Thursday, August 10, 2006

Time for a Troop Drawdown in Iraq?

Max Boot published a provocative commentary on Iraq strategy in yesterday's Los Angeles Times. Remarking on the dire deterioration of basic security in the country over the last few months, Boot first lays out two alternatives for the Bush administration: troop escalation (by at least 35,000 more soldiers) or a complete withdrawal from the country. Neither option is without pitfalls or opposition:

But there's another course short of withdrawal: reducing U.S. forces from today's level of 130,000 to under 50,000 and changing their focus from conducting combat operations to assisting Iraqi forces. The money saved from downsizing the U.S. presence could be used to better train and equip more Iraqi units. A smaller U.S. commitment also would be more sustainable over the long term. This is the option favored within the U.S. Special Forces community, in which the dominant view is that most American soldiers in Iraq, with their scant knowledge of the local language and customs, are more of a hindrance than a help to the counterinsurgency effort. Make no mistake: This is a high-risk strategy. The drawdown of U.S. troops could catalyze the Iraqis into getting their own house in order, or it could lead to a more rapid and violent disintegration of the rickety structure that now exists. Which path should we take? My preference remains deploying more soldiers, not fewer. A couple of divisions in Baghdad, if skillfully led, might be able to replicate the success that Col. H.R. McMaster's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment had in pacifying the western city of Tall Afar, where the troops-to-civilians ratio was 10 times higher than in Baghdad today. But at this point, I am also open to a substantial reduction in troop numbers because the current strategy just isn't working. Bush needs to do something radical to shake up a deteriorating status quo if we are to have any hope of averting the worst American military defeat since Vietnam.
Note how Boot is essentially proposing the "Iraqization" of Iraq -- a plan holding an uncomfortable resemblance to the "Vietnamization" strategy of phased withdrawal in Vietnam in the late-1960s, a policy ultimately unsuccessful in weening South Vietnam off its American security dependence. Also, noteworthy is the tone of concession by Boot to the possibility of an American defeat in Iraq. For a staunch neoconservative such as he, it's a tough admission to say it's a failed war and let's get out.

I would note that we've been in Iraq just three years, and election year politics certainly has a lot to do with neoconservative suggestions for a cut-and-run. I've disagreed with much the administration has done in the Iraq War, not the least of which was the initial Rumsfeld plan of going light on troops and heavy on technology (we need both). Nevertheless, I credit President Bush for his stiffness against poll-driven pressures for an early witdrawal. Iraq needs a modicum of security before U.S. troops can come home. How long will that take? Who knows? But the U.S. needs to agree on the right course and avoid a precipitous drawdown that threatens the honorable -- and fledgling -- Iraqi democracy we helped build.

For a strategy for succes in Iraq built around a new, robust counterinsurgency plan, see Andrew Krepinovich's article, "How to Win in Iraq," published in the September/October 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs.

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