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Will withdrawing the troops early work?

Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs discusses the pros and cons of setting a timeline for the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq.
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We’ve been reading and hearing for weeks about whether Gen. David Petraeus will recommend drawing down forces in Iraq. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has hinted strongly that a drawdown is at hand, though he leaves the details to Petraeus’ final recommendation.

Both Presidential candidates have forwarded ideas on how to proceed. Sen. Barack Obama has tied himself to a sixteen month timeline, though qualified his number somewhat by saying he will listen to his commanders on the ground.  Sen. John McCain has not given us a timeline, but has stressed that he plans to stay in Iraq with the necessary forces as long as possible to win.   

Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki put down a marker that U.S. forces should be out by the end of 2010. Maliki ,who faces elections in the Fall, needs to be seen by constituents as a strong, Iraqi leader, one who will stand his ground with the U.S. “occupier,” which gives him less maneuver room than either candidate for the U.S. presidency. Timelines can be counterproductive if one’s opponent uses them as a lever.  But Maliki’s deadline bounds the debate.

In addition the news from Iraq indicates significant progress. Casualties are down; ingress of foreign fighters is down. We’ve seen reports in the public domain about likely withdrawal of the leaders of al Qaida in Iraq to Afghanistan or at least a reshuffling of their chain of command.  For years U.S. forces have persistently and effectively hunted down these terrorists.

The effort is clearly having an effect. Conventional forces have become adept at breaking up the networks that subvert local government and that employ the improvised explosive devices.  They have also done a remarkable job of working patiently to bring local leaders to cooperate with government and the security forces. To gauge how the endgame goes, watch for events in Mosul and in Diyala province that augur for a transfer of authority to Iraqi forces.

On the political front Maliki seems to be getting a handle on the Shiite militias. Also watch for indications that the Sunni minority has finally decided to participate in the national and provincial governments. We may not see the actual private deals that lead to that result, but you can be sure that if we see an enthusiastic turnout of Sunni voters in the Fall elections with ink on many Sunni fingers, it means their leaders have made their peace with working inside a Shia run establishment. It will not be an easy peace, but it will mark a major milestone.

So, short of a major crisis, Obama’s 2010 timeline and Maliki’s 2011 deadline, will frame events.  McCain may wish to keep a robust presence in Iraq past 2010, but without Iraqi support and a Status of Forces Agreement, it’s very unlikely the U.S. can work against an Iraqi mandate to leave. For sure, the U.S. presence is likely to be very different into 2010 than what we see today. At least two other factors combine to affect events. 

The Army and Marine Corps cannot sustain the current force levels in Iraq let alone put additional forces in Afghanistan. Our troops have been magnificent, but they are weary. With Pakistan’s failure to control events in the Tribal Areas and the Taliban’s attempt to isolate Khandahar and to regain control in the Eastern and Southern provinces, U.S. Central Command and the Coalition Force in Afghanistan need more boots on the ground.

In addition to more combat units, they need civil affairs, military police, explosive ordinance disposal and other combat support elements that have already been deployed more than once. Also, when raising force levels in Afghanistan, changing the force mix will mean once more going back to the Reserve Components for some of the needed capability.

At current levels of commitment, Active Duty units run at a pace that means jamming into a year or less, recovery and refitting from the last deployment and retraining, re-equiping and redeploying for the next. We already have troops who have more time in combat in this campaign than their grandfathers served in combat between mid 1942 and August 1945 in World War II.

To sustain the U.S. role in the long war that Gates has written about as the major challenge we face, the Army and Marine Corps must throttle down to a less demanding deployment scheme, at least a ratio time at home to time in combat of three to one. Ideally one would like to see a longer period for recovery, reorganization, and retraining. If we are to embed the lessons of this campaign into the force, the Services need the additional time for leader development and professional education.

If the Services are to retain their best, those leaders need time to go through the withdrawal from 365 days of living on adrenalin and to come to grips with what they have been through. They need time to invest in family and friends. One learns very quickly in counseling young leaders about staying in the Service, if the choice becomes family or Service, family dominates.

So, one can bet that when Petraeus’ recommendations become known, they will incorporate a drawdown in Iraq. They will also aim at preventing the situation from slipping back to where it was last Fall and to helping the Iraqis to increasingly manage their own security. Those recommendations will support the need to expand our force capability in Afghanistan, the area of operations that has all along been the most critical to success against al Qaida. By removing the specter of a U.S. “Occupier” of Muslim lands, they will also support the larger strategic objective of a U.S. role most helpful to moderate Muslim governments in handling their own internal problems with the causes of Islamist insurgency.