Tom Ricks reported in this Sunday's Washington Post that a new plan has been adopted inside the Pentagon to reduce American troop levels in Iraq. The plan is an optimistic one, aiming to cut the current number of 130,000 troops to less than 100,000 within a year and 50,000 by mid-2005. This plan appears driven both by political calculations in the Bush Administration, and the hard reality that America does not have the military force structure to manage a long-term occupation of Iraq. (The Pentagon's official plan does not disclose the details that Mr. Ricks reports on, presumably because this reduction plan is still in the deliberative process.)
The plan, which amounts to being the first formal military exit strategy for Iraq, is designed to show how the U.S. presence might be reduced without undercutting the stability of the country. Military officials worry that if they do not begin cutting the size of the U.S. force, they could damage troop morale, leave the armed forces shorthanded if crises emerge in North Korea and elsewhere, and help create a long-term personnel shortage in the service.Analysis: As Mr. Ricks reports, this is an incredibly optimistic plan. It hinges on the amount of international support (in terms of troop commitments) we're able to get, as well as on the number and caliber of Iraqis we can train to take over security functions. This plan also hinges on our abilities to rebuidl the Iraqi infrastructure, jumpstart democracy, and a bunch of other things. It's great to have such an optimistic plan, and I hope we can achieve it. But "hope is not a method." We've got to have contingency plans, branch plans, sequel plans, and other options for when one of these key tasks fails to happen.
At the same time, some of the people involved in the discussions said they consider the force reduction plan optimistic, as much a goal as a guaranteed outcome.
If it is implemented successfully, the troop reductions could reduce political pressure on the Bush administration as the presidential campaign gets fully underway.
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Officials involved in the discussions about troop reductions insist that implementation will be dictated not by a set timetable, but by security conditions in Iraq. Nonetheless, the drawdown is tied to events that are scheduled to begin in January, when a major round of U.S. troop rotations that will last several months is to get underway.
During that period, the U.S. military hopes to turn over as many basic security functions as possible to the Iraqi security forces now being created and to any additional foreign peacekeepers that U.S. diplomacy secures. If the Iraqi security forces can shoulder more of the security burden, it might be possible to replace the departing divisions of about 16,000 troops each with brigades of about 5,000 each.
Over the spring, that changeover would represent a cumulative reduction of more than 30,000 soldiers; along with other cuts, it could lower the U.S. troop level to fewer than 100,000 by mid-2004.
As more units of Iraqi soldiers and civil defense troops are created, and as some additional foreign peacekeepers begin to arrive, cuts in U.S. troop levels would continue next year. Ideally, said one official involved in the planning, by mid-2005 the number of U.S. troops would be as low as 40,000. Army planners consider a presence of that size to be sustainable for years without placing undue stress on the overall force.
One other important thing emerges from Mr. Ricks' report that should not be glossed over. He refers to an "exit strategy" for Iraq that's dependent on the fulfillment of certain conditions. Although the logic is backward, it's possible to extrapolate our actual objectives in Iraq from these tactical, operational and strategic conditions of success. The basic argument goes like this: if we fulfill these conditions, then we will have accomplished our mission. Therefore, our mission in Iraq is to set these conditions of success which will enable us to leave. Therefore, we are in Iraq because of these conditions. I know it's backwards, but it's possible to pull our raison d'etre from this exit strategy.
Granted, it would have been nice to have these conditions spelled out up front. But sometimes, you have to hide the ball for reasons of operational security. If you spell out your success criteria too explicitly, you tell your enemies how to defeat you. At this point, we have to define success for political reasons, mostly to get the international community to help us. In any event, this is a good development, and I think it reflects some good work within the Pentagon to boil this mission down to practical, executable, logical elements that can be put into action on the ground.