We're in a new period in the war in Iraq -- one that brings to mind the Nixonian era of "Vietnamization": A President presiding over an increasingly unpopular war that won't end; an election bearing down; the need to placate a restive American public; and an army under so much strain that it seems to be running off the rails. So it's not surprising that the media is now reporting on administration plans for, or "speculation" about, or "signs of," or "hints" of "major draw-downs" or withdrawals of American troops. The figure regularly cited these days is less than 100,000 troops in Iraq by the end of 2006. With about 136,000 American troops there now, that figure would represent just over one-quarter of all in-country U.S. forces, which means, of course, that the term "major" certainly rests in the eye of the beholder.
In addition, these withdrawals are -- we know this thanks to a Seymour Hersh piece, Up in the Air, in the December 5th New Yorker -- to be accompanied, as in South Vietnam in the Nixon era, by an unleashing of the U.S. Air Force. The added air power is meant to compensate for any lost punch on the ground (and will undoubtedly lead to more "collateral damage" -- that is, Iraqi deaths).
It is important to note that all promises of drawdowns or withdrawals are invariably linked to the dubious proposition that the Bush administration can "stand up" an effective Iraqi army and police force (think "Vietnamization" again), capable of circumscribing the Sunni insurgency and so allowing American troops to pull back to bases outside major urban areas, as well as to Kuwait and points as far west as the United States. Further, all administration or military withdrawal promises prove to be well hedged with caveats and obvious loopholes, phrases like "if all goes according to plan and security improves..." or "it also depends on the ability of the Iraqis to..."
Since guerrilla attacks have actually been on the rise and the delivery of the basic amenities of modern civilization (electrical power, potable water, gas for cars, functional sewage systems, working traffic lights, and so on) on the decline, since the very establishment of a government inside the heavily fortified Green Zone has proved immensely difficult, and since U.S. reconstruction funds (those that haven't already disappeared down one clogged drain or another) are drying up, such partial withdrawals may prove more complicated to pull off than imagined. It's clear, nonetheless, that "withdrawal" is on the propaganda agenda of an administration heading into mid-term elections with an increasingly skittish Republican Party in tow and congressional candidates worried about defending the President's mission-unaccomplished war of choice. Under the circumstances, we can expect more hints of, followed by promises of, followed by announcements of "major" withdrawals, possibly including news in the fall election season of even more "massive" withdrawals slated for the end of 2006 or early 2007, all hedged with conditional clauses and "only ifs" -- withdrawal promises that, once the election is over, this administration would undoubtedly feel under no particular obligation to fulfill.