Yes, there will be a big change next year in the number and nature of U.S. forces deployed in Iraq, and in their location and mission. But no, this is not a prelude to a full and expeditious departure desired by the generals (who are channeled by the likes of Rep. John Murtha and retired general William Odom). At least, not yet.
Instead, as Seymour Hersh (and various British reports) have pointed out, the “draw-down” of substantial numbers of U.S. troops over the next year (up to 80,000 of the 160,000 currently there) will occur in the context of a strategic reorganization that will see them redeploy from all of Iraq’s cities, where even the Coalition’s own opinion surveys show they are resented as an occupying force by 80 percent of the population (and about half of that number see attacks on U.S. forces as legitimate). They will hand over policing and garrison duties to Iraqi forces, which will allow them to remove most of their own infantry from the exposed role of patrolling the cities, and send a good many of them home. The U.S. force mix and role will change, with greater reliance on air power and rapid deployment forces that can back up Iraqi forces in clashes with insurgents.
But how long they’ll remain in these “superbases” remains an open question, and my own suspicion is that the question has not yet been answered by the Bush administration, who do not appear as yet to have given up on the Iraq war planners’ dream of creating permanent bases there from which the U.S. could project power throughout the region — there’s a conspicuous silence from the administration in response to pleas from Democrats and moderate Republicans that President Bush declare that the U.S. has no interest in permanent military bases in Iraq.
This more limited redeployment has been forced on it by a number of different factors, and the question of what follows remains to be settled by a number of ongoing struggles on the ground in Iraq and in the corridors of power in Washington, DC.
The prime reasons for the redeployment are (a) that the U.S. can no longer afford to maintain the current one; and (b) that the current one is ineffective, and even counterproductive in securing U.S. goals.
The United States literally doesn’t have enough combat troops to sustain the current form and level of deployment. As Odom and Murtha warn, the military has been stretched beyond breaking point by repeat year-long tours of duty in Iraq, and it will take years to recover. And the shift of U.S. public opinion decisively against the war suggests that the political will to sustain the current casualty rates (produced mostly by having U.S. forces undertaking policing duties in and around Iraqi cities) may be ebbing.
Equally important, though, is the recognition that the current deployment doesn’t work: The U.S. is taking casualties, but it isn’t defeating or even really containing the insurgency, and the generals know that the local civilian population in the Sunni areas is unlikely ever to be decisively turned against the insurgents while American troops are in their towns.
While the U.S. will now accelerate the transfer of security duties to Iraqi forces in whose combat quality and political loyalty to anything beyond their own sectarian affiliations U.S. commanders have expressed considerable doubt, there is no question of transferring responsibility for national defense, i.e. a military capability to protect Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity from outside aggression, to Iraqi forces for the foreseeable future. That’s because no serious effort has yet been made by the U.S. to create such a force. The personnel being trained now are lightly armed formations capable of internal policing and counterinsurgency operations; there is no Iraqi air force, no heavy artillery or missile capability; no serious armored capability and other mainstays of a defense force capable of defending national borders in a dangerous neighborhood. The U.S. has quite simply refrained from creating such a force (as James Fallows explains in this oddly-spaced version of his excellent Atlantic Monthly piece. On present indicators, the U.S. presence in bases outside the cities will continue for years to come.
Many have discussed the new deployment in terms of “Iraqification” of the counterinsurgency war, in the tradition of “Vietnamization.” I think a more appropriate analogy (bearing in mind the inherent flaws of all strategic analogies) for what the U.S. military plans to do after the December elections, is the redeployment of the Israeli military from the West Bank and Gaza as the Olso Accords took effect. The Israelis also removed their troops from the Palestinian cities where they were more vulnerable, and where there presence was a source of friction. Security duties were handed over to an ostensibly friendly policing force, whose light armaments precluded it ever challenging the Israelis, who maintained effective control over the borders. Of course the Israelis had no interest in transferring real sovereign authority, whereas the U.S. objective in Iraq is more ambiguous. In its best-case scenario, a sovereign Iraqi government would have been as friendly to Wal-Mart as to Israel, a long-term base for the U.S. military and a model pro-American regime at the heart of a region whose populace is overwhelmingly hostile to the U.S. But the best-case scenario was a fantasy, and the depth of divisions in Washington precluded any contingency planning.
They can’t seriously imagine that they Iraqi security forces they are creating will succeed where the U.S. failed, in militarily eradicating the insurgency. But it doesn’t need to – they simply have to be capable of not being overrun by the insurgents. The U.S. will remain there as a security force of last resort. (Like the Palestinian Authority, the Iraqi government is aware that eradicating the insurgency militarily is impossible, and it is beginning to signal the likelihood that it will negotiate some form of compact with the militants, a revised political framework in which they can be accommodated. Thus the importance of the Cairo talks recently held among Iraqi factions inside and outside of the government – including elements aligned with the insurgency – and also the revelation that President Bush’s man in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, is to hold top level talks with Iran, and has indicated a willingness even to talk with insurgents.)
I’m not sure that it’s possible to say definitively now what their plan might be in the wake of the redeployment. My guess is, to use a marvelously utilitarian Rastafarian phrase, they’re going into “watch and play” mode. (P.S. Just noticed this piece by Anthony Cordesman of the CSIS, very informed on the thinking in the strategic establishment, explaining why it’s too soon to finalize an Iraq strategy, which seems to underscore this point.) I suspect that many of the generals want out, but the political echelon is not ready to let go. And it’s not hard to see why:
Despite that epic investment, if the U.S. was to move to depart Iraq in the near future it would likely leave without permanent basing rights; without oil contracts and other lucrative business deals; without a friendly government in place much less one likely to support the U.S. agenda in the region; without a political order in place that the American people would recognize as an achievement. That can’t look like smart politics in the White House.
Even Israel’s foremost military historian derides the Iraq invasion as “the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 B.C sent his legions into Germany and lost them.” But the political leadership to whom it will fall to make the decisions about withdrawal may be too imprisoned by their own vanity and delusion to recognize it as such. Although in the strategic classroom of history, Bush will surely be awarded the Dunce cap, he’s certainly not going to don it himself. Besides anything else, the “legacy” thing won’t allow it.