Drawing Down Iraq
Drastic troop cuts are in the Pentagon's secret plans.
Newsweek | August 8, 2005 issue
By Michael Hirsh and John Barry
Donald Rumsfeld doesn't like long-term occupations. He's always made that clear. After U.S. forces took Baghdad, the Defense secretary had plans to reduce the U.S. presence in Iraq to 40,000 troops by the fall of 2003. Then the insurgency struck.
Now Rumsfeld is quietly moving toward his original goal—three years late. The Pentagon has developed a detailed plan in recent months to scale down the U.S. troop presence in Iraq to about 80,000 by mid-2006 and down to 40,000 to 60,000 troops by the end of that year, according to two Pentagon officials involved in the planning who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of their work. Their account squares with a British memo leaked in mid-July. "Emerging U.S. plans assume that 14 out of 18 provinces could be handed over to Iraqi control by early 2006, allowing a reduction in overall [U.S. and Coalition forces] from 176,000 down to 66,000," says the Ministry of Defense memo.
Gen. George Casey, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, hinted at those numbers last week. Casey told reporters that the United States will be "still able to take some fairly substantial reductions" if Iraq can keep to the timeline set out in the U.S.-sponsored interim constitution, which calls for elections for a permanent Iraqi government by Dec. 15, 2005. After that, U.S. officials believe, the main task of the U.S. occupation will have been completed.
U.S. officials denied that Casey's remarks represented any change in policy. But earlier this year the Pentagon had been mum on a withdrawal timetable, in part so as not to encourage the insurgents. Now the conditions for U.S. withdrawal no longer include a defeated insurgency, Pentagon sources say. The new administration mantra is that the insurgency can be beaten only politically, by the success of Iraq's new government.
Indeed, Washington is now less concerned about the insurgents than the unwillingness of Iraq's politicians to make compromises for the sake of national unity. Pentagon planners want to send a spine-stiffening message: the Americans won't be there forever. U.S. domestic factors are also forcing President Bush's hand. The Bush administration wants to pre-empt growing public pressure for withdrawal, which could give the insurgents a Vietnam-like strategic goal. Military planners, meanwhile, are deeply concerned about driving away Army careerists and recruits if current deployments are forced into 2007. If the U.S. Army has to do another rotation into Iraq in the fall of 2006 to keep force levels up to their current 138,000, it "goes off a cliff," says retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey.
The question is whether the insurgents will see the U.S. plan as a rush to the doors. And whether they and Iraqi militias will come to dominate the country in the vacuum left by U.S. forces, leading to civil war. A too-rapid withdrawal could even hand a victory to foreign jihadists streaming into Iraq. "What we have is a plan of action for pulling our troops out, not a strategy for success," says Andrew Krepinevich, a Washington strategist. "That's more of a Vietnam solution: 'Peace with honor'." The phrase proved hollow back then. The Pentagon is betting it won't this time.