Janine Davidson

Defense in Depth

Janine Davidson examines the art, politics, and business of American military power.

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Is It Mission Creep? Making Sense of the Increasing Troop Levels in Iraq

by Janine Davidson
July 1, 2014

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets U.S. Marines stationed at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad during his visit to Iraq on June 23, 2014. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets U.S. Marines stationed at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad during his visit to Iraq on June 23, 2014.


This week’s announcement that the President will be sending a few hundred more troops to Iraq immediately, and predictably, raised questions of “mission creep.” For some military planners, however, this was probably no surprise. Planners understand that in order for 300 troops to actually be able to do anything, they will need support. And, although it may be counter-intuitive to some observers, whether we are sending troops into combat or for humanitarian or advisory purposes, the risk of casualties can actually increase if the number of troops falls below a certain level.

Size Matters

The logic is simple: a total military force package must not only be big enough for the particular mission, but also big enough to support itself—or even better, so big and so scary that any would-be enemy would be deterred by the sheer threat of American combat force should they be so foolish to attack. The number of security forces varies depending on the security situation (which in this case is deteriorating); but logisticians usually use at least a 2:1 ratio of support troops to fighting troops. And here is the other thing: this package of “enablers” might not necessarily get smaller with a smaller number of trainers, since it takes a certain minimum amount of troops to secure an airfield or embassy or otherwise be prepared to counter an attack.

So, even when we seek a small-scale intervention, it turns out that in order to prevent unnecessary bloodshed—and thus escalation or mission creep—the number of troops must be large enough to protect, feed, house, and provide medical care for the troops on the ground; and in the case of Iraq today, that also includes the large number of civilians based in the Baghdad embassy working on the political negotiations that are critical to turning the tide. As the saying goes, “amateurs think about strategy; professionals talk logistics.”

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