For the past year or so, President Bush has firmly opposed all talk of withdrawing troops from Iraq or even of setting a timetable for withdrawal, arguing that such plans would only encourage the insurgents to hold tight and wait for our departure.
Now, all of a sudden, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, are openly speaking of "fairly substantial reductions" in the spring and summer of 2006.
First, there are the obvious factors. Domestic opposition to the war is rising; the latest polls show 55 percent of the American public thinks it's a bad idea and, further, has doubts we can win. It's a fair guess that top Republicans have approached the president or his henchmen to say they'd prefer that the war not be an issue in the 2006 congressional elections—and that it be off the table entirely by 2008.
It should also be clear, to all but the most rosy-eyed cheerleaders, that things are not going well in Iraq. When Vice President Dick Cheney harrumphed that the insurgents were in their "last throes," everyone—even his old pal, Rummy—had to cough and backpedal. It's a fair debate whether America's military presence is weakening the insurgency or swelling its ranks. (My own guess is both.)
Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld have said repeatedly—as have many critics of the war—that U.S. troops can't leave until the Iraqi security forces are sufficiently trained and equipped to fight off the insurgents and keep order.
This recent talk of withdrawal may have been sparked by the realization that almost no progress has been made in training Iraq's new soldiers—and that this is the case, in part, because the Iraqi government doesn't want them to be trained.
Last February, the Bush administration asked Congress for an $81.9 billion supplemental budget to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Buried deep inside this 97-page document was a request of $5.7 billion for the "Iraq Security Fund." In justifying this sum, the document noted that the Iraqi government had created a security force of 90 battalions, adding:
All but one of these 90 battalions, however, are lightly equipped and armed, and have very limited mobility and sustainment capabilities.
In other words, by the administration's admission, only one Iraqi battalion was able to engage in a prolonged firefight.
Half a year later, the story has barely changed. A report to Congress by Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concludes that only "a small number" of Iraqi forces are capable of "taking on the insurgents and terrorists by themselves." By some estimates, this "small number" is as little as 5,000—only slightly more than the single battalion that could do the job last February.
For months, the administration has denied and disputed claims by Democratic critics—most notably Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and Carl Levin of Michigan—that training was moving too slowly. It could well be that the evidence is now too obvious to ignore.
Lieut. Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. officer in charge of training the Iraqi forces, was transferred this month to take over the Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division during the early phases of the war, is widely viewed as one of the Army's most creative and competent generals. It's not yet clear whether the transfer stems from Petraeus' frustration with the job or from Rumsfeld's dissatisfaction with his handling of it. *
Either way, some of Petraeus' aides, if not the general himself, have recently learned of rumors that Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari doesn't want his army to be well-trained. A leading Shiite, Jaafari reportedly fears that if the U.S. troops leave Iraq, the insurgents will crush all resistance and hoist the Sunnis back to power. Since the Americans have said they will leave once the Iraqi security forces are self-sufficient, Jaafari figures it's best to keep that day at bay. This could explain why many Iraqi units lack such basic materials as reliable weapons, ammunition, and sufficient food and bedding gear.
One of Petraeus' aides hit the roof when he heard this rumor of Jaafari's recalcitrance a few weeks ago. This may be why Rumsfeld seemed more perturbed than usual after his meeting with Jaafari in Baghdad this week. It may be why, for the first time, he brought up the subject of eventually pulling out.
This is, in fact, the best reason for declaring a timetable—to force the Iraqi government to start taking their sovereignty seriously.
The withdrawal clock can't—and shouldn't—start ticking until after this December's election, when the Iraqis vote for a new government. (They voted in January for an interim government, which would draft a constitution. The constitution is supposed to be completed in August and ratified in October. This is another reason for Rumsfeld's agitation: Fundamental differences among Iraq's religious factions are threatening to push back the deadline, which would push back the next elections, which would delay—for who knows how long—the U.S. withdrawal.)
At that point, it may take another 18 months for the Iraqi security forces to be equipped and trained—assuming that, this time, the new government cooperates. So, under this scenario, the United States can start pulling out of Iraq, as Gen. Casey projected, by the spring or summer of 2006—and be out entirely by mid-2007.
This schedule would fit well with Republican election plans—and it's unlikely the Democrats would strenuously oppose the plan. (Do they want to bill themselves as the party in favor of prolonging the war?) It also has the virtue of being a good idea. If the Iraqi assembly hammers out a constitution, if the elections take place, if Sunnis take part and win a proportionate share of seats, then enough citizens may be sufficiently satisfied with the arrangement to undermine the insurgents' base of support and legitimacy—which is the key to all successful insurgencies.
And if none of these things happen, it will be time to ask whether the American troops in Iraq are serving any purpose, whether it makes any difference if they're back here or over there—and, if it makes no difference, to ask why they can't just come home.
*Update, July 29, 2005: A spokesman for Lieut. Gen. Petraeus, calling from Baghdad, made the following statement in response to this story:
"The CG [commanding general] is not at all frustrated with his job. The CG has been saying for a long time now that there's been tremendous progress in the Iraqi security forces, that he realizes there's a long road ahead, but that he has qualified optimism about that way ahead." As for the notion that Secretary Rumsfeld might be displeased, he said, "I've not heard anything about that." He added that the general is leaving Iraq as part of a "normal rotation. … It's just time for him to go."
The spokesman also disputed the claim that the Iraqi forces lack ammunition or other materials. "Sustaining the force in the field is a challenge, but they are getting adequate supplies," he said. There are "contracting issues they have to surmount, but we're committed to making certain that Iraqi soldiers don't go without sufficient life support."
On the allegations about the Iraqi leaders' lack of commitment, he said, "Prime Minister Jaafari, just two days ago, had a full day with Gen. Petraeus and they went out to see both Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior forces. Prime Minister Jaafari was pleased with the progress that he saw." I asked if this was the first time Jaafari had gone out to see the troops. He replied, "Yes, it was."
He acknowledged that, of the 105 Iraqi battalions, "only a handful are operating independently," but he said, "the others are also contributing, whether in the lead and just requiring coalition support or fighting alongside coalition forces."