With US forces in Iraq now facing the fiercest fighting and their highest casualty rates since Washington declared the war over, the Bush administration is considering a significant troop increase.
Whether such a move would quell the armed insurgency in Sunni areas and parts of southern Iraq is a matter of some disagreement among defence analysts and politicians in Washington.
What is more certain, experts say, is the political risk confronting President George Bush if he decides to send more US troops into battle without presenting the American people with a definitive plan for success in Iraq.
If Bush can convince the public that more troops would help a smooth transfer of power to Iraqis, most voters would likely support that decision, says Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress and a former assistant secretary of defence in the Reagan administration.
However, if Bush fails to outline a winning strategy, people might be less willing to accept the larger number of casualties that could result from a military build-up.
“You explain to the American people what the stakes are and they might say ‘Let’s send more [troops], Korb said. “But if they get the impression that you’re not levelling with them, that’s when they get angry, or start to think that you don’t know what you’re doing.”
The US currently has 135,000 troops in Iraq, the result of a large troop rotation that put more personnel in the country to replace those set to return home after long tours of duty.
In recent days, however, the Pentagon has indicated that as many as 25,000 troops scheduled to leave Iraq might have their tours extended.
Although no one at the Department of Defence (DOD) has signalled the intention to increase the troop level beyond 135,000, no one has ruled it out either.
There has been serious debate in Washington about the possibility of sending more troops to help occupation forces confront insurgents in Falluja and the private army of Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shia cleric whose message of resistance has stirred up fighting in southern Iraq.
Followers of Muqtada al-Sadr
present the US with a new front
Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, recently urged the administration to increase the troop level, something he has advocated since last year.
Democratic Senator Robert Byrd, on the other hand, delivered a tough statement against sending more troops and called on Bush to produce a viable exit strategy.
“Pouring more US troops into Iraq is not the path to extricate ourselves from that country,” Byrd said.
Defence experts disagree on the strategic benefit of placing more troops on the ground in Iraq. Korb says plans by the DOD to shrink the force size down to 115,000 troops by June will be a step in the wrong direction in terms of stabilising the country.
“That’s simply not enough given the situation in Iraq,” he said. “They are going to need at least 150,000 [troops].”
With the current troop level, US military commanders have limited flexibility when responding to fighting in various hot spots across the country, he says.
“You ought to be able to have some troops in reserve that you can move around,” he said.
Not everyone agrees that more troops would create more stability. Jeff Kojak, a defence policy expert at the Center for Strategic International Studies, says he doubts the problems in Iraq are the result of insufficient troop numbers.
“I don’t think it’s clear that [sending more troops] would help the situation,” Kojak said. “I don’t think there’s any panacea here. I don’t think there are any quick fixes.”
Political analysts question whether a troop increase would hurt Bush in the polls heading into this year’s presidential election.
Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, says it is “too early to say” if Bush will lose any public support by sending more troops.
Reinforcements are an electoral
gamble for President Bush
“It depends in many ways on how it affects public life,” Hess said.
Politically, the administration will clearly benefit from bringing more troops home as the November election approaches, he says, adding that the White House has probably expected to do so.
In a recent survey published by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 50% of Americans supported keeping US troops in Iraq until a stable Iraqi government was in place, while 44% said the troops should come home as soon as possible. In January, those numbers were 63% to 32% respectively.
Yet, while polling data does not show a broad desire to send more troops to Iraq, many Americans might support such a decision if convinced of its strategic effectiveness, says Stephen Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes, a research organisation.
Despite the common perception that Americans demanded a military withdrawal from Somalia in 1993 and Lebanon in 1983 after US troops were killed in attacks, a majority wanted to beef up forces in those countries, Kull says. That same logic could apply in Iraq if the situation grows dramatically worse, he says.
“I would expect that we might see more people saying ‘Let’s send more in’ than saying ‘Let’s pull them out’,” he said.
However, knowing the risk that more US troops in Iraq could lead to more casualties, Americans will want to be assured by the president that such a move would ultimately lead to a stable and democratic Iraq, he says.
“If people think we’re going to succeed, then they’re willing to tolerate more casualties, but as soon as they think it’s not going to work then the casualties really start to bother them,” he said.
Although domestic issues are seen as the dominant factor in the presidential election, Kull says Iraq can still cost Bush re-election, or help carry him to victory.
“Chances are that even with these current crises, jobs and the economy will be the higher priority,” he said. “But there’s no question that Bush could still lose the election on the handling of [Iraq].”