WASHINGTON — One of the most pressing questions Senator Barack Obama or Senator John McCain would confront if elected president is how to build on the security gains in Iraq at a time when troop levels have begun to drop.
The issue was barely discussed in last month’s foreign policy debate. But in recent interviews with The New York Times, the two candidates made clear that they would confront the challenge in starkly different ways.
In the interviews, Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain offered conflicting visions of how to shrink the American military presence in Iraq, the best way to encourage further political progress there and what it would mean to succeed after more than five years of war.
They also provided telling clues about how much flexibility the next commander in chief would grant to his generals, including Gen. David H. Petraeus, the former top American general in Iraq who has been named to lead the Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Mr. Obama, who noted that General Petraeus wanted “maximum flexibility” in setting withdrawal schedules, said he “pushed back” when he met with the commander in July by making the case for sending more forces to Afghanistan, which the Democratic candidate views as the main battleground against terrorists.
Mr. McCain, who argued that a favorable outcome in Iraq is vital for American strategy in the Middle East and its overall efforts against terrorists, repeatedly invoked General Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy and said he would be inclined to give General Petraeus considerable latitude in setting force levels in Iraq.
At the heart of the dispute is Mr. Obama’s 16-month schedule for withdrawing American combat brigades, a timetable that is about twice as fast as that provided for in a draft American and Iraqi accord. Would that deadline spur the Iraqis to overcome their political differences and enable the United States to stabilize Iraq at far lower troop levels, as Mr. Obama asserts?
Or would it tie the hands of commanders and undermine political progress when the security gains in Iraq are still fragile, as Mr. McCain contends? How would Mr. McCain try to promote political progress and better governance in Iraq, when he insists that circumstances on the ground, not the calendar, should determine the pace of reductions?
“The danger with Obama’s rigid timetable is that it may not allow U.S. commanders to react to events on the ground,” said Toby Dodge, a specialist on Iraq at the University of London and a former adviser to General Petraeus. “McCain’s policies lack the detail needed to confront the challenges of politics in Iraq. Policies developed to please the party faithful are not being subjected to close electoral scrutiny and do not match the complex political and military realties of Iraq.”
Mr. McCain was interviewed on Sept. 17 for 38 minutes in Grand Rapids, Mich. Mr. Obama was interviewed for 27 minutes on Sept. 20 as his campaign plane flew to Charlotte, N.C. In each case, that was as much time as the candidates would allot.
Withdrawing U.S. troops
There is no question that the American reinforcements dispatched by President Bush have helped reduce sectarian violence, both directly through military operations and indirectly by helping encourage the spread of the Awakening movement, in which neighborhood watch groups have taken on Sunni extremists.
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Iraq’s Parliament also took an important political step recently by calling for provincial elections to be held in most parts of the country by the end of January. The hope is that Sunnis and Shiites who boycotted earlier votes will participate, broadening the base of support for the Iraqi government.
But American commanders have also warned that the situation remains fragile, and that there has been mixed or no political progress in other areas. For the candidate who is elected, the challenge will be to sustain the reduction in violence and encourage political headway now that the “surge” of combat brigades is over and the military is scheduled to withdraw yet another brigade by February.
On the surface, the two candidates’ views on troop cuts appear to have converged: each candidate envisions reductions in American forces over his first term, as does the Iraqi government. But the similarities vanish upon closer inspection.
Mr. Obama’s position on troop cuts was forged in late 2006 as Iraq appeared to be approaching a full-scale civil war. Drawing on the bipartisan Iraq Study Group report, he opposed Mr. Bush’s troop reinforcement plan and sponsored legislation in January 2007 that would have removed all American combat brigades by the end of March 2008, while allowing a small force to remain for training, counterterrorism and the protection of the American Embassy and its personnel.
At that time, American intelligence agencies warned in a national intelligence estimate that the removal of all American and allied forces within 18 months would “almost certainly” lead to a significant increase in sectarian fighting, suggesting that the speedy, if partial, withdrawal advocated by Mr. Obama would also risk a major increase in violence.
Since then, the gains made during the surge and Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s assertion of sovereignty have transformed the issue from a question of whether to start reducing brigades to a question of how fast and under what circumstances.
Obama's 'time goal'
Mr. Obama has said he would remove the remaining combat brigades at the rate of one or two a month over a 16-month period. In the interview he argued that it was important to set a new course that would put pressure on the Iraqis to overcome their differences, free up more American forces for Afghanistan and other potential trouble spots, and reduce expenditures so they could finance programs at home.
“If our benchmarks or conditions that we set are contingent on actions by the Iraqis and the Iraqis don’t take them, then we are not in control of our own circumstances and our deployments,” Mr. Obama said. “At some point we have got to break that link. We have got to be able to say to the Iraqis: we are going to make a set of decisions, and you’ve got to react to them.”
Despite talk that Mr. Obama’s plan parallels the timeline in a draft American-Iraqi agreement, there are important distinctions. The “time goal” in the draft accord calls for the withdrawal of American forces by the end of 2011, more than twice as long as Mr. Obama’s 16-month deadline. And in the view of American negotiators, a “time goal” is more flexible than an ironclad deadline.
In past years, the United States has generally increased its troop levels when the Iraqis have held major elections, and American officers are generally wary of making deep troop cuts before the provincial and parliamentary elections are held over the next year.
Seeking to preserve a measure of flexibility, Mr. Obama said that he would “reserve the right to pause a withdrawal” if it led to a major increase in sectarian violence. He also reiterated that he planned to keep a residual military force to pursue militants from Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, protect American installations and personnel, and, if Iraqi forces conducted themselves in a nonsectarian manner, train Iraqi troops.
Mr. Obama said that such a residual force would probably include Special Operations forces, teams of military advisers, combat planes, attack helicopters, medical helicopters and perhaps some smaller-scale combat units to protect the advisers.
He declined to estimate the size of the force, saying he would decide that after consulting commanders. But Richard J. Danzig, a secretary of the Navy in the Clinton administration who is regarded as a likely choice to serve as Mr. Obama’s secretary of defense, said in a June interview with National Public Radio that it could number from 30,000 to 55,000 troops.
“If we have some Special Forces in the region, they are going to be engaging in combat, taking out any potential terrorist camps,” Mr. Obama added. “If we have got trainers in the field who are training Iraqi security forces, then I want to make sure that they are protected, and part of that means when you are in a dangerous neighborhood that you have got some combat capability.”
It is far from clear that the Iraqi military will be able to take the lead from the Americans as quickly as Mr. Obama assumes. In a July opinion article in The New York Times, Mr. Obama noted that Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, who oversaw the training of Iraqi forces, told a Congressional hearing that Iraq’s army and police would be able to assume responsibility for security in 2009.
But General Dubik said in an e-mail message last month that this represented his most optimistic projection. “My best estimate is sometime between 2009 and 2012,” he said. “Even at 2012, they may want and need some help with their air force, for example, or with some of their intelligence and special operations forces.”
Mr. McCain has argued that reductions should be determined by political and military circumstances, a stance taken by Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told reporters in June that he favored a “conditions-based approach” that would allow the United States to continuously assess and adjust to events on the ground.
Providing the American commander in Iraq with maximum leeway, however, could entail some difficult trade-offs. The senior American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David D. McKiernan, recently said he needed three more brigades in addition to the one Mr. Bush had agreed to send. That is more than either Mr. Obama or Mr. McCain has promised to deploy in Afghanistan, and the American military is stretched so thin, the Pentagon says, there will be no additional brigades for Afghanistan until the force in Iraq is reduced further.
Political developments in Iraq may also constrain the American military’s flexibility. In January, Mr. McCain told a questioner at a town-hall-style meeting in New Hampshire that it would not matter if American troops were in Iraq for 50 or even 100 years if the country was stable and the American military was not suffering casualties, drawing an analogy with American deployments in postwar Japan or South Korea, two societies that seem far removed from the tumultuous Middle East.
After Democrats charged that Mr. McCain was advocating an open-ended troop commitment, he said in a speech in May that the success of his strategy would enable most American forces to return home from Iraq by January 2013.
The “time goal” in the draft Iraqi and American accord, however, would have American forces leave about a year earlier, though it is hard to predict how Iraqi leaders might feel about the need for an American presence several years from now, and American officials expect that at a minimum the training of Iraqi forces would continue after 2011 under the terms of the agreement.
Asked to clarify his views, Mr. McCain said in the interview that he envisioned “the withdrawal of U.S. troops over time.”
He said the question of whether there should be a long-term American military presence in Iraq for training or other purposes should be resolved in discussions with the Iraqis, and cited Kuwait as a possible model. “We have a military base there and a military presence,” Mr. McCain said. “And so I think the decision on the presence of U.S. troops will be made on a sovereign nation to sovereign nation basis.”
Prodding the Iraqis
A related and vital question is how the candidates hope to encourage the Iraqis to make headway on political reconciliation. For much of the Bush administration, Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., then the top commander in Iraq, emphasized transferring security tasks to Iraqi forces and slimming the American military presence as a way to get the Iraqis to take on added responsibilities. The result was sectarian violence, not political progress.
Asked if he could identify an instance in which a reduction or pullback of American troops had spurred the Iraqis to reconcile their differences, Mr. Obama argued that elevated troop levels had also not led to adequate political progress.
“It is not clear that an ongoing, open-ended presence has prompted political change in Iraq either,” he said. “The fact is that we still don’t have an oil law. We still don’t have provincial elections. We have not dealt with Kirkuk, and the argument for staying is that we have not made sufficient political progress.”
Shortly after Mr. Obama made this comment, Iraq’s Parliament approved provincial elections. However, the government has yet to address the dispute over Kirkuk, an oil-rich city claimed by Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Turkmens.
In addition to using troop withdrawals to try to encourage change, Mr. Obama said he would end efforts to train the Iraqi military if Mr. Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government did not take adequate steps to integrate the largely Sunni members of the Awakening movements into Iraq’s security forces.
McCain emphasizes relationships
By contrast, Mr. McCain argued that the improved security had finally given the Iraqis the confidence to move forward politically and economically, improving their working relationship with the American military and Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador in Baghdad. Threats to cut off American training or deadlines for removing combat brigades, he argued, would only prompt Iraq to become more dependent on Iran or turn to militias for security.
“For a long time, people have said threaten them with this, threaten them with that,” Mr. McCain said. “Instead, Petraeus, Crocker and others established a relationship with the Iraqi government so that they did do de-Baathification, they did do an amnesty, they passed a budget. The United States government hasn’t passed a budget.”
There is no shortage of challenging issues in Iraq, including how fairly the Iraqis carry out a plan to allow more former Baathists to return to government service, the adoption of a law distributing oil revenue, and ensuring that the coming provincial elections are conducted impartially. Mr. Obama also complained that Mr. McCain “has never clearly spelled out” what it would mean to achieve victory in Iraq.
Asked to explain his plan, Mr. McCain did not provide any specific suggestions for how he could persuade Iraqi officials to make headway on these thorny political issues, beyond the sort of behind-the-scenes cajoling that American officials are already undertaking.
“I’ll continue to try to find ways to make them move forward. But to threaten withdrawal, frankly, is an option that I would be very reluctant to exercise unless I was sure that we had no other option, and I think we have lots of them,” Mr. McCain said. “I predict that the Iraqi government in a very halting and stumbling fashion, frustrating to us on many occasions, will move forward and progress.”
The stakes in Iraq
At its most basic, the dispute between Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain centers on the importance of the American mission. For Mr. Obama, the invasion of Iraq was a mistake and the efforts he would make there are essentially a matter of damage limitation. By defining a series of minimal goals, Mr. Obama would seek to reduce American forces.
Toward that end, Mr. Obama said his objective was a sovereign Iraq that was not a threat to the United States or its neighbors, was capable of controlling its own borders, was not a “base camp” for terrorists and was not experiencing “mass violence.” He said that it would be important that “the will of the Iraqi people is being expressed” though “the machinery of democracy may not be perfect.”
“I have to think about the fact that given our current levels of deployment our military is stretched very thin, and if we have a sudden situation, let’s say in North Korea right now, we have got some issues,” Mr. Obama said. “And that is before we start talking about the expenditures involved at a time when the administration just announced they want a $700 billion credit line. So that is the lens through which I view the situation in Iraq.”
For Mr. McCain, the problems the United States has encountered in Iraq stemmed from what he saw as the many blunders made during the early years of the occupation, errors that he asserts have been largely remedied by the surge of reinforcements and a new counterinsurgency strategy.
Although the Qaeda militants who planned the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks did not carry out their plotting in Iraq, Mr. McCain argues that Qaeda militants, operating with Iraqi Sunnis, gained a foothold in the chaos that followed the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
“I agreed with both General Petraeus and Osama bin Laden, who both said that Iraq was the central battleground in this struggle,” Mr. McCain said. “And I also believe that Afghanistan is going to be a longer struggle in some respects. But the most important thing was that if we failed in Iraq, that it would have had adverse consequences throughout the region.”
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