Juan Cole: On How US Troops Aren't Coming Home Any Time Soon
Here's what General George Casey actually said:
"If the political process continues to go positively and if the development of the security forces continues to go as it is going, I do believe that we will be able to make some pretty substantial reductions after these elections in the spring and summer of next year."
The draw-down of US troops in Iraq is here made conditional on two premises. One is that the "political process" goes "positively." If by that is meant that the Sunni Arab notables now fighting an unconventional civil war against the Shiite Arabs and the Kurds are drawn into the new government, that hasn't happened on any significant scale and there is no early prospect of it happening.
As for the training of Iraqi troops to take up security duties, that isn't going well even now. There are only about 3,000 Iraqi troops ready to actually fight, and I don't know how you get enough to actually provide security in only a year. Five years would be the minimum, if it can be done at all.
Since Casey's two conditions can't be met, his statement only gives the appearance of optimism on this score, with none of the substance.
It is forgotten that Paul Wolfowitz told Congress that the US would be down to only a division (~20,000 men) in October of 2003. Then it is forgotten that the Pentagon announced a draw-down from 135,000 to 110,000 in spring of 2004 (just before the Bush administration decided in its wisdom to "kill or capture" Muqtada al-Sadr). That draw-down didn't happen. Why? The security situation didn't allow it.
So the fact is that Rumsfeld and Casey have no idea if the situation will permit the US to withdraw substantial numbers of troops by next summer.
The plan to go down to 90,000 or so in 12 months would depend in part on stationing them on four military bases in Anbar, Salahuddin, Baghdad, and Ninevah provinces (i.e. where the Sunni Arab guerrillas are). They would be withdrawn from most cities, leaving Iraqi police and troops to patrol them. But we all remember what happened after the first Fallujah campaign, when the Baath officers were allowed to come back and try to restore order. The resulting "order" looked like Qandahar under the Taliban.
Al-Sharq al-Awsat / AFP report that Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubaie suggests that US troops can be withdrawn from 10 important Iraqi cities between now and December, and perhaps from some quarters of Baghdad itself. I suspect it is a priority to get foreign troops out of Najaf and Karbala, which you would imagine a Shiite government could police effectively. But what other 10 cities wouldn't just become guerrilla strongholds with the US gone? Samarra? Mosul? Ramadi? Tel Afar?
The same source indicates that Rumsfeld is seeking a formal Status of Forces agreement with the interim government, which might allow a long-term US military presence in the country. But I suspect that the moment the Iraqis feel they can stand on their own feet militarily, they will summarily toss the US troops out. A good fifth of parliamentarians want them gone yesterday as it is. SOFAs are only as good as the contemporary bilateral relations between two countries. Look at the Philippines.
Some readers have suggested to me that the Bush administration might just bring tens of thousands of our boys and girls home to create a positive atmosphere for Republicans in the 2006 congressional and senatorial elections. While Karl Rove is clearly not exactly above playing politics with the US military, such a strategy could easily backfire. What if he has the Pentagon go down to 66,000, and then the guerrilla war heats up big time and guerrillas manage to score a big attack on the less numerous contingent left behind? What if they pull off a spectacular assassination that throws the country into turmoil? You'd have to put the troops right back in. And as a campaign tactic, I doubt it would work very well to risk chaos. People like the ruling party not to look like clueless incompetents getting things blown up.
Mind you, I'm all for withdrawing US troops from Iraq as soon as humanly possible. I think they have the wrong rules of engagement and the wrong tactics for waging counter-insurgency in a clannish society like Iraq, and it is a toss-up whether they are keeping some peace or making things worse. (Fallujah last November demonstrably made things much worse). But I think you need some sort of realistic bridge from that withdrawal to the time when the new Iraqi army can stand on its own. I don't know where you get that bridge, but nature abhors a vacuum. If the US is gone and the Shiite Iraqis are under siege from Sunni guerrillas, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards will certainly come in to help the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa Party. Even a covert Iranian military presence in Iraq would provoke even more Sunni jihadis to go fight there. A regional war could easily break out, with dire consequences for us all.
You wonder if those rightwing radio talk show hosts who went to Iraq to get the good news visited the Baghdad morgue? "Before the war we used to get maybe 250 bodies a month. Now it is 800 or 900 a month from the Baghdad area alone . . . The situation has worsened dramatically. We cannot cope." And those 800 are only the ones that come in for an autopsy. Where the cause of death is clear, as in a car bombing, they just bury the body. Reuters estimates that suspicious deaths in Iraq are 230 per 100,000, whereas in Colombia at the height of its violence it was 90 per 100,000.
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