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Monday, August 21

Whack-a-mole: How US fights when funding dries up

Sunday's Meet the Press program focused on the current situation in Iraq. Kudos to moderator David Gregory for sticking with the Iraqi troop deployment issue long enough to elicit pinpoint replies from Senator John McCain and General Barry McCaffrey.

I've moved around parts of the exchanges and considerably shortened the transcript, so I suggest it is time well spent if you read the entire discussion (both half hours), which is a good snapshot of where things stand now in Iraq for the US effort. Here I concentrate on what I consider the most illuminating and alarming observations; namely:

> We've been told for years that if commanders on the ground in Iraq need more troops they just need ask. Yet according to Senator McCain the decision is supposed to come from the Pentagon, not the commanders on the ground. He describes the issue as one of leadership from Washington.

> McCain asserts that more US troops are needed in Iraq. But the discussion is beside the point because the Army doesn't have enough funds to support more troops and even if they had more troops their equipment is falling apart.

The big question is the same one that's been debated for years: whether more troops in Iraq would be a solution. I have always left this question to the military bloggers. But the simple truth is that while the type of violence in Iraq has changed over the years the violence has not abated. So I think it's time to follow the counsel of Senator McCain, on the theory that we've tried everything else.

However, General McCaffrey's comments call into question whether the US is capable of getting additional troops to Iraq in enough time to halt the slide toward civil war. McCain seems to think there is enough time if the decision makers act quickly.
DAVID GREGORY: Do you think [US] military commanders on the ground [in Iraq] are asking for more troops?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I know that military commanders on the ground need more troops, whether they’re asking for them or not. But see, this is kind of a false argument. It’s not up to the commanders on the ground, it’s up to the leaders who assess the entire battlefield situation to decide whether they need. I’ve known very few commanders in the field who say, “I need help.”

So it’s up to the assessment made at the Pentagon level. And from the beginning, we didn’t have enough in the [Iraq] invasion, the initial invasion itself.

MR. GREGORY: But this is an important point because if there’s no clear commitment for more troops and a firm belief by you and others that more troops are needed, what’s standing in the way? Why aren’t military leaders asking, and is there politics involved that’s keeping troops from being deployed?

SEN. McCAIN: I think it’s got to do with the decisions that are made in the Pentagon. And I think that’s the sum total of it, and the advice that the president gets from the people that are on his team. And I don’t think it’s good advice. But I know that the president’s committed to win. I know that he will do what’s necessary. Many times he has said we will do whatever is necessary and I believe him. [...]

MR. GREGORY: General Barry McCaffrey [...] Our troops are not trained to referee a civil war. From a military point of view, as you come up with strategies, how do you navigate this current reality in Iraq?

GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY: [...] the battle of Baghdad won’t be solved by the United States Army. We’ve had 22,000 killed and wounded; two-thirds of our brigades, the ones that aren’t deployed, in the United States Army National Guard now, are not ready to fight. So the surge capability to deal with this from a military perspective is not there.

MR. GREGORY: Do you think more troops are needed at this point?

GEN. McCAFFREY: I’m not sure it’s the right question. First of all, they’re not available. The National Guard brigades—you know, we just had Lieutenant General Blum testifying, we had the chief staff of the Army testifying. The Army is $23 billion short, our equipment’s coming apart, we’re drafting 42-year-old grandmothers to be privates in the Army. I shouldn’t have said draft; asking for volunteers. So I don’t think the combat power is there in the Army and the Marine Corps to solve this problem militarily. We are a safety valve, we’re a peacekeeping mechanism, but the Iraqi security forces are going to have to pull this one together [...]

MR GREGORY: [President Bush] has said repeatedly that he has a strategy to win, that if his commanders want more forces [in Iraq], they will get them. Should more troops be sent?

SEN. McCAIN: Well, I think it’s been well documented now that we didn’t have enough there from the beginning, that we allowed the looting, that we did not have control, particularly, of areas, such [as] in the Sunni Triangle, which led to us paying a very heavy price. We make mistakes in every war, and serious mistakes were made here. The question is, are we going to be able to bring the situation under control now? I still believe we can. I think part of it has to do with the Mahdi Army and Sadr. Sadr has got to be taken out of this equation and his militia has got to be addressed forcefully.

MR. GREGORY: But to do that, do you need more U.S. soldiers on the ground now?

SEN. McCAIN: I think so. We took troops from places like Ramadi, which are still not under control, to put them into Baghdad. We’ve had to send in additional troops as they are. All along, we have not had enough troops on the ground to control the situation. Many, many people knew that and we’re paying a very heavy price for it. But I want to emphasize that we cannot lose this. It will cause chaos in Iraq and in the region, and it’s -- I still believe that we must prevail. [...]

MR. GREGORY: Well, let’s talk about the movement of troops throughout the country. Earlier this month, you said the following about U.S. forces going back into Iraq, some 7,000 troops. Let’s watch.

(Videotape, August 3, 2006):

SEN. McCAIN: And what I worry about is we’re playing a game of Whack A Mole here. We move troops -- it flares up, we move troops there. (End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: Whack A Mole. What are you talking about? What’s the concern?

SEN. McCAIN: Well, there’s the old arcade game where the head [appears], and you bang it down, and another head pops up someplace else, and that’s basically what I was talking about, is that we have never had sufficient number of troops to clear and hold.

The, what we call the oil spot strategy, which everybody knows is the successful way to combat an insurgency. So we’ve had to move our troops around from one place to another.

Fallujah was allowed for a period of a couple of years to become the center for terrorist operations through an insurgency throughout Iraq. We had to go in there, and these brave Marines and Army people, I mean, that was one of the historic battles in Marine and Army history. Eighty-six killed, 1,000 wounded because we didn’t have enough troops to control Fallujah to start with. That’s the object lesson. So then we had to move to Ramadi. Now, of course, Baghdad is the center of our attention now.

But I want to emphasize again, there are good things happening. We did have a free election, we do have a functioning government. Where—there are some parts of the country, particularly in the north, that things are good. It’s not all bad news. But it is a serious situation.

MR. GREGORY: But in the most dangerous parts of the country, you see this Whack-A-Mole approach. So what’s the consequence of that?

SEN. McCAIN: The consequences are is that we go in and we control an area for a short period of time and then we leave and then the insurgents filter back in.

MR. GREGORY: It’s not the right strategy, as far as you’re concerned?

SEN. McCAIN: It’s never been the right strategy as far as I’m concerned, since the beginning when I came back from my first trip to Iraq after every military person, including the British, told me that we didn’t have sufficient troops to control the situation. [...]

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