Op-Ed

Troop Reductions after the Surge in Iraq

Michael E. O’Hanlon

This piece was originally published with the title “‘Pause’ perplexities.”

There is a danger that when Gen. David Petraeus soon testifies before Congress, the discussion will center excessively on how long any “pause” in U.S. troop reductions in Iraq should last this summer.

The surge of American forces in Iraq is now ending. By late summer, there again will be 15 U.S. combat brigades, rather than the 20 to 21 that have typified the last year or so. The military question on everyone’s mind seems to be whether, once we get back to 15, we should wait one month or two months or maybe three months to make further cuts.

Of course, discussing the “pause” after the “surge” is necessary to a degree. But to dwell on its duration in these terms would place the tactical ahead of the strategic. Overemphasizing the pause risks making great ado over whether we should wind up at 14 or 14½ or 15 brigades come January of next year, and whether the reduction of a few thousand more troops should begin in September or October or November. These are simply not the biggest questions before the nation.

During discussions with Gen. Petraeus, Congress should ask more fundamental questions about our future force presence. The crux of the matter is less about exactly what happens this fall, and more about how the next president should determine the pace at which reductions will happen over the next few years.

Since our future president, and his or her general election opponent, will be among the questioners facing Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the situation is well suited to a serious discussion. Among the key issues are these: 

Iraqi Security Forces — are they becoming less sectarian? In the last year or so, the United States has helped convince the Shia-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to purge a very substantial fraction of the country’s brigade and battalion commanders in the Iraqi police and army. In key sectors of the country such as Baghdad the resulting attrition rate for these commanders has been well more than 50 percent. Many if not most were extremists, often with direct ties to Iraq’s extralegal and violent militias. Only when the Iraqi people see their police and their army as neutrally protecting all of the country’s citizens, rather than turning a blind eye to ethnic cleansing or other militia abuse of innocents when it suits them, can the United States safely leave Iraq without jeopardizing the nearly 75 percent reduction in violence that has occurred over the last year.

The Iraqi Security Forces are surely better than before. But with memories of Iraq’s intense civil war of 2006 and early 2007 still very fresh, it is doubtful they have gone far enough towards establishing national rather than sectarian loyalties. If they are not ready now, or soon, for our departure, the question becomes when will they be ready — and how will we know?

Next phase of U.S. reductions: geographically defined? As is well-known, certain parts of Iraq, notably Al-Anbar Province, have become much more stable in recent months due to the combination of the Sunni “awakening,” the U.S. surge, improvements in Iraqi security forces, and the cease-fire announced by Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr. Does this mean we can leave certain parts of Iraq entirely in the coming year or two? For example, even though hard fighting continues in places like Mosul up north, perhaps some parts of Baghdad and its surrounding “belts” are now ready for Iraqi forces to handle the job on their own?

My own instincts are that, in fact, such a geographically defined strategy is not the best way to understand how we should downsize U.S. forces in the coming years. The Iraqi security forces are better than before, but generally not quite ready for handling the entirety of the security mission on their own even in quieter regions. Al Qaeda in Iraq and other resistance forces are mobile and opportunistic; leaving certain parts of the country as secondary security priorities risks recreating the tragic game of “whack a mole” we undertook in Iraq for our first four years in country. More likely, while we will be able to gamble with “economy of force” approaches to certain sectors of the country, we will not be able to withdraw entirely from most provinces even in a year or two.

Does the South need American Help? In fact, the challenge may be even greater than the above suggests. In addition to staying present in most of the central Iraqi provinces where we now station American forces, we may need to increase capabilities, not only in Mosul (and perhaps the oil-rich, contested, and combustible city of Kirkuk), but also in the south.

As British forces withdraw, Shia militias are becoming even stronger than before in and around the city of Basra — the region that produces about 70 percent of Iraq’s oil. To ensure the protection of Iraq’s oil economy, to prevent gang rule of southern cities, and to limit Iran’s influence in the region, we may have to send at least modest numbers of American troops southward as we seek to reduce elsewhere.

“Over-the-horizon” counterterrorism: Can we do it? An idea that continues to be popular among many looking to get most U.S. combat forces out of Iraq is to get out of the cities and out of the population security business. By this philosophy, we might keep 10,000 to 30,000 troops in Iraq for a few years to accomplish three main goals: protect the green zone in Baghdad, continue to train Iraqi security forces, and stay poised with rapid strike teams in Iraq’s deserts (or perhaps a neighboring country like Kuwait) ready to hit hard and fast against any future al Qaeda sanctuaries that pop up.

That last mission almost certainly does not make sense. We have already in effect tried this strategy in Iraq before — during most of the first four years, when our numerous troops were largely sequestered from Iraqi society in giant forward operating bases, going out on motorized patrols but otherwise not frequently walking the streets, doing real patrolling, protecting the population, gathering intelligence. And this approach demonstrably failed.

Even when relatively unchallenged, as it was in Fallujah and Ramadi and elsewhere in the past, al Qaeda in Iraq has not tended to build sanctuaries like those bin Laden created in Afghanistan during the 1990s. Rather, it has burrowed into cities, becoming part of the fabric of the population. Unless we want to employ a Sodom and Gomorrah strategy for Ramadi and Fallujah (or their future counterparts), which is of course a nonstarter, over-the-horizon counterterrorism becomes an oxymoron.

Putting all this together, my guess is that developing a further drawdown strategy for U.S. forces in Iraq will be quite difficult. It will entail gradually reducing our role in most parts of the country, and in most of the forward-deployed joint security stations and combat outposts operated together with Iraqis, without simply leaving big chunks of the country for good. No simple change of mission or simple determination that some parts of the country are now inherently stable will get us from 15 to 10 brigades — and then, ultimately, to five or less.

Beginning the conversation about how we gradually redefine our role in Iraq is a lot harder, and more important, than knowing just how long our late-summer and fall “pause” in force reductions should last.

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