Making A Case For A Pause In Troop Cutbacks In Iraq

Making A Case For A Pause In Troop Cutbacks In Iraq
February 13th, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: Making A Case For A Pause In Troop Cutbacks In Iraq

Making A Case For A Pause In Troop Cutbacks In Iraq
New York Times
February 13, 2008 Military Analysis
By Michael R. Gordon
WASHINGTON — There is an overarching reason American commanders in Iraq want a pause in American troop reductions this summer: The United States has learned through painful experience that security can rapidly deteriorate if it overestimates the ability of Iraq’s forces to keep the peace.
The case for temporarily halting the reductions was endorsed Monday by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who had previously voiced hope for greater reductions to ease the enormous strain on the military. But the die was cast last month when President Bush said during a visit to Kuwait that he was prepared to give his Iraq commander whatever forces he needed.
With Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior American commander in Iraq, advocating that the United States “let things settle a bit” after the current round of troop reductions, and with Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, warning, by contrast, that the Army is “stretched and stressed” by its constant deployments, some sort of trade-off had to be made. For now, at least, securing Iraq has won.
Mr. Gates has not said how long the pause should last before troop withdrawals resume, adding that Mr. Bush must decide the matter. But one senior American officer estimated that a pause of three to four months would be needed after the American force shrinks to 15 combat brigades in July from 20 brigades at the height of the “surge” last year.
“We have momentum, and we must maintain this momentum,” said the officer, who asked not to be identified because final decisions on troop levels for 2008 have yet to be made at the White House. “Without a pause to assess trends, we could make a serious mistake.”
In recommending a pause, American commanders in Iraq are partly guided by the past. When General Casey commanded American forces in Iraq — he was General Petraeus’s predecessor and served there from mid-2004 until early 2007 — the United States put a premium on transferring security responsibilities to the Iraqis. But insurgents stepped up their attacks. Some Iraqi forces engaged in wantonly sectarian operations. Violence steadily increased.
With the addition of some 30,000 American troops and guidance from a new counterinsurgency strategy, the American military has reduced violence to 2005 levels. The military gains have yet to be followed by the sort of major progress toward Iraq political reconciliation that Bush administration officials had hoped for.
But the gains have had the unintended effect of encouraging an increase in the Sunni volunteers who have aligned themselves with the Americans. And Bush administration officials are still trying to make political headway in Iraq this year by pressing for a law defining the powers of provincial authorities and for provincial elections.
In the United States, politicians tend to speak as if the war is lost or all but won. In Iraq, American commanders suggest that the war still hangs in the balance and worry about preserving tangible, but fragile, security gains.
Military officials and experts outside government who favor a pause make several arguments. First, the military is cutting the number of American combat brigades by a quarter. By July, the reduction will have only brought the number of United States troops down to 130,000 or so from the current level of about 160,000, restoring troop levels to those in place at the beginning of 2007, or perhaps even slightly higher.
Many American forces will remain involved in logistics, training Iraqi forces and other support missions. But the troop cutbacks are a substantial diminution in combat power, one that will make it more difficult to mobilize forces for major operations.
Second, Iraq’s political course is still highly uncertain, and some political steps could add to the demands on American forces there. If provincial elections are held this year, American and Iraqi forces would need to safeguard the voting, as in past elections.
Another variable is that the United States wants to reduce the number of Iraqis in detention centers, partly to encourage efforts at political reconciliation. Along with the potential return of additional refugees to Iraq, that may introduce another complication.
There are also some 70,000 mostly Sunni volunteers who have aligned themselves with the American military. The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government remains suspicious of the volunteers, who American commanders say need to be enlisted in Iraq’s security forces and given jobs to discourage many of them from returning to their insurgent ways.
The duration of the cease-fire declared by Moktada al-Sadr, the anti-American Shiite cleric, and the extent of Iraq’s support for Shiite militants is another wild card. Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a predominantly Iraqi group that American intelligence says has foreign leadership, has been pushed north toward Mosul but is still active.
Lastly, the Iraqi Army and the police are expanding. But American officers want to carefully monitor their progress and try to improve their abilities. That involves not only training the forces and supporting them with aircraft and logistics but also working with them on operations.
American officials favor a gradual process of putting Iraqi forces in the lead and backing them up when necessary, not a wholesale transfer of responsibilities. When the United States ceded authority to the Iraqis prematurely in Diyala Province in 2006, the Iraqis engaged in sectarian attacks, Qaeda militants presented themselves as the defenders of the Sunnis and, a year later, American forces had to mount a major operation to reclaim Baquba, the provincial capital.
A delay in making reductions would increase the strain on American troops. The Army is facing a serious shortfall in captains. And the number of new recruits who have not graduated from high school is growing. That means, one American officer said, that enlistment standards are being lowered at a time when the military faces counterinsurgency and nation-building tasks that are more complex than the traditional missions during the cold war.
For all this, there is no guarantee that the strategy of bringing political stability to Iraq will succeed. But there is also little prospect that there will ever be enough political support in the United States for another surge. For the American commanders, that is an unstated but additional reason to be cautious about cutting back.

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