The Thinking Behind The Surge

This column was written by Frederick W. Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who helped the administration in devising a plan to deploy more troops to Iraq.

Critics of the plan proposed by the American Enterprise Institute's Iraq Planning Group (IPG) have been pointing to supposed discrepancies in the numbers of troops required to secure Baghdad in my writings, the IPG, and the Bush administration's statements.

I noted before the IPG met that it would require a surge of 80,000 additional troops to clear the entire Baghdad capital area, according to traditional counter-insurgency norms and under a variety of other unlikely conditions. I did not advocate such an operation. I noted consistently, again before the IPG met, that I thought it would take about 50,000 additional U.S. troops to clear and hold all of Baghdad, but I also noted that we could clear parts of the city with fewer forces in a rational, phased plan.

I then put together a team of military planning and regional experts in an attempt to determine with more accuracy exactly how many forces would be required. The results were published in our report, Choosing Victory. We came to the conclusion that the best approach would focus on the most critical areas of Baghdad — the Sunni and mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhoods around the Green Zone on both sides of the river — and that clearing and holding those areas would require a surge of five Army Brigade Combat Teams, or about 25,000 troops. We did not attempt to calculate the number of support troops that would be an essential part of such a surge because it was beyond the means of a group as small as ours to do so — such calculations require a large military planning staff with access to much more detailed information about our force deployment than we had available.

Because of the possible confusion surrounding the number of troops in each kind of unit, the IPG focused on the number of brigades and regiments. This remains the best way to consider proposed surges or reductions. Nevertheless, the number of troops on the ground is an important issue and merits consideration. In my estimation, the total surge required in Baghdad would be on the order of 35,000 troops or so — including the additional support forces. The IPG also came to the conclusion that it was important to deploy two additional Marine Regimental Combat Teams to al Anbar province — around 7,000 combat troops; maybe 10,000 with all their support elements. The total additional deployment of forces we proposed would then be around 45,000 soldiers and Marines, split between Anbar and Baghdad. This was the considered evaluation of a group of active duty and retired Army officers and regional experts, and I accepted their conclusions as likely to be more accurate than my earlier estimates. I stand by the proposals of the IPG.

The Bush administration briefings on the numbers involved in their plan are complex. They are briefing a surge of as many as five brigades into Baghdad and one regiment into al Anbar (although they are also indicating that they now intend to send only two brigades immediately into Baghdad, holding the other three in reserve to be deployed as needed). They are saying that five brigades contain around 17,500 troops, and the regiment around 4,000 troops, for a total surge of around 21,500 soldiers and Marines. Critics of our plans point to the discrepancy between the IPG's recommendation of 35,000 combat troops, and the administration's discussion of fewer than 22,000 combat troops. Note that neither the IPG nor the administration is listing the number of additional support troops that would be necessary.

A U.S. Army brigade now contains by statute two maneuver battalions (combat forces), one artillery battalion, and a number of other support elements that are a permanent part of its organization. Brigades deploying to Iraq do not need large artillery formations, and so they train their artillery battalions as infantry, creating effectively three maneuver battalions. Brigade sizes range based on the type of unit, but average around 3,500 soldiers each. The administration's figures are based on that estimate.

In reality, the U.S. Army does not simply deploy brigades into combat, but instead sends Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs). A BCT includes a brigade as described above, but also additional support elements such as engineers, military police, additional logistics elements, and so on, which are necessary to the functioning of the brigade in combat. In a counter-insurgency operation such as Iraq, these additional forces are fully as important to the overall success of the mission as the combat troops. Sizes of BCTs also vary, of course, but they average more like 5,000 soldiers. Since these are the formations that will actually be deployed to Iraq and used there, I have been estimating deployments on this basis: five brigade combat teams include around 25,000 soldiers; one Marine Regimental Combat Team (RCTs are somewhat smaller than Army brigades) includes perhaps 4,000. So the surge being briefed by the Bush administration now is much more likely to be around 29,000 troops than 22,000 — in other words, close to the number of combat troops the IPG recommended, and, when necessary support troops are added, close to the overall numbers I had estimated before the IPG met.

It remains to be seen if the Bush administration will adhere to this plan, of course. The notion of deploying the first two brigades while holding the other three in reserve is antithetical to the plan produced by the IPG, and I do not believe it to be sound. Neither am I entirely satisfied with the reduction of Marine RCTs designated for Anbar from two to one. Other elements of the administration's plan are also significantly at variance with the proposal of the IPG, especially the administration's emphasis on putting Iraqis in the lead at all levels, including the tactical and sub-tactical level. But the new commander, Lieutenant General David Petraeus, has not yet taken up command, and it would be best to await his plan before commenting in detail on proposals that may or may not take concrete form.
By Frederick W. Kagan