed, but it's not going to be easy," he said. "The bottom line is, you just have to keep it going."
The broader context, senior officers and embassy officials say, is for the United States to stay the course and be patient, with the aim of restoring local control to Iraqis and helping to rebuild the security forces and the economy.
"We can't lose this one," said Maj. Gen. Henry W. Stratman, who as deputy chief of staff for political, military and economic affairs is the military's main liaison with the United States Embassy and Iraqi ministries.
The military is measuring its progress against a 43-page document, prosaically titled "Multinational Force Iraq Campaign Plan: Operation Iraqi Freedom." Under this plan, the military uses up to 215 measurements to gauge progress in 15 pivotal cities and 7 smaller towns that must be brought under control before nationwide elections can be held.
The measurements are reviewed weekly by senior officials, including 25 military planners nicknamed the Brainiacs, who are responsible for anticipating worst-case situations and proposing possible solutions. Every other week, General Casey and his top aides adjust the measurements to reflect changing dynamics on the ground.
"I see indications to believe the security environment will be sufficient for Iraq to have legitimate elections in January," said Maj. Gen. Stephen T. Sargeant, the plan's main author.
Officials say General Casey and John D. Negroponte, the United States ambassador in Baghdad, have a close and cordial working relationship, unlike that of their predecessors, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez and L. Paul Bremer III. "It's like night and day,'' one senior officer said.
But senior officers also say there are formidable hurdles ahead.
The recent massacre of 49 newly trained Iraqi soldiers in eastern Iraq illustrates the lengths that the insurgents, including former Baathist security forces and followers of the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, will go to terrorize Iraqis who work with the Americans or take part in the new government.
Military intelligence in recent weeks has reported the discovery of numerous suicide-bomber vests bound for Baghdad and new kidnapping gangs crossing the border into Iraq. Since the start of the holy month of Ramadan two weeks ago, daily attacks have increased by 30 percent.
A job-training program conducted by Navy Seabees near Falluja to teach construction skills to young Iraqis shut down earlier this month when the 30 students stopped coming to work, fearing retaliation.
Another casualty of the intimidation campaign is the flow of information from ordinary Iraqis to the military about the location of militants and their arms, including roadside bombs. As rebel-held cities are retaken, commanders say, tips from residents have picked up, but more information is needed. "Intelligence is still a weakness," a senior embassy official said.
The Economic Issues
Despite the bombings aimed at Iraqi security forces, American commanders say, there is no shortage of fresh recruits, a reflection of the desperate economic straits most Iraqis face. There are now about 100,000 Iraqi security forces trained and equipped, with 45,000 more scheduled to report by the end of the year.
Some Iraqi units have performed well in recent fighting, especially some elite Iraqi commando units. Earlier this month, 2,000 Iraqi troops helped American forces retake Samarra. But one Iraqi battalion reported that 300 of its 750 soldiers abandoned the unit before the offensive began Oct. 1.
American commanders fear that many Iraqi units are penetrated by informants. They are also grappling with cultural differences. With no formal national banking system in place, recruits and other troops need to bring their paychecks home to their families. "If you have four infantry companies, one is always on leave," a senior American officer said.
The Americans have ambitious goals. "By next July, I hope enough of the Iraqi security forces will be trained and equipped that they'll be able to conduct independent counterinsurgency operations, with some support," one senior commander said. "There will still be an insurgency; it's not going to go away. But we're trying to get it down to a lower level, where the Iraqi security forces can deal with it."
Once militants are driven out of their enclaves, the aim is to rush in economic aid, in large part to win over the civilian population. "We need to take Iraqis off the streets and give them meaningful jobs so they're holding shovels and hammers, not AK-47's," said Charles Hess, director of the Army's Iraq Project and Contracting Office, which oversees $12.6 billion in reconstruction programs.
In Samarra, Maj. Gen. John R. Batiste, commander of the Army's First Infantry Division, had a blunt warning for his superiors recently: "We've got to get these unemployed folks back to work. We have a very small window of opportunity to make this work."