The debate over whether to increase the American military presence in Baghdad is much more than a dispute over troop levels. It reflects a more fundamental dispute over the American mission.
In proposing to send tens of thousands of additional troops, proponents of reinforcing the American military effort argue that the violence in Iraq is increasing at such an alarming rate that Washington can no longer wait for the newly minted Iraqi security forces to take on the main burden of securing the Iraqi capital.
The United States, they assert, needs to expand its mission by making the protection of the Iraqi population its primary objective.
The calculation is that by sending additional troops and taking up positions in mixed Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods, the American military can finally break the escalating cycle of sectarian killings. Only after restoring some semblance of security, the proponents of a troop increase maintain, can the Bush administration reasonably expect Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to rein in the Shiite militias.
As President George W. Bush mulls his Iraq strategy, the idea of deploying 20,000 additional American troops or more, at least temporarily, has emerged as a leading option. Bush intends to unveil his plan in early January, and the realization that the White House is approaching a fateful decision on the level of American involvement in Iraq has set off a spirited debate among retired officers, lawmakers and policy experts.
By most accounts, a decision to substantially increase the American military presence in Baghdad would signal an important strategic shift. For years, the generals have argued that their military strategy could not work unless the Iraqis simultaneously made progress toward political reconciliation, a development that American commanders calculated would reduce the support among Sunnis for the insurgency and ease sectarian tensions.
In effect, the advocates of sending more troops have turned that logic on its head by arguing that the Iraqis cannot make political headway toward overcoming their sectarian differences until military action is taken to blunt the Sunni-led insurgency, and security is improved. That could lessen the increasing dependence on militias by Iraqis who feel the need for protection against sectarian violence.
The idea of sending reinforcements to Baghdad is not a new one. The United States dispatched a Stryker brigade and several Army battalions to the capital in August as part of a joint American and Iraqi operation to improve security there. Those additions brought the number of American troops involved in the Baghdad operation to 15,000.
Sectarian killings initially declined, only to soar after death squads adapted to American tactics.
Some critics of the Bush administration's approach in Iraq have argued that the effort begun in August shows that more American troops are not the answer. Expanding the American military presence in Baghdad, they say, will only increase American casualties, add to the strain on an overburdened military and put off the day when the Iraqis begin to take over their own security.
"The Iraqis need to understand that the responsibility for their future is theirs," said Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat and the incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "We should at least begin to do some redeployment right away to show the American people that we are not there to stay forever."
Advocates of sending additional forces acknowledge that troops can be only part of the answer. To be effective, the strategy must include efforts to train the Iraqi Army and deal with political and economic issues. But they also say that too few reinforcements were sent this summer to decisively improve security.
"It was not done to the necessary scale and not to the point where the people felt they were secure and protected," said Daniel Dwyer, a retired major who served with the Army's Third Armored Cavalry Regiment in Baghdad and Tal Afar. "The people right now feel that there is no tactical design toward securing them, that we come in and conduct operations that are short-lived and leave, and their problems don't go away."
Another problem with the Baghdad security operation, critics say, is that it depended on Iraqi policies that were never adequately carried out. The Iraqi Army supplied only two of the six battalions that American commanders requested. Iraqi-funded reconstruction projects to generate jobs and win popular support have been too few or too late.
To address these shortfalls, some advocates of sending reinforcements have proposed that the United States substantially expand its military mission. There are a variety of possible options for adding troops.
Gen. Jack Keane, a former Army vice chief of staff, has argued for sending four or five additional brigades to Baghdad, effectively doubling the American military presence there. The United States would also change its concept of operations in Baghdad.
Instead of limiting themselves to conducting patrols from bases in the capital, American troops would take up new positions in 23 mixed Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods to better protect the population. Millions of dollars in new American reconstruction assistance would be provided. Iraqi forces would also be involved in the operation.
American forces would not initially confront the Mahdi Army, which is controlled by Moktada al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric. Once security was improved, Prime Minister Maliki would be encouraged to negotiate with the Shiite militias to stop attacks against Sunnis.
There is a risk that an adversary could wait out the American forces, evading major combat until American troops levels began to subside. For that reason, Keane has argued that the United States should be prepared to carry out the expanded mission for 18 months, or perhaps longer, a far cry from the increase of several months that some Democratic lawmakers support.
Whether the Bush administration will opt for such a demanding strategy is far from clear. It would be an approach with huge political risks and one that would dramatically escalate American involvement in Iraq. Bush has, however, taken one step that is a prerequisite for any effort to sustain expanded military operations in Iraq: he has signaled his intention to increase the size of the American armed forces.