The New York Times says that the Bush administration will propose to do in Iraq exactly what logistics and reality seem to have imposed. When they are no longer able to sustain the surge (in April), they will begin to draw down troops. And it appears that as troops are pulled out of the country, the mission will begin to change to reflect something approaching what the Iraq Study Group recommended:
“The surge, we all know, will end sometime in 2008, in the beginning of 2008, and we will begin probably a withdrawal of forces based on the surge,” Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the No. 2 officer in Iraq, said Friday. “We must consider the complexity of the threat and deliberately reduce our forces based on the situation on the ground as well as the capability of the Iraqi security forces.”
General Odierno said the five additional brigades added this year under the president’s troop increase were likely to be withdrawn on a timeline parallel to their arrival in Iraq. Under this timeline, which is not yet the official plan, the troop increase would end by April with the five brigades leaving Iraq one each month, with American force levels returning to the troop levels existing before the increase by next August, he said.
Central to the internal debate on a “postsurge” strategy is the extent to which American troops would be able to ask Iraqi forces to take the lead on security missions in critical sections of the country, particularly in Baghdad. Many Democrats in Congress, and even some Republicans, have demanded that Americans hand over more security missions to the Iraqis.
Although no decision has been made about the full extent of the American combat mission next year, administration officials and military officers say the troops in Iraq would shift priorities to training and supporting Iraq forces. They said the large contingent of Special Operations forces now in Iraq would continue missions to capture and kill terrorist and insurgent leaders, and to disrupt their networks.
As Odierno says, as Admiral Mullen testified a little while ago, and as has been clear for some time, we will reduce overall troop levels when it is impossible to do otherwise.
The big question is just what the mission will be once troop levels are reduced. We recall too well the dissatisfaction with the 'whack-a-mole' strategy we were playing before Operation Phantom Thunder. We were making little progress and the losses were unacceptable to Americans. So it makes sense that the mission would have to change. We will see what the Iraqi government is capable of with a reduced commitment from American troops.
Politically, this announcement will give Democrats something of a free ride. They seem likely to have navigated a year in the majority without directly influencing the shape of the mission. They will be in a good position to claim that the President 'owns' Iraq. Events on the ground in Iraq -- and the opinion of the American people -- will go a long way to determining whether they will see it as politically in their interests to continue criticizing, or leave well enough alone.
But if the Administration submits a plan to limit our commitment to Iraq and sticks to a timetable to do so -- while arguing that we need to keep some troops in Iraq to preserve gains and fight Al Qaeda -- the public might be largely satisfied. That may end the domestic political fight over Iraq.