U.S. military officials here are increasingly envisioning a "post-occupation" troop presence in Iraq that neither maintains current levels nor leads to a complete pullout, but aims for a smaller, longer-term force that would remain in the country for years…
… It is based on officials' assessment that a sharp drawdown of troops is likely to begin by the middle of next year, with roughly two-thirds of the current force of 150,000 moving out by late 2008 or early 2009.
The assessment that a sharp drawdown is likely to begin in mid-2008 may be a false assumption.
As currently envisioned, the "long force" would consist of a 20,000 man reinforced mechanized division, 10,000 advisory troops to train and work with Iraqi forces, a headquarters and logistics element of 10,000 personnel and some civilian contractors.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others have taken to calling this the "Korean model," though most analysts agree that the situation in Iraq has very little in common with Korea. We have spent over fifty years in South Korea in support of a cease-fire agreement. This has been relatively successful because the belligerents have by and large cooperated with the peace agreement, and because they are sovereign nations separated by a defined border. U.S. troops in the south are not in the middle of a multi-sided Hobbesian conflict as they are in Iraq, and the South Koreans want us in their country whereas most Iraqis want us to leave theirs.
Our ability to safely withdraw troops from Iraq will depend on significant and lasting decreases in violence levels as well as political progress within the Iraqi government. Neither of those things appears imminent. We have to ensure that whatever number of troops we leave in Iraq will be able to defend themselves and maintain their line of communication and supply through Kuwait. Before we can draw down to 40,000 troops, we have to determine "ground" conditions that will allow sufficient force security and logistics support, and those conditions may be impossible to determine.
What's more, any drawdown will be a gradual one. As Ricks points out, even if a total pullout were the goal, it could take a full year to accomplish. We could conceivably be 20,000 troops into a pull out only to discover violence increasing, thus requiring yet another surge to quell hostilities, and find ourselves right back at square one. Keep in mind that the original plan was to have only 30,000 troops left in Iraq by fall of 2003. Also keep in mind that Iraqi forces still show little sign of being able to manage that country's security situation.
Officials in Baghdad don't take think the "September deadline" for showing progress in the "surge" plan is realistic. Ricks says that some of them quietly suggest that they really have until January 20, 2009 before they'll need to put the smaller force in place.
Whether they'll be required to resort to the smaller force will depend on the 2008 election results. If a war-friendly Republican candidate wins the White House and the GOP takes back, say, the Senate, we may still have pre-surge numbers of troops in Iraq for at least one more political cycle.
And there may be a convenient excuse for keeping up the troops levels in Iraq. Iran has warned that its missiles can reach U.S. bases in Iraq, implying they will use their missiles on those bases if the U.S. initiates an attack on Iran.
We have no way of knowing what Iran's nuclear intentions are. The administration insists that Iran wants nuclear weapons. Iran insists it only wants a nuclear energy program. Even if Iran is lying, it won't be capable of producing nuclear weapons before the Bush term expires, so any missile attacks on U.S. ground forces would involve chemical, biological or conventional warheads (and I'm not entirely convinced Iran has chemical or biological weapon stockpiles).
But even a mere conventional warhead missile attack on American bases--whatever set of circumstances might prompt them--could have a devastating effect on a much reduced U.S. force in Iraq, especially if Iran also managed to close down the Straits of Hormuz. With that sea line of communication cut off, reinforcement of the troops in Iraq would be next to impossible, and all kinds of bad things can happen in a scenario like that.
Relationships between the U.S. and Iran aren't likely to improve during the Bush tenure. Iran could conceivably become the rationale for keeping troop levels in Iraq robust. If the rhetoric and saber rattling become bellicose enough, even the most dovish 44th president we could possibly put in office might not be able to avoid an expansion of hostilities in the Gulf region.
Yes, that sounds like a paranoid doomsday scenario, but it's one that we need to consider because that's the course the Bush administration and its supporters have been steering throughout its existence, and they show no indication of shifting their rudders.
On Sunday's Face the Nation, Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) told host Bob Schieffer “I think we have to be prepared to take aggressive military action against the Iranians to stop them from killing Americans in Iraq.”
In this regard, Lieberman is lockstep with his hawkish pal Dick Cheney, whose staff members have spread the word that he thinks diplomacy with Iran is pointless, and with leading neoconservatives like Bill Kristol and Fred Kagan whose aim is to create a total, indefinite and intractable war with as much of the Muslim world as they can draw into it.
So when you hear news of planned drawdowns in Iraq or diplomatic efforts with Iran, don't let our guard down. The neocon hawks still have the ear of the great decider, and you have to watch all of them like, well, like hawks.
Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at Pen and Sword.