What's behind US strategy shift in Iraq war

Plan to channel funds from reconstruction to security signals focus on shorter-term goal of holding elections.

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

After more than a year of effort in Iraq, the United States appears to be recalibrating key aspects of its strategy for rebuilding Iraqi society - while US intelligence estimates become increasingly pessimistic about that effort's ultimate success.

The shift of billions in US aid from infrastructure to security projects may be but part of the story. Increasingly American efforts focus on short-term projects at the expense of longer-term efforts, according to some analysts. The aim: hold scheduled January elections if at all possible, and then try to build upward from there.

"The good news is a quiet shift to pragmatism. The bad news is that this shift and change in strategy may be coming too late and in too uncertain a fashion," concludes Anthony Cordesman, a senior military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a report just released on Iraqi rebuilding.

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The slow pace of Iraq's recovery can be seen in a simple fact of accounting: of $18 billion allocated by Congress for the effort about 10 months ago, only about $1 billion has been dispensed so far.

Most of that money was supposed to pay for long-term public works, such as water and power projects. But insurgent attacks have made it impossible to make much progress on such work, so on Wednesday the Bush administration officially asked Congress to shift $3.46 billion of the reconstruction funds to security accounts.

If approved by lawmakers, about $2 billion of this reprogrammed money would go to rush efforts to train and equip Iraqi police and security forces. About $450 million would pay for repair and expansion of Iraq's oil facilities, which are a favored target of insurgents. Most of the rest would go for election planning and would rush job training and employment assistance efforts, among other things.

Original US plans called for doing everything at once - reestablishing security, while at the same time reconstructing shattered generating stations, and creating a democratic political culture from scratch. Whatever the future of the political effort, it's clear that simply turning on the lights hasn't made insurgents fade away. Instead, they've attacked any and all targets that could be linked to US occupiers. The result: neither lights nor peace.

"There is no magic solution there and there is no guarantee that throwing even more dollars at security will make Iraq any more secure than it is now," says Judith Yaphe, an Iraq expert at the National Defense University.

The changes in the US approach are in fact more profound than a simple deemphasis of peacetime infrastructure, according to Anthony Cordesman of CSIS. Since April the US has not just put more money into security - it has also changed its mind about the kind of indigenous security force it wants to create.

The previous emphasis was on a relatively limited effort to create a large manpower pool with limited training and equipment. The goal was a slow improvement in border defense, with only token regular forces that would not be strong enough to threaten a nascent Iraqi democracy.

But since insurgents began stepping up attacks in April, the US military has realized it cannot win without substantial numbers of capable Iraqi troops.

"As a result, the Bush administration is now rushing in funds for the 'Vietnamization' of military operations in Iraq," writes Mr. Cordesman in his rebuilding report.

The Bush administration rejects criticism of lack of progress in Iraq as reflecting of hand-wringing pessimism. It's true that goals for such key sectors as oil production haven't been met, they say - but there's progress nonetheless.

Electricity generation has grown by 10 percent since the handover of authority to Iraqis in June, and now consistently exceeds 110,000 megawatts a day, said Ron Schlicher, a deputy assistant secretary of State in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, in testimony to the Senate on Wednesday. Oil production is at its highest level since the beginning of the war, reaching a peak of 2 million barrels per day as of last Friday.

The proposed $3 billion shift in funds doesn't mean the US is ending its civil rebuilding effort, said Mr. Schlicher.

"We seek ... an integrated approach, though we know that the provision of adequate security up front is requisite to rapid progress on all other fronts," he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

At the same time, the CIA has presented President Bush with a National Intelligence Estimate that might fairly be described as pessimistic, according to the Associated Press. The NIE presents three scenarios for Iraq's future, with the worst being civil war, and the best a tenuous peace, said the AP.

Even analysts who describe themselves as optimistic about Iraq's long-term prospects say that coming months could be a struggle. As insurgents try to head off the creation of true indigenous security forces, their next targets might be not just police recruits themselves, but the families of those tied to the new regime.

"This is where the battle for the next several months will take place," says a retired Army general who maintains close ties with current military leaders.

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