More Tea Leaves

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I don’t know what anyone would possibly say about the president’s new “Strategy for Victory” in Iraq. There’s nothing new here, besides hope that everything ends up working. But that aside, this Time piece on Iraq is actually pretty good, and has some commentary on the various Pentagon plans being floated for withdrawing troops:

There isn’t one plan, but several, each containing various options for Army General George Casey, the top U.S. military officer in Iraq. Pentagon officials acknowledged last week that the number of U.S. troops could be cut to 100,000 by the end of 2006. But Casey will face two “decision points” next year–one in March, when he can fully assess the effects of the Dec. 15 election, the other in June, when major U.S. units have to be told if they will deploy.

At this stage, almost no one is talking about a rapid, large-scale troop drawdown. Inside the Pentagon, officers privately caution that troop levels could even rise if Iraqi security forces don’t shape up as expected, if the insurgency grows more fierce or–of greatest concern–if civil strife evolves into full-fledged civil war. In fact, a senior Pentagon official tells TIME that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked his planners last week to make sure they have a contingency option if things go very badly in Iraq next year.

Even if the U.S. does decide to withdraw troops, it won’t simply flee. Washington is spending millions on fortifying a few Iraqi bases for the long haul. “The challenge for us is, what is the right balance–not to be too present but also not to be underpresent. This will require constant calibration,” U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad tells TIME. Indeed, last August, Army chief of staff Peter Schoomaker said that as many as 100,000 Army troops could remain in Iraq for four years.

Presumably this also depends on what the new Iraqi government wants, which may be what comes up in that March “decision point.” I have no idea whether it’s even logistically possible to keep 100,000 troops in Iraq for the next four years, or whether a “contingency option”—sending more troops in if civil war breaks out?—is at all feasible. I assume a lot of soldiers would have to go back for fourth or fifth tours, with all the bad effects that will have. Still, Time doesn’t make it sound like a big drawdown is in the cards, though admittedly it’s like reading tea leaves here.

Also of interest: Elaine Grossman of Inside the Pentagon recently reported on actual debates within the military about strategy in Iraq. Officers “have complained privately that the military strategy seemed adrift, lacking clear objectives or measurable progress.” Originally the strategy involved killing lots of insurgents. Then in spring 2004 the military shifted focus, making Iraqi troop training its first priority. But after that happened, insurgent attacks on civilians went up dramatically, so now the military wants to focus on protecting civilians. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is apparently very interested in Andrew Krepinevich’s “oil-spot” theory and very recently had a “Red Team” of analysts recommend a new strategy along those lines. Part of this new approach, it seems, would involve recruiting Sunni tribal leaders for security purposes—”with mixed results” so far. (They’re also putting together three “provincial reconstruction teams”; why this wasn’t done before, I have no idea.)

So that seems to be where things are heading (again, tea leaves…), although not surprisingly, a number of onlookers think it’s way too late for any of this to work, especially since the new plan will, it appears, rely heavily on local militias—death squads—to “protect local populations,” not exactly a recipe for stability. Not to mention the fact that there are a lot of things in the country the U.S. can no longer control…

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