I sincerely doubt that General Shinseki is pleased to have been proven right.
The military offensive now under way in northwestern Iraq, coming on the heels of the November attack on Fallujah, is symptomatic of the limitations of the size of the American force assigned to the region, U.S. military officers said Tuesday.
“Commanders have evaluated that the center of resistance in the al-Anbar has moved further west since the fall of Fallujah, and now is in what we would call the Ramadi-Hit corridor, extending westward,” said Marine Lt. Gen. James Conway, Joint Staff director of operations and former commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force that had responsibility last year for Anbar province. Conway spoke at a Pentagon news conference Tuesday.
The problem, according to other military commanders, is that with such a large area and relatively few troops, there are many pockets where the U.S. security presence is not felt at all.
That was exacerbated during the November Fallujah fight as some 7,000 U.S. forces were pulled from western outposts to carry out the assault. When they leave, even for a short time, it allows insurgents to gain a toehold.
“No sanctuary can be permitted, especially in light of the enemy’s robust assassination campaign. (We) need enough troops to suffocate the enemy until the Iraqi security force can mature and stand on its own,” he said.
Western Anbar province, a heavily Sunni region roughly the size of Texas, is policed daily by a single Marine regiment with a small number of attached Army forces, fewer than 10,000 U.S. combat troops in the area, although there are additional support and logistics troops based there.
Of the 145,000 troops in Iraq, fewer than half are actually available for patrols and combat, according to one military commander. The others are support troops who rarely come in direct contact with the enemy.
The problem, according to other senior officials, is that the insurgency is a mobile one, and without more troops the hunt for them has evolved into an endless cat-and-mouse game. One commander in Iraq last year compared the province to a half-filled water balloon: If you step on one end, the water just squeezes out to the other.
Whether the U.S. military has the right number of troops in Iraq is a question that has plagued the operation since the start of the war. While around 145,000 crossed the border into Iraq in March 2003, two divisions — the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Division — totaling roughly 50,000 soldiers and Marines did the lion’s share of heavy combat. The others took up positions behind them to secure supply lines as they punched through to Baghdad.
The small force gave them speed and agility but also made it difficult to secure the terrain. When looting broke out after the Saddam Hussein regime fell, there were not enough troops to keep order. That fact has had deadly consequences, as a primary target for looters were the thousands of unsecured ammunition and weapons dumps around the country.
Indeed, just this week U.S. Central Command trumpeted the capture of a major bomb maker in Baghdad. Abu al-Abbas confessed to stealing 300 to 400 rockets and more than 720 cases of plastic explosives from a weapons facility in Yusufiyah in early 2003, Central Command said. The stockpile was exhausted for use in roadside and car bombs.
A month before the war in 2003, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki told Congress he believed the occupying force could require “several hundred thousand” troops, a figure Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz later called “wildly off the mark.”
Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Senate Appropriations Committee he considered the matter closed.
“I must say I am tired of the Shinseki argument being bandied about day after day in the press,” Rumsfeld said. He said he took the advice of the generals planning the war to determine the size of the occupation force.