By ROBERT BURNS, AP Military Writer 29 minutes ago
A White House laboring to find a new approach in Iraq said Tuesday it is considering sending more U.S. troops, an option that worries top generals because of its questionable payoff and potential backlash.
The military's caution is based on two chief fears — that even temporarily shipping thousands of more troops would be largely ineffective in the absence of bold new political and economic steps, and that it would leave the already stretched Army and Marines Corps even thinner once the surge ended.
They also worry that it feeds a perception that the strife and chaos in Iraq is mainly a military problem; in their view it is largely political, fed by economic distress.
Rep. Ike Skelton (news, bio, voting record), the Missouri Democrat who will become chairman of the House Armed Services Committee next month, echoed those sentiments Tuesday. "I'm convinced the Army and the Marines are near the breaking point," Skelton said, while expressing skepticism that a big troop surge would be worth the trouble.
With Iraq's burgeoning chaos leaving the Bush administration with few attractive choices, it is studying a possible short-term troop increase. That proposal is the favorite option of some including potential 2008 presidential contender Sen. John McCain (news, bio, voting record), R-Ariz., and analysts at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which has strong ties to the Bush administration.
Even the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which advocated removing most combat troops by early 2008, said it could support a temporary increase if U.S. commanders believe it would be effective. Roughly one-third of the 140,000 American troops in Iraq are combat forces.
President Bush said he plans to increase the overall size of the U.S. military because of its worldwide campaign against terrorism, saying he agreed with complaints that the armed forces are stretched too thin.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Bush used no figures but said he has asked his new defense secretary, Robert Gates, to produce a plan for increasing the military's size.
Supporters of a surge of American forces in Iraq see it as a potentially decisive move to halt the upward spiral of sectarian killings in Baghdad, which U.S. commanders have identified as the central prize in the Iraq war. They see it as a way to buy precious time to get the Iraqis steadier on their feet.
Yet a similar effort, announced with great fanfare last summer, had a dampening effect on violence in targeted Baghdad neighborhoods for a few weeks. As described in a Pentagon report sent to Congress on Monday, that effort, dubbed Operation Together Forward II, ultimately proved insufficient.
One big drawback in that case was an inability of the Iraqi government to move sufficient Iraqi troops into those warring neighborhoods.
"As the operation progressed, death squads adapted to the new security environment and resumed their activities in areas not initially targeted by" American and Iraqi troops, the report said. Shiite death squads even managed to "leverage support" from rogue elements in the Iraqi police, and the violence spiked again, the report said.
The American Enterprise Institute issued a report last week recommending a surge of seven Army brigades and Marine regiments starting next spring. A contributor to that report was retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, who was the vice chief of staff at the time the Iraq war was launched in 2003.
Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University, said Tuesday he believes the chances that adding 20,000 or so U.S. troops for several months would stabilize Baghdad are "slim and none."
The White House on Tuesday denied a conflict between the administration and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, while also offering the assurance that Bush agrees with the military chiefs that any boost in troop levels would be done out of military necessity.
"The president has not made a decision on the way forward, and he has asked military commanders to consider a range of options and they are doing so," said Tony Snow, the White House press secretary. Bush is expected to announce his new Iraq approach in January after Gates visits Iraq.
Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, said Saturday that one option under consideration by the president is sending five or more additional combat brigades, which equates to roughly 20,000 or more troops. Conway did not say he opposes that proposal, but he emphasized the potential drawbacks.
"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," he said. "We do not believe that just adding numbers for the sake of adding numbers — just thickening the mix — is necessarily the way to go."
The five or more extra brigades would, he said, be units already scheduled to go to Iraq in a later rotation. But he added that using those troops now would mean "a lesser capable" force in the future.
"You better make sure your timing is right," he said. "Because if you commit the reserve for something other than a decisive win or to stave off defeat, then you have essentially shot your bolt."
Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, told reporters last week that a surge would make sense only under certain conditions.
"We would not surge without a purpose," Schoomaker said. "And that purpose should be measurable."
Gen. John Abizaid, the top commander for U.S. forces in the Middle East, told Congress last month that sending an extra 20,000 troops could "achieve a temporary effect" but added that it could not be sustained because the Army and Marine Corps simply are not large enough.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has also questioned whether more troops would work, saying, "I am not persuaded that another surge of troops into Baghdad for the purposes of suppressing this communitarian