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Troop withdrawal will not help Iraq situation

Image: U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates rides aboard an Army Blackhawk helicopter en route to Khowst Province in December 2007 in Afghanistan. Haraz N. Ghanbari / Pool via Getty Images
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Last Monday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that he was in favor of slowing the planned withdrawal from Iraq of American forces, thus guaranteeing that at election time in November, there will be more than 100,000 troops there. Aside from the predictable effect on campaign politics, Republicans say we should leave only when Iraq is stable; Democrats say get out no matter what. Gates’ decision is a telling reminder of the difficulty of using military forces when you don’t have very many of them.

The strain on the force, particularly on the Army and the Marines, has been well-documented. If they don’t get killed or wounded first, soldiers can now expect to serve 15 months before coming home for a rest, only to be shipped back to Iraq. Some troops have been there four times, and while these exemplary citizens serve with little fanfare and no complaint, the lack of a clear, definitive and achievable objective magnifies the negative effect of repetitive tours.

A few weeks ago, Secretary Gates announced that he’d like to reduce tour length to 12 months, but it’s hard to see how that can be accomplished if the drawdown will slow or stop. In addition, the toll on equipment has been devastating, and if nothing else, the nature of the war in Iraq has resulted in overused Army equipment. Replacing vehicles and weapons will cost many tens of billions of dollars. The net result is a force that is unprepared to meet the challenges posed by our enemies.

As we already know, things are progressing well in some areas in Iraq, but only where we maintain a large and continuous presence, like Anbar Province. In other areas, such as Diyala, the situation is not so good. There is a positive correlation between the size of the force in an area and the ability of the enemy to operate. Pour lots of Americans into an area and keep them there and the insurgents go somewhere else. It doesn’t take a military genius to conclude that success in Iraq, no matter how it’s defined, takes more troops than we have there now, and more than we’re ever willing to commit.

The Afghanistan aspectFor now, our mission has been assisted by a pact of sorts between the Iraqi government and many of the insurgents, and by the cooperation of tribal chieftains. This may continue when we begin leaving in larger numbers, but it’s not likely. We have trained many Iraqi battalions and police units, but they will be severely tested when we leave, and then nobody knows how well or poorly the Iraqi government will hold together.

All this is a much bigger problem than it seems because we need far more troops to fight in Afghanistan, where enemy action has been on the increase and can expect much more in the coming months. We have had some successes, but it is difficult to destroy al-Qaida and the Taliban when we have insufficient troops to do so. Enemy forces train with impunity just over the border in Pakistan, and the Pakistani army does nearly nothing to stop it.

Secretary Gates’ priority is clearly Iraq, but with insufficient troops to do the job, he shouldn’t be surprised if things continue to deteriorate in Afghanistan. Gates and Gen. David Petraeus are trying to put the best face on the situation by suggesting that a pause in withdrawal will contribute to success in Iraq. That may be so, but the mathematics say it’s not likely. Reality has a habit of being nasty and ruthless and heedless of platitudes and equivocations.

Jack Jacobs is a military analyst and a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also has three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.