A surge of extra US troops into Iraq, a strategy reportedly under active consideration by the White House and US generals in Baghdad, might mean more than increased manpower. It could herald a shift in military strategy, as well.
With more troops, American ground forces could clear insurgents out of troubled Baghdad neighborhoods and then stay, say some proponents of a surge. Units could live in abandoned homes or government buildings, providing round-the-clock security in districts where death squads now roam.
But widespread "clear-and-hold" operations might require more troops than are available, say critics. They could slow the pace of development of Iraqi forces. And regardless of US strength in Iraq, success may depend upon Iraqi progress toward reconciling warring sectarian factions.
"Almost every expert agrees that a surge without conciliation can do little more than produce a cosmetic, temporary tactical victory that might mask US withdrawal and defeat," said Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), last week in a commentary on the surge issue.
The proposal to add thousands more Army soldiers and Marine riflemen to the 140,000 American troops already in- country appears to be gaining ground, as President Bush weighs US options for the way forward in Iraq.
At the time of this writing Sunday, news reports said Gen. George Casey, the top ground commander in Iraq, is "open" to the idea of expanding the US force size, at least temporarily. He "has not asked for more troops," but he is "not necessarily opposed to the idea" of a troop surge, said Army Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a military spokesman.
Previously, the surge option had produced mixed reactions from military leaders. In general, the military wants to ensure that any troop increase is linked to a specific mission, and is not just for political effect. Just last week General Casey cautioned that any surge must be part of a comprehensive approach that could "help us progress toward our strategic objectives."
Proponents of one prominent surge plan agree. Drawn up under the auspices of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the plan would put four additional Army brigades into Baghdad and two additional Marine regimental combat teams into Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, in an effort to curtail Iraqi violence.
"This is not just a debate about numbers. In the first instance, this is a debate about strategy," said one author of the plan, military historian Frederick Kagan, at a Dec. 14 AEI seminar outlining it. Mr. Kagan has also met with Mr. Bush about what might be achieved by bringing more US military might to Iraq.
It has never been the primary mission of the US military in Iraq to establish security to protect the population, argued Kagan. Since the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the military mission has been to train Iraqis and turn the problem over to them.
For the most part, US counterinsurgency efforts have focused on attacking adversaries. That should change, according to the AEI plan, to defense and economic support of Iraqi civilians.
"You do not focus on the enemy. You focus on the people," said another of the plan's co-authors, retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, at the AEI event.
The worst fighting is occurring in mixed Sunni-Shiite Baghdad neighborhoods, according to Kagan. That is where Sunni insurgents are struggling with Shiite militias in tit-for-tat sectarian warfare.
The AEI study identifies 23 such residential districts. With an additional 20,000 troops, the US military could surge into these neighborhoods, clear them of bad guys, and then leave units behind to keep them clear while moving on to the next target.
"You put a protect force in, that lives in the neighborhood.... They use empty houses. They use government buildings, schools that are not being used," said General Keane.
In Anbar, the extra marines would not be enough to allow the US to carry out this approach. Instead, they would focus on preventing insurgents flushed from Baghdad from using Anbar as a base.
This whole endeavor would be accompanied by a reconstruction effort that would provide Baghdad residents with better basic services, under the AEI plan. The extra troops would be generated by accelerating the deployment of units bound for Iraq, and by extending the tours of some units already there.
"This will not break the Army and the Marine Corps. I am not suggesting it is not hard," said Kagan.
Whether the US military would use extra troops in this manner is not publicly known. The AEI plan has reportedly been well-received by some White House officials.
But whether to surge isn't the real issue facing Bush, according to Mr. Cordesman of CSIS. It is whether he can counter the trend toward civil war in Iraq while implementing policies that promise longer-term success. "He cannot do this simply by sending more troops to Iraq, although that may be useful as part of a coherent strategy," said Cordesman in his commentary.
Such a strategy might include pressure on the Iraqi government to try harder on sectarian reconciliation, and fresh efforts to build the Iraqi army and police. Absent new political moves, a surge will seem like a pro-Shiite tilt by the US, argued Cordesman.