Sunday, September 30, 2007

Drawing Down in Iraq?

Max Boot's article in the current Commentary weighs the competing alternatives for a U.S. drawdown in Iraq. Boot looks at both the diplomatic and military sides of the drawdown equation. For example, Boot reviews the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), as well as the proposals of Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack, among others.

With reference to the ISG, Boot raises some interesting points with regards to Iran and Syria's sponsorship of terrorism in Iraq. Could Iran and Syria help the U.S. push a diplomatic angle to augment a general drawdown for U.S. forces in Iraq? Boot get to the heart of the matter:

As if Iraq’s internal divisions were not bad enough, the country’s neighbors, in particular Iran and Syria, have contributed greatly to the current unrest. This is the challenge that the ISG’s “diplomatic offensive” proposes to meet. But how? Iran, according to the ISG report, “should stem the flow of arms and training to Iraq, respect Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and use its influence over Iraqi Shiite groups to encourage national reconciliation.” Syria, for its part, “should control its border with Iraq to stem the flow of funding, insurgents, and terrorists in and out of Iraq.”

Well, all that would surely be nice. But how exactly are we to convince Syria and Iran that they should do what the Iraq Study Group thinks they should do? The “United States,” says the ISG somewhat redundantly, “should engage directly with Iran and Syria.” There is, however, little reason to think that such talks would yield progress in the desired direction.

In the Iranian case, one indicator of interest—or, more accurately, lack of interest—in negotiations is that on May 28, even as talks were in fact being held in Baghdad between the American and Iranian ambassadors, the Tehran regime was detaining four Iranian-Americans on fabricated charges. Another is that the Iranians have been stepping up the flow of funds, munitions, and trainers to support terrorism in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Both Syria and Iran are also deeply complicit in backing Hamas, Hizballah, and other radical groups working to undermine two other democracies in the Middle East: namely, Israel and Lebanon.

The ISG report suggests that Syria and Iran have an interest in an “Iraq that does not disintegrate and destabilize its neighbors and the region.” That may be so—but not if it means that Iraq emerges as a democratic ally of the United States and an active partner in the war against terrorism. For a terrorism-sponsoring Iranian regime, that would be the worst outcome imaginable. Much better, from the strategic perspective of both Syria and Iran, to continue fomenting chaos in Iraq so as to prevent the emergence of a unified state capable of threatening them.

Syria and especially Iran have been waging a proxy war against the United States in Iraq that could well end with Iran as the dominant player in most of the country. By means of the Jaish al Mahdi and other front groups, Tehran is doing in Iraq what it has already done with Hizballah in Lebanon: expanding its sphere of influence. Why should Ayatollah Khameini and his inner circle voluntarily put a stop to a policy that appears to be achieving their objectives at relatively low cost?

Tehran might veer from its belligerent course if it feared serious military and economic retaliation, ranging from an embargo on refined-petroleum imports to air strikes against the ayatollahs’ nuclear installations. But with a few brave and prophetic exceptions like Senator Joseph Lieberman, who has continued to call attention to Iranian aggression, there is scant political support in the United States for such a tough policy, however justified it may be.

Boot also takes a close look at the various scenarios involving residual stabilization and advisory forces in Iraq, whereby U.S. contingents would remain in-country to foster the consolidation of Iraq's political regime through counterterrorism and training. How many troops would remain in Iraq after an initial troop drawdown? There's some debate on the requisite numbers, with a bare-bones estimate suggesting that 60,000 U.S. troops remain for logistics, air support and transportation, and medical services.

Here's Boot in his summary of the overall situation:

Sooner or later, we will have to draw down our forces. It therefore makes sense to undertake now the kind of detailed planning that will be needed to effect a transition to a smaller force, perhaps 80,000 to 100,000 strong. Assuming sufficient political support at home—and that is by no means inconceivable, if the situation on the ground continues to improve— such a force could remain in Iraq for many years, focusing, as the ISG proposed, on tasks like advising local security forces and hunting down terrorists. But while the ISG approach makes sense in the long term, moving to a smaller force right now, as so many critics of the administration urge, would constitute an unacceptable risk.

The more security that our “surge” forces create and consolidate today, the greater the probability that a transition will work tomorrow. If we start withdrawing troops regardless of the consequences, we will not only put our remaining soldiers at greater risk but, as things inevitably turn nastier, imperil public support for any level of commitment, whether at 160,000 or 60,000.

Notwithstanding some positive preliminary results, the surge might still fail in the long run if Iraqis prove incapable of reaching political compromises even in a more secure environment. But, for all its faults and weaknesses, the surge is the least bad option we have. Its opponents, by contrast, have been loudly trying to beat something with nothing. If they do not like President Bush’s chosen strategy, the onus is on them to propose a credible alternative that could avert what would in all probability be the most serious military defeat in our history. So far, they have come up empty.

Read the whole thing.

All this talk of immediately withdrawing American forces from Iraq, especially among those most opposed to the war, really misses the reality of the situation. Security has improved in Iraq, and holding onto the recent gains found in the surge strategy will not be possible with an accelerated drawdown timetable. It's advisable, as a matter of prudence, for U.S. forces to stay in Iraq for a good time to come.

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