Two dates, July 2008, and the November 4 voting day, hang heavily over Washington as watersheds for the Bush administration’s conduct of the Iraq War.
In July, the first extra “surge” troops sent out last year are scheduled to return home. But the highest levels of the US military are divided over what happens next.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff generally favor the continuation of troop reductions, while Iraq commanders prefer to tie their options to events on the ground.
Army Gen David H. Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, said in an interview last week that after July, “some time to let things settle down a bit” would be needed before deciding on further reductions.
Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the Joint Chiefs chairman, countered that other military commanders, including the Joint Chiefs themselves, would have a direct say in the decision.
“We aren’t working in opposition to each other,” he said. “…in fact there’s quite a bit of collaboration going on, but we are working from different perspectives, and that’s how it should be.”
Privately, however, Washington officials admit there is some strain between the Joint Chiefs and the Iraqi command, particularly between the Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey, on one side, and Petraeus and Army Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, on the other.
Aside from personal differences, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources point to some substantial apples of discord, mainly in consequence of those “different perspectives” on the way the war is shaping up:
Gen. Petraeus predicts that the Iraq conflict, far from slowing down in the second half of 2008 when America votes for a president, will gain in fury and possibly reach another climax early next year, just about the time when a new US president takes office.
Petraeus: Troop cut-downs are hazardous
Given this downward curve, he argues against planning cutbacks beyond the “red line” minimum of 130,000, the number remaining after the July drawdown.
Mullen and Casey, in contrast, see the US army progressively shrinking in Iraq as the year wears on and handing the security package over to the Iraqi army and other pro-US forces in Iraq, such as Sunni Arab and Kurdish allies.
Most of all, the two groups of military leaders differ over how to read the bottom line of the intelligence assessments laid before them.
1. The generals on the spot see logistical preparations by Iraqi insurgents and al Qaeda for transmuting their resistance model from sporadic, terrorist-guerilla-type strikes against US forces to organized military warfare. They are planning to build front lines on territory they control or capture in different parts of Iraq as bases for a war of attrition against the American army.
They have learned from the Palestinian Hamas’ seizure of Gaza, from which it battles Israel by means of cross-border missile assaults and suicide raiders. Iraqi insurgents propose to adopt these methods and also send small commando units over for strikes on American positions and transport routes.
This scenario must confront the US command in Iraq with the entirely new prospect of organized military resistance for the first time since the 2003 invasion. American commanders will have to revise their war tactics accordingly. Instead of using small, mobile, flexible units, they will have to adopt classic war tactics, deploying armored columns and big infantry units with massive air cover to capture or re-capture territory.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources disclose that, during the recent months spent by the US army in cleansing Anbar, Baghdad and other hotbed provinces of insurgents and terrorists and creating the Sunni Awakening Councils for local security, Iraqi insurgent groups have been beavering away underground to rebuild their strength, train, and lay in fresh stocks of weapons and equipment for a prolonged conflict. They are working undisturbed by and large because American combat troops are focusing on crushing al Qaeda.
Iraqi insurgents plan war of attrition
One of the larger insurgent groups fighting the US Army is the Army of the al-Nashbandia Way (JRTN). Founded in 1389 by Sheikh Muhammad Baha’ al-Naqshbandi, as one of the central Sufi orders of Islam, the JRTN in Iraq is believed to number several million adherents.
This week, the JRTN publication claimed that the figures released by the Americans about the drop in violence and casualties were false, but also carried the news that its fighters were in transition:
“The mujahideen must aim to wage a war of attrition to wear out U.S. forces through protracted guerrilla tactics. To achieve victory, jihad has to begin with defensive strategies before moving on to a balance of power and a final assault phase.”
2. Al Qaeda, too, according to intelligence updates, has set itself the goal of influencing the American presidential election by intensifying its attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan as the November 4 voting day nears.
3. The Sunni Awakening Councils have several bones to pick with US military and diplomatic leaders in Iraq. Billed as a major accomplishment of the US military, they have become the main bulwark in the past year against al Qaeda’s return to areas from which they have been expelled. But the members of these watch groups are afraid of being left high and dry without a political future for them and Iraq’s Sunni Arabs as a whole after the phased withdrawal of American forces from the country.
One of the council leaders, Sheikh Ali al-Hatim from Anbar province, sounded both apprehensive and bitter in an interview with the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV on Feb. 1.
He demanded that the Americans ascertain that his people, the Sunni Muslims, attain control of their regions, build real security forces and establish a real political entity.
“It would be stupid to ask the Americans to withdraw now,” he said, because there is Iranian influence in Iraq and Turkey has entered the northern part of Iraq. Imagine what will happen if they withdraw.”
Awakening Councils want guarantees for their future
Indicating that the Americans owe his people a fair deal, the Sunni sheikh declared: “We are the first and last reason for the failure of the Islamic state and al Qaeda’s plans in Iraq. True, the US forces have airplanes and capabilities, but we simple citizens… managed to achieve what we achieved in record time. It would have taken them three or four years.”
If the politicians continue toy with us, he warned, “We will withdraw our forces from southern, northern and western Baghdad and from Salah-e-Din and Anbar.”
Gen. Petraeus is convinced that when all these realities are factored into the Iraq equation – plus the Iranian penetration (expanded on in the next article in this issue) – the reduction of even the first five American brigades planned for July might be foolhardy.
It may even be necessary to bring back at least some of this strength in the course of 2008, he believes.
The generals of the Joint Chiefs argue back that US troops could be trapped in Iraq indefinitely if all the potential paroxysms to which Iraq is prey are taken aboard as Washington’s responsibility.
Their view supported a political commitment by US defense secretary Robert Gates not to incorporate a pledge to defend Iraq in a future accord on US-Iraq relations.
Talking to a Senate panel Wednesday, Feb. 6, Gates reported that formal negotiations on this accord will start soon with the goal of a final text by the end of July (when the first 30,000 US troops return home).
“The status-of-forces agreement that is being discussed will not contain a commitment to defend Iraq and neither will any strategic framework agreement,” Gates told a U.S. Senate panel.
He was responding to worries by Democrats in Congress that the Bush administration would use the accord to lock in a long-term US military presence before the next president is elected on Nov. 4.