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Iraq | An embattled president takes the battle-and its warriors-to a new level

Issue: "Hope or hype?," Jan. 20, 2007

The 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team headed to Iraq long before a somewhat nervous- and sober-looking President Bush stepped to a lectern in the White House library to announce an increase of more than 20,000 in the number of troops serving there. Most members of the unit were enjoying Christmas with their families near Fort Bragg, N.C., when they received word late last month that the holiday was over.

The fabled 3,500-strong "Falcon Brigade" is always on a high state of alert, said spokesman Maj. Tom Earnhardt, and "can have the first elements out the door" within 18 hours. So by early this month the servicemen were in Kuwait, and this week they will become the first contingent in five brigades that are entering Iraq as part of what the president called a new "well-defined mission" to revive what he acknowledged has become a failing offensive. "Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me. It is clear that we need to change our strategy in Iraq," the president said in a nationally televised speech Jan. 10.

It's been clear since Republicans lost mid-term elections that the president was determined to put in place a new team as well as a new war strategy. In addition to the morning-after departure of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Bush is now in the process of replacing three top commanders in the Middle East theater (see sidebar). What remains to be seen is whether the new plan and its planners can halt the surge of violence that cost 22,000 Iraqis and over 800 U.S. servicemen their lives in 2006.

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Judging by troop deployments, a change in operations was evident before Bush laid out a new strategy: Incoming Secretary of Defense Robert Gates issued the order to activate the Falcon Brigade-along with paratroop units of the 82nd's 1st Brigade-even as he huddled with the president and other top advisors at Camp David last month. Gates acted quickly on the recommendation of field commanders for the 82nd Airborne as a "call forward" force, even as a public announcement regarding troop increases was still weeks away. By contrast Rumsfeld long resisted calls from military brass for more troops in Iraq, going back to before the Iraq invasion launched in 2003.

Military insiders have compared Rumsfeld to Gen. Robert McNamara, who as defense secretary in the Vietnam era sought a top-down military realignment that couldn't match the reality of guerrilla warfare in southeast Asia. Rumsfeld "didn't listen to his own generals," according to Earl Tilford, professor of history at Grove City College and former director of the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College. "Rumsfeld came into the Pentagon wanting to cut the army by 2-4 divisions and hoping that a quick victory in Iraq would make it possible to do that. But that didn't happen, and instead we have been operating in a strategic vacuum."

In his speech, the president acknowledged the need for a strategy to fill the vacuum. He announced the dispatch of five brigades to Baghdad. He ordered additional forces-primarily the Falcon Brigade-to violence-prone Anbar Province. The added personnel will work alongside Iraqi units clearing and holding Iraqi neighborhoods from insurgents. What's different from previous campaigns, the president said, is that this time the Iraqi government has agreed to a set of benchmarks in order to receive continued U.S. military help: controlling all provinces by November, guaranteeing by law oil revenue-sharing among Iraqis, investing $10 billion in Iraqi funds for reconstruction, and agreeing to hold provincial elections later this year.

Can 22,000 additional troops provide enough firepower to achieve those objectives? "Probably not," said Tilford. "The army is already stretched and we will be stretched more to do that. Our strength is in our technological superiority, and that doesn't matter as much on the ground. We aren't prepared for significant casualties, and we are dealing with an enemy that doesn't mind taking casualties, and a lot of them."

Other military analysts agree that the numbers may not be enough to get the job done. By customary calculations, controlling a city of 6 million like Baghdad requires a force of 150,000 (one soldier or policeman per 40-50 civilians). Even with the additional troop strength announced by Bush, combined forces in Baghdad are likely to number less than half that.

To bridge the gap, Tilford said ground troops need to harness and improve coordination with U.S. airpower. "The F-22 is a great plane but it's for aerial combat, and that's not the enemy we face. We need precision bombing, we need planes that can loiter before taking out targets on the ground." In recent months B-1 bombers conducted successful strikes in Afghanistan working alongside NATO forces lacking heavy armor and artillery support. Fewer of those stories are readily apparent from Iraq.

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