Don't Short-Circuit the Surge (Wall Street Journal)


January 26, 2008 

TheIraqdebate in 2007 focused on whether the new strategy and troop increase could stem violence inIraq. It did. TheIraqdebate in 2008 will probably focus on how much theUnited Statescan reduce force levels inIraqthis year in the wake of its success.


Many in these discussions give troop numbers and brigade counts almost casually, without ever explaining how they derive the figures. That's a problem. Any realistic evaluation suggests that returning to pre-surge levels by July 2008, as some are suggesting, carries considerable risk.


Ethno-sectarian attacks and deaths inBaghdadsecurity districts decreased more than 90% from January to December 2007. Iraqi civilian casualties have dropped 75% from their peak, and the number of IED attacks has fallen to the lowest level since October 2004. One brigade ofU.S.troops returned home in December without replacement. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates believes that Gen. David Petraeus will recommend continuing the drawdown to 15 brigades.


The Joint Chiefs of Staff, CENTCOM commander Adm. William Fallon, and Gen. Petraeus are now assessing whether to recommend in March a further reduction in troop levels later in 2008. Mr. Gates stated recently that he hopes conditions will permit reduce its combat forces inIraqby a brigade a month from August to December 2008, leaving a footprint of 10 brigades at the end of the president's term -- the lowest American force level in the country since the 2003 invasion.


In contrast, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, who commands combat forces for Gen. Petraeus, has stated that he is uncomfortable committing to any further reductions below 15 brigades before commanders can assess the effect of the decrease to that force-size. Gen. Petraeus recently said that March 2008 might be too soon to make that determination. War critics have insisted on reductions to 100,000 troops or fewer.


The brigade combat team, commanded by a colonel and consisting of around 3,500 soldiers (5,000 or so counting the support elements that normally deploy with it) is the building block of the U. S. Army (its equivalent, the Regimental Combat Team, is the building block of the Marine Corps). There are currently 42 BCTs in the active force. Those who speak of an absolute number of troops that they desire inIraqshow their ignorance of the military planning process.


American brigades inIraqoversee combat, training, and governance missions in their sector, whether a quadrant ofBaghdador an entire outlying province. Each brigade oversees an area with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. Brigades plan and execute military operations that prevent extremists from returning to cleared areas. They also gather intelligence about enemy groups in their areas of operations, and thus determine where new threats are emerging.


Since the end of 2006, brigades have overseen the Military Transition Teams that train and advise the Iraqi security forces operating in their area, dramatically improving the coordination of Iraqi and American forces. Now, most American brigade headquarters are partnered with an Iraqi division headquarters, helping the Iraqis to plan and sustain increasingly complex operations.


Since spring 2007, the brigades have housed the Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams that have jumpstarted local and provincial Iraqi government. The brigade helps these teams move through the area. The brigades have been instrumental in the Iraqi population's rejection of al Qaeda. Brigade commanders and their staffs and subordinates have negotiated ceasefires with leaders of tribes, villages and urban neighborhoods; identified Concerned Local Citizens; and integrated these Iraqi civilians with the Iraqi Security Forces. Brigade commanders in 2008 may distribute their own troops between combat and training missions, rather than relying on a centrally-directed policy untailored to local circumstances.


The brigade has thus become much more than a fighting unit. The development of the Iraqi Security Forces and Iraqi civilian institutions, which has been a hallmark of Gen. Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy and a pillar of its success in 2007, rests upon the American brigade headquarters. Maintaining security essential to drawing down the American force levels requires the presence inIraqof enough brigade headquarters to conduct the combat, training and governance missions essential to success.


The way to determine the number of brigade headquarters suitable forIraqis by determining the number of brigade-sized missions in the country. This is a challenging but not insuperable task.


There were too few brigades in 2006 to monitor the enemy and oversee the new government institutions in poor security situations. There were enough brigades by mid- 2007 to perform those tasks, although not equally in all areas. The "surge" was never intended to secure all ofIraq-- only to stabilizeBaghdadand Anbar. Its unexpected success has also placed unanticipated strains onU.S.forces. We won more than we had hoped, and now we may need to defend it more than we had planned.


The "surge" posture from June through December 2007 included five BCTs in Baghdad; four in the southern "belt" (from Mahmudiyah on the Euphrates to Nahrawan east of the capital); three in Anbar (including 2 Marine Regiments); four in the northern belt (Taji; Tarmiyah; and Diyala, where a Quick Reaction Force spent much of the summer along with the dedicated brigade); and one each in Salah-ad-Din, Kirkuk, Ninevah, and on convoy protection duty.


Gen. Odierno recently shifted two brigades withinIraqto conduct his third major offensive against al Qaeda, Operation Phantom Phoenix, to disrupt and pursue the enemy in northernIraq. The December reduction to 19 BCTs has left only one brigade headquarters in Diyala. General Odierno intends to thin the headquarters and the troops on the ground in Anbar andBaghdadin order to achieve the remaining four-brigade reduction back to pre-surge levels by July.


The decision to draw down the surge is predicated not only on current security gains, but on the assumption that security will continue to improve in areas where the reductions are programmed to occur. Gen. Petraeus, testifying before Congress in September, attributed the downturn in violence, then 12 weeks old, to three factors: the summer offensives against al Qaeda and militias, the Iraqi population's rejection of extremists, and the slowly increasing capabilities of the Iraqi security forces.


"Based on all this and the further progress we believe we can achieve over the next few months, I believe that we will be able to reduce our forces to the pre-surge level of brigade combat teams by next summer, withdrawing one quarter of our combat brigades by that time without jeopardizing the security gains that we have fought so hard to achieve." Gen. Odierno confirmed in a November press conference that he had recommended that Gen. Petraeus reduce the force to 15 brigades by July, "because I believe that we will be able to continue to move forward with the progress."


Achieving the complement of 15 brigades by summer rests upon Gen. Odierno's judgment that he can withdraw not only the headquarters from Diyala, but also others from Anbar and parts ofBaghdadthis spring. His assumption is that security will continue to improve at about the rate our commanders think is feasible between now and July, and that the Iraqi Army will grow as predicted.


There is considerable risk in this assumption. Coalition and Iraqi forces have not finished clearing Ninevah province, Salah ad-Din and parts of Babil. Major operations continue against al Qaeda remnants in Ninevah, Salah-ad-Din, Diyala,Kirkukand Wasit provinces. Fighting between Iraqi Security Forces (aided by coalition special forces and our Georgian, Polish and British allies) and Mahdi Army militias continues in the south.


The withdrawal to 15 brigades already assumes that these operations will be successful. It provides no cushion for unexpected developments or unforeseen enemy responses. There is thus no military basis at all at the present time to recommend additional reductions in 2008.


One year ago, Gen. Petraeus testified before Congress: "I was assured . . . by the secretary of Defense . . . that if we need additional assets, my job is to ask for them. If they're not provided in some case, my job is to tell my boss the risk involved in accomplishing the mission without the assets that are required. And at some point, of course, you may have to go back and say that you cannot accomplish the mission because of the assets that have not been provided."


By the best estimates now available, 15 brigades is the absolute minimum force required to accomplish the mission that has brought us success in 2007. Any further reductions -- even by a single brigade -- may make that mission impossible.

This article originially appeared in the Wall Street Journal.


Ms. Kagan is an affiliate of Harvard's John M. Olin Institute of Strategic Studies and the president of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.