WASHINGTON – Top U.S. commanders and diplomats in Iraq are completing a far-reaching campaign plan for a new U.S. strategy, laying out military and political goals and endorsing the selective removal of hardened sectarian actors from Iraq’s security forces and government.
The classified plan, scheduled to be finished by May 31, is a joint effort between Gen. David Petraeus, the senior American general in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
The overarching aim of the plan, which sets goals for the end of this year and the end of 2008, is more political than military: to negotiate settlements between warring factions in Iraq from the national level down to the local level. In essence, it is as much about the political deals needed to defuse a civil war as about the military operations aimed at quelling a complex insurgency, said officials with knowledge of the plan.
The groundwork for the campaign plan was laid out in an assessment formulated by Petraeus’ senior counterinsurgency adviser, David Kilcullen, with about 20 military officers, State Department officials and other experts in Baghdad known as the Joint Strategic Assessment Team. Their report, finished last month, was approved by Petraeus and Crocker as the basis of a formal campaign plan that will assign specific tasks for military commands and civilian agencies in Iraq.
The plan anticipates keeping U.S. troop levels elevated into next year, but also intends to significantly increase the size of the 144,000-strong Iraqi army, considered one of the more reliable institutions in the country and without which a U.S. withdrawal would spell chaos.
The plan has three pillars to be carried out simultaneously – in contrast to the prior sequential strategy of “clear, hold and build.” One shifts the immediate emphasis of military operations away from transitioning to Iraqi security forces – the primary focus under the former top U.S. commander, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. – toward protecting Iraq’s population in trouble areas, a central objective of the troop increase that President Bush announced in January.
“The revised counterinsurgency approach we’re taking now really focuses on protecting those people 24/7 … and that competent nonsectarian institutions take the baton from us,” said Kilcullen, offering an overview of the campaign plan.
Next, the plan emphasizes building the government’s capacity to function, admitting severe weaknesses in government ministries and often nonexistent institutional links between the central government and provincial and local governments. This, too, is in contrast with Casey’s strategy, which focused on rapidly handing over responsibility to Iraq’s government.
Such a rapid transition “was derailed as a strategy,” said one person involved with the plan. Instead, he described the focus of the next 18 to 21 months as “a bridging strategy” to set the necessary conditions for a hand-over.
Finally, the campaign plan aims to purge Iraq’s leadership of a small but influential number of officials and commanders whose sectarian and criminal agendas are thwarting U.S. efforts. It recognizes that the Iraqi government is deeply infiltrated by militia and corrupt officials who are “part of the problem” and are maneuvering to kill off opponents, install sectarian allies and otherwise solidify their power for when U.S. troops withdraw, said one person familiar with the plan.