Skepticism from the Military on an Iraq Surge

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When President Bush dumped Donald Rumsfeld after the midterm elections in November, many officers in the Pentagon were elated to be rid of the domineering Secretary of Defense. They looked forward to a day when their views on such crucial issues as the Iraq War might carry more weight with the White House. But as the Administration prepares to announce its latest new Iraq strategy, those same officers may no longer be so optimistic. Bush is widely expected to call for the so-called surge option: injecting some 30,000 new soldiers and Marines into Iraq. But many officers at the Pentagon, including some of the most senior, aren't sure such an increase in the force is a good idea.

The head of the Marine Corps has openly questioned the wisdom of the move without an overarching strategy. "We would fully support, I think, as the Joint Chiefs, the idea of putting more troops into Iraq if there is a solid military reason for doing that, if there is something to be gained," Gen. James Conway, who became Commandant of the Marine Corps six weeks ago, said to reporters recently. "We do not believe that just adding numbers for the sake of adding numbers — just thickening the mix — is necessarily the way to go."

Now other members of the military's top brass are quietly questioning the lack of a clear-cut strategy. "What is the objective? Does the President want Iraq to look like Iowa?" asks one retired senior officer. "What has finally put some backbone in the Joint Chiefs is that, to date, there has not been a realistic endstate identified that matches the reality on the ground. They still don't get it. Tactics without a strategy are a recipe for disaster."

A recent report overseen by former Army Major General John Batiste, who headed the 1st Infantry Division and has been a vocal critic of the Administration's handling of the war, says the choice Bush faces in Iraq is stark: "We have reached the point where we need to ask the question whether it is more important to preserve the country of Iraq with its fašade of democratic government, or protect our own national security interests."

Virtually every expert who has followed Iraq for the last four years says a military surge without accompanying political and economic progress would be a waste. They believe some essential steps need to be taken first: the U.S. should openly declare it has no long-term intention of staying in Iraq, the Iraqi government should soon announce provincial elections, and the U.S. should back a large-scale jobs program. They also advocate putting more pressure on the Iraqi government for a political reconciliation schedule, as well as a serious discussion of sharing oil revenues among the different ethnic regions.

But for a surge of new troops to make a real difference, change has to come in Washington, not just in Baghdad, argues retired Gen. Tony Zinni. Like many other active duty and retired officers, Zinni has been disappointed in the failure of other government agencies like State, Justice and Energy to devote resources to the reconstruction effort. "Washington needs almost as much work as Iraq does," Zinni says. "First and foremost, it needs to establish a viable interagency structure. Doing more of the same — either in Iraq or Washington — won't work. There have never been enough troops, but if there is a new strategy which includes political reconciliation and economic development, then more U.S. troops could gain some momentum so those programs could take hold." Zinni estimates it will take five to seven more years to achieve "a reasonably stable" Iraq.

And like the Iraq Study Group, which called for reaching out to Iran and Syria, Zinni and other officers believe that diplomacy is key to any turnaround in Iraq. "I think we have lost ground in the region. Potential allies have been burned. But we need to work at getting them and the rest of the international community back. The Administration has to work every angle. You've got to light 1,000 fires out there and hope something takes."

Regardless of what Bush decides, he will have two new men to implement his plan. Pentagon sources say that Bush will nominate Navy Adm. William J. Fallon to replace Army Gen. John Abizaid as head of the U.S. military's Central Command, which oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fallon, 61, a Vietnam veteran and Navy pilot, has been head of Pacific Command since 2005. His choice comes as a surprise, because the Central Command has always been headed by either an Army or Marine general, and because Fallon has no direct experience in Iraq or Afghanistan. However, Bush has also picked an Iraq veteran, Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who served there in the early stages of the war, to replace Army General George Casey as the ground commander in Iraq.