November 27, 2007

50,000 By November?

The Bush administration announced yesterday that they would seek a security partnership with Iraq to replace the UN mandate currently regulating the American military presence. The New York Sun notes that the details show a massive change in troop levels by the end of 2008. The reduction could leave barely a third of the troops in Iraq from their present levels, and could dramatically impact the 2008 elections (via Political Vindication):

With the eyes of the world focused on the Middle East peace talks in Annapolis, Md., President Bush's war tsar, Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, quietly announced that the American and Iraqi governments will start talks early next year to bring about an end to the allied occupation by the close of Mr. Bush's presidency.

The negotiations will bring to a formal conclusion the U.N. Chapter 7 Security Council involvement in the occupation and administration of Iraq, and are expected to reduce the number of American troops to about 50,000 troops permanently stationed there but largely confined to barracks, from the current 164,000 forces on active duty.

"The basic message here should be clear. Iraq is increasingly able to stand on its own. That's very good news. But it won't have to stand alone," General Lute yesterday told reporters in the White House.

Bringing the war to a close by the end of 2008 will ensure that the next president will face a fait accompli in Iraq, a fact that will further remove from the presidential election the Iraq war as an issue of contention.

This could cut both ways. Republicans will certainly argue that they drew down the troops in a responsible manner. Democrats will counter that they had demanded commitments for these kinds of reductions in the fall, but were called irresponsible for what amounts to the same plan. They will have some justification for that complaint.

The question is whether the Iraqis have gained enough strength for the US to change strategic course by the summer. If the White House envisions a 2/3rds drawdown by the end of 2008, the redeployment will have to start in the summertime. Despite what some politicians demand, a pullout will take a great deal of logistical work, and the US and Iraq have to ensure an orderly transfer of security functions to make sure that chaos doesn't erupt in our wake.

Can the Iraqis hold what we have gained? The remaining 50,000 troops obviously will serve as a quick-action reserve and logistics support for the Iraqi Army, and that footprint would allow for re-escalation if absolutely necessary. The IA forces have grown much stronger over the last year, having performed well in firefights and patrols jointly with American forces and increasingly on their own. If General David Petraeus believes that they can handle security with the US strictly in logistical support, then that's tremendous news ... but it's the first we've heard of it.

If the pullout begins in the late spring, it changes the entire tenor of the elections. Both sides can claim some piece of that victory (assuming this works and Iraq does not collapse). Democrats can claim that the Republicans finally capitulated, while the GOP can claim that they remained tenacious until victory was assured. Given the Democrats' inability to affect the war strategy, their argument will be rather weak, and they still will have to explain the rush to surrender in the spring of 2007, led by Harry Reid's declaration of defeat on the Senate floor.

I'm hopeful that we're pursuing the dramatic drawdown for the right reasons. Bush has not caved to political pressure in the past on Iraq when it could have done him much more good than this will do for him. If we can keep al-Qaeda from gaining a toehold again in Iraq and settle into a normal postwar security arrangement similar to those with Germany and Japan, then we have won an important victory -- and we will have more resources and political will to use in Afghanistan to tackle AQ at its source.


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