Military: Iraq Strategy Can Work, Over Years

The strategy U.S. military commanders in Iraq are pursuing is known as "clear, hold, retain," a classic counter-insurgency technique. Most military strategists say it is a feasible plan, but it could take three to five years to see results.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

President Bush is asking for patience and time to allow his Iraq strategy to work.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: However difficult the fight is in Iraq, we must win it. We must succeed for our own sake. For the security of our citizens, we must support our troops, we must support the Iraqi government and we must defeat al-Qaida in Iraq.

MONTAGNE: That's President Bush in his Fourth of July speech yesterday to the West Virginia Air National Guard. NPR's defense correspondent Guy Raz joins us now. Good morning, Guy.

GUY RAZ: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, the total number of troops called for in the so-called surge are now on the ground. Remind us what they're doing differently than before this buildup began.

RAZ: Well, you know, Renee, military commanders in Iraq have basically gone through three phases in their approach to Iraq, and we're now in what could be described as phase four. So, in 2003, you had these very small-scale operations against what at the time were called Saddam loyalists. You had large-scale offensives like in Fallujah in 2004. And then, of course, there was this idea of treading lightly, a light footprint in Iraq.

Well, now the strategy is basically about driving literally a physical wedge between the general population and the extremists. And there's a very good description of this strategy written by the architect of the strategy, a man called David Kilcullen, who occasionally blogs at a site called smallwarsjournal.com. And the way he describes it is as clear hold and retain. So basically in the first phase you clear a neighborhood. That usually involves U.S. troops fighting it out. After that's finished, another group of U.S. troops comes in; they hold that neighborhood. And then, when they deem it secure enough, the idea is to hand it over to Iraqi troops to retain the area in perpetuity.

MONTAGNE: And are there signs that the strategy is working?

RAZ: Well, there are. I mean, there are signs that it's working. The main problem with it is the lifeblood of the strategy requires two main elements, commodities that commanders don't really have, which is time and troop strength. If you look at Baghdad, for example, since the strategy was implemented in February, only half of the city is in the hold phase. So it's taken almost six months to get to that point. And ultimately, of course, with pressure coming down from Congress and the American public, military commanders in Iraq know that they simply may not have those commodities.

MONTAGNE: And what about reports of a drop in civilian casualties in Baghdad?

RAZ: Right. That happened this past month, of course. And this is one of the ways that traditionally the Pentagon has measured progress in Iraq. The problem with this measurement now is that lately the Pentagon has been talking about public perceptions. They want to measure progress in Iraq based on how Iraqis feel about the future, whether they say they're better off now than they were in past. So they're trying to sort of back away from the body counts.

MONTAGNE: Just ever so briefly - September make or break. What between now and then?

RAZ: Well, I think between now and then we can expect the Pentagon particularly to sort of downplay this report that is going to be coming up by General Petraeus. There's a lot of pressure, there's a lot of talk about the importance of this report. If it's bad, of course it's going to create more pressure to withdraw from Iraq on a faster timetable.

MONTAGNE: Guy, thanks very much. NPR's Guy Raz.

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