Five Years Later: An Axiom Of War

David Martin is National Security Correspondent for CBS News.
The war began in dramatic fashion: Stealth fighters and cruise missiles launching a bolt out of the blue attack against a compound where Saddam Hussein was believed to be spending the night. Saddam survived the strike and perhaps that should have been an omen of the difficulties to come – that it would take more than high tech weapons to get rid of Saddam. It took foot soldiers to flush him out of a hole in the ground. And today it is foot soldiers in the form of the troop surge who have helped produce a reduction in violence.

Donald Rumsfeld used to talk a lot about "transformation," and a great transformation has finally taken place, although not on his watch … and not the one he envisioned. What he had in mind was transforming the Cold War military into a smaller, more agile fighting force. After he left, a larger fighting force was sent into Iraq to conduct a new counterinsurgency strategy.

The conventional wisdom holds that the U.S. wouldn't be in so much trouble in Iraq if Rumsfeld had just sent more troops in at the start. I'm not sure I buy that. For one thing, more troops would have taken longer to get there, so the whole dynamic of the initial invasion would have been different. For another, there was no plan for what to do with more troops. Finally, if more troops had used the same heavy-handed tactics that prevailed in the first years of the occupation, they might have succeeded only in outraging Iraqis even further.

More troops only started working once the new counterinsurgency strategy – one which acknowledges that as Gen. David Petraeus says, you can't kill your way out of insurgency – was instituted. So now the debate is over whether it is time to start reducing the number of troops. By July, the troop strength will be down to 140,000 from 160,000 at the height of the surge. The expectation is that after a brief pause there will be further withdrawals, although Pres. Bush has very pointedly said he's making no promises.

Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has famously said the U.S. military will remain in Iraq for "100 years." Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, one of whom will be the Democratic nominee, are both talking pull out, which is easier said than done. To begin with, the logistical system of the Army can't handle more than one brigade – about 3,500 troops – a month, which is the pace of the current drawdown and the pace Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he would like to see continue.

Secondly, everybody seems to agree that the U.S. would keep some troops in Iraq to train and support the Iraqi forces and to continue the hunt for al Qaeda. That would be a significantly smaller force than is there now, but it would need some backup troops to protect them. Short of simply abandoning Iraq, it is hard to see a future in which there are not tens of thousands of American troops serving there. It is one of the axioms of war that it is easier to get in than to get out, and that will hold true no matter whether the next President is Republican or Democratic.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.