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.
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.
Democrats in Congress seized on the risks inherent in the new Bush plan to call again for withdrawal, holding a set of hearings on the war and forcing a vote on a measure introduced by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to block a troop increase. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters after the speech that there was "no reason" for U.S. troops to remain in Iraq but acknowledged there are "limited opportunities for Congress to act."
What matters most to both sides of the debate is whether the Falcon Brigade and its follow-ons will succeed this time.
President Bush nominated Adm. William J. Fallon, 62, to head U.S. Central Command. What's a naval aviator doing in charge of two ground wars? Senior officers say that Defense Secretary Robert Gates was looking to bring breadth of experience to a post covering both Iraq and Afghanistan. If confirmed by the Senate, Fallon will become the first naval officer in charge of CentCom and will make a lateral move from commanding Pacific forces-a job change with potentially no pay raise and a lot more headaches.
Gen. David Petraeus, 54, takes over as lead commander in Iraq after commanding the 101st Airborne Division during the invasion, supervising relative calm in northern Iraq, and later guiding the training of Iraqi soldiers. In 1991 he was shot in the chest in a training incident in Tennessee, and soldiers yanked off the golf course a surgeon named Bill Frist, later to become Senate Majority Leader, to save his life. His selection signals that a turn in U.S. strategy is real, as Petraeus recently authored an aggressive counterinsurgency manual for the Army and backs a rapid five-brigade expansion, in contrast to his predecessor, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who was skeptical that additional troops could make a difference.
Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, 52, will serve as No. 2 military commander in Iraq, exercising day-to-day control over operations. As commander of the 4th Infantry Division in 2003, Odierno supervised soldiers who captured Saddam Hussein outside Tikrit. If Iraq has devolved since then, observers say his aggressive style isn't likely to change, even with close-at-hand experience in the war: His son, Capt. Anthony Odierno, lost much of his left arm during a counterinsurgency mission in Baghdad in the summer of 2004.
Ryan Crocker will be appointed to take over as U.S. ambassador to Iraq after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced Jan. 9 that current ambassador and Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad, 55, has been tapped to be the next U.S. ambassador to the UN. Crocker, 57, is current ambassador to Pakistan and a career diplomat with extensive Middle East experience. Khalilzad, if approved by the Senate, will become the first Muslim to sit in a U.S. Cabinet.