WASHINGTON—Military planners have abandoned the idea that standing up Iraqi troops will enable American soldiers to start coming home soon and now believe that U.S. troops will have to defeat the insurgents and secure control of troubled provinces.
Training Iraqi troops, which had been the cornerstone of the Bush administration's Iraq policy since 2005, has dropped in priority, officials in Baghdad and Washington said.
No change has been announced, and a Pentagon spokesman, Col. Gary Keck, said training Iraqis remains important. "We are just adding another leg to our mission," Keck said, referring to the greater U.S. role in establishing security that new troops arriving in Iraq will undertake.
But evidence has been building for months that training Iraqi troops is no longer the focus of U.S. policy. Pentagon officials said they know of no new training resources that have been included in U.S. plans to dispatch 28,000 additional troops to Iraq. The officials spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they aren't authorized to discuss the policy shift publicly. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made no public mention of training Iraqi troops on Thursday during a visit to Iraq.
In a reflection of the need for more U.S. troops, the Pentagon decided earlier this month to increase the length of U.S. Army tours in Iraq from 12 to 15 months. The extension came amid speculation that the U.S. commander there, Army Gen. David Petraeus, will ask that the troop increase be maintained well into 2008.
U.S. officials don't say that the training formula—championed by Gen. John Abizaid when he was the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and by Gen. George Casey when he was the top U.S. general in Iraq—was doomed from the start. But they said that rising sectarian violence and the inability of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to unite the country changed the conditions. They say they now must establish security while training Iraqi forces because ultimately, "they are our ticket out of Iraq," as one senior Pentagon official put it.
Casey's "mandate was transition. General Petraeus' mandate is security. It is a change based on conditions. Certain conditions have to be met for the transition to be successful. Security is part of that. And General Petraeus recognizes that," said Brig. Gen. Dana Pittard, commander of the Iraq Assistance Group in charge of supporting trained Iraqi forces.
"I think it is too much to expect that we were going to start from scratch ... in an environment that featured a rising sectarian struggle and lack of progress with the government," said a senior Pentagon official. "The conditions had sufficiently changed that the Abizaid/Casey approach alone wasn't going to be sufficient."
Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who's in charge of training Iraqi troops, said in February that he hoped that Iraqi troops would be able to lead by December. "At the tactical level, I do believe by the end of the year, the conditions should be set that they are increasingly taking responsibility for the combat operations," Dempsey told NBC News.
Maj. Gen. Doug Lute, the director of operations at U.S. Central Command, which oversees military activities in the Middle East, said that during the troop increase, U.S. officers will be trying to determine how ready Iraqi forces are to assume control.
"We are looking for indicators where we can assess the extent to which we are fighting alongside Iraqi security forces, not as a replacement to them," he said. Those signs will include "things like the number of U.S.-only missions, the number of combined U.S.-Iraqi missions, the number where Iraqis are in the lead, the number of Joint Security Stations set up," he said.
That's a far cry from the optimistic assessments U.S. commanders offered throughout 2006 about the impact of training Iraqis.
President Bush first announced the training strategy in the summer of 2005.
"Our strategy can be summed up this way," Bush said. "As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down."
Military leaders in Baghdad planned to train 325,000 Iraqi security forces. Once that was accomplished, those forces were to take control. Casey created military transition teams that would live side by side with their Iraqi counterparts to help them apply their training to real-world situations.
Throughout 2006, Casey and top Bush administration leaders touted the training as a success, asserting that eight of Iraq's 10 divisions had taken the lead in confronting insurgents.
But U.S. forces complained that the Iraqi forces weren't getting the support from their government and that Iraqi military commanders, many who worked under Saddam Hussein, weren't as willing to embrace their tactics. Among everyday Iraqis, some said they didn't trust their forces, saying they were sectarian and easily susceptible to corruption.
Most important, insurgents and militiamen had infiltrated the forces, using their power to carry out sectarian attacks.
In nearly every area where Iraqi forces were given control, the security situation rapidly deteriorated. The exceptions were areas dominated largely by one sect and policed by members of that sect.
In the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar, which Bush celebrated last year as an example of success, suspected Sunni Muslim insurgents set off a bomb last month that killed as many as 150 people, the largest single bombing attack of the war. Shiite Muslim mobs, including some police officers, pulled Sunnis from their homes and executed dozens afterward. U.S. troops were dispatched to restore order.
Earlier this month, U.S. forces engaged in heavy fighting in the southern city of Diwaniyah after Iraqi forces, who'd been given control of the region in January 2006, lost control of the city.
U.S. officials said they once believed that if they empowered their Iraqi counterparts, they'd take the lead and do a better job of curtailing the violence. But they concede that's no longer their operating principle.
Pentagon officials won't say how many U.S. troops are engaged in training, though they said that the number of teams assigned to work alongside trained Iraqi troops hasn't changed.
Military officials say there's no doubt that the November U.S. elections, which gave Democrats control of both houses of Congress, helped push training down the priority list. The elections, they said, made it clear that voters didn't have the patience to wait for Iraqis to take the lead.
"To the extent we are losing the American public, we were losing" in the transition approach, said a senior military commander in Washington.
Military analysts cite a number of reasons that the training program didn't work.
"The goal was to put the Iraqis in charge. The problem is we didn't know how to do it and we underestimated the insurgency," said Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Said Paul Hughes of the U.S. Institute for Peace: "In our initial efforts to hand security missions over to Iraqi forces, we took the training wheels off too early—and the bike fell over."
Military officials now measure success by whether the troops are curbing violence, not by the number of Iraqi troops trained.
Many officials are vague about when the U.S. will know when troops can begin to return home. Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. is trying to buy "time for the Iraqi government to provide the good governance and the economic activity that's required."
One State Department official, who also asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject, expressed the same sentiment in blunter terms. "Our strategy now is to basically hold on and wait for the Iraqis to do something," he said.