What John Murtha really meant.

Military analysis.
Nov. 21 2005 5:50 PM

What Murtha Meant

We're leaving Iraq anyway. At least he's got a plan.

Everyone in Washington seems to agree that Rep. John Murtha's proposal for getting out of Iraq is a bad idea. But everyone is wrong in describing just what it is that he proposes.

Take a close look at Murtha's now-infamous statement of Nov. 17. You will not find the words "withdrawal," "pullout," or their myriad synonyms. Instead, he calls for a "redeployment" of U.S. troops—which may seem like a euphemism for withdrawal but in fact is very different. Toward the end of his statement, Murtha lays out the elements of what he calls his "plan":

To immediately redeploy U.S. troops consistent with the safety of U.S. forces.
To create a quick reaction force in the region.
To create an over-the-horizon presence of Marines.
To diplomatically pursue security and stability in Iraq.

He doesn't elaborate on any of these ideas, but it's clear they don't add up to "cut and run." True, his final line reads, "It is time to bring them home," but his plan suggests he wants to bring, at most, only some of them home. The others are to be "redeployed" in the quick-reaction forces hovering just offshore.

Murtha stressed this point Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press, saying he wanted to "redeploy the troops to the periphery." He used that phrase—"to the periphery," meaning just offshore or across the border from Iraq, not all the way home—three times during the interview.

Host Tim Russert never asked—nor did Murtha explain—what these forces will be doing offshore, or under what circumstances they might re-enter the conflict. But we can fill in the blanks by looking at a study, published last month by the Center for American Progress, titled Strategic Redeployment: A Progressive Plan for Iraq and the Struggle Against Violent Extremists, written by Lawrence Korb (an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration) and Brian Katulis.

Korb and Katulis begin with the same premises that Murtha does: that the U.S. military presence in Iraq is inflaming the insurgency, uniting nationalists with Islamo-fundamentalists, and bolstering America's terrorist enemies worldwide; that the Iraqi government is using U.S. troops as a crutch; that maintaining 140,000 troops for another year will destroy the U.S. Army; and that, therefore, on several grounds, it is best for all that we get out.

They call for a phased, two-year plan, drawing the troops down to 80,000 by the end of next year and dispensing with most of the rest by the end of 2007. However, they don't call for a total withdrawal. By their plan, all 46,000 members of the Guard and Reserve will go home next year, but most of the active-duty soldiers and Marines will be "redeployed" to Kuwait or Afghanistan. Even after that, many American troops will remain to train, advise, help secure the borders, and provide logistical and air support to the Iraqi regime.

It may be no coincidence that their study reads like a fleshed-out version of Murtha's proposal. One staffer on the House Armed Services Committee told Korb last month that Murtha had read and liked the study. In a phone conversation today, Korb told me that he personally discussed the study with Murtha two weeks ago and that Murtha seemed to agree with its points—except that he wanted to speed up the redeployment considerably.

Korb also said, however, that Murtha seemed to have headed in this direction quite independently from his own study. On Meet the Press, Murtha made clear his other influences:

I've sat down with the former secretary of the Army, four distinguished officers who served in combat, and we've come up with a plan which we think will work.

Murtha also told Russert, with only slight exaggeration, "There's nobody that talks to people in the Pentagon more than I do."

This is the key point. It is worth noting that most of the leaks about impending troop withdrawals have come from military sources. This is because the military, especially the Army, realizes that the current troop levels cannot be sustained for another year or two without straining the Army's resources to the breaking point—and without quite possibly breaking the Guard and Reserves.

As has been much-noted, Murtha is a conservative Democrat, a respected hawk, a decorated Vietnam War veteran. He well remembers how that war tore apart not just the nation but the Army, and he doesn't want to see that happen again. In addition to the impassioned (and, by all accounts, genuine) comments in his speech about the desperate straits of our wounded soldiers and their families, Murtha also said this:

Some of our troops are on their third deployment. Recruitment is down, even as our military has lowered its standards. Defense budgets are being cut. Personnel costs are skyrocketing. … Choices will have to be made. … Procurement programs that ensure our military dominance cannot be negotiated away. … Much of our ground equipment is worn out. … We must rebuild our Army. Our deficit is growing out of control.

Murtha and the former Army secretary and officers who helped him craft this plan no doubt recall the legendary line by Gen. Maxwell Taylor, the former Army chief of staff—that we went into Vietnam to save the country, and we got out to save the United States Army.

The Army recently announced that it will no longer call up the Individual Ready Reserves for duty in Iraq. The IRRs are retired—in many cases, long-retired—soldiers, who, by contract, are obligated to re-enter the force if called back to arms. This announcement is as clear a sign as any that, whatever George W. Bush and Richard Cheney might say about the likes of Murtha, they too know the troops are coming out. For without the IRRs, the Army will be unable to sustain the present levels for much longer.

It almost doesn't matter whether withdrawing or redeploying the troops is a good idea; it's simply going to happen because there is no way for it not to happen (short of a major act of political will, such as reviving the draft or keeping troops on the battlefield beyond reasonable endurance). This is what Murtha meant when he told Russert, "We're going to be out of there, we're going to be out of there very quickly, and it's going to be close to the plan that I'm presenting right now." (There are political reasons for this near-inevitability, as well. When Murtha predicted we'd be mainly out of Iraq by 2006, Russert asked, "By Election Day 2006?" Murtha responded, "You—you have hit it on the head.")

So, the pertinent question becomes: What is the best way for redeploying? In other words, by what timetable (whether one is explicitly announced or not), after what political and military actions? How many U.S. troops should be left behind, and what should they be doing? Where should the others be redeployed, and under what circumstances will they move back into Iraq? Do we have any realistic strategic goals left in this war (one big problem in this whole fiasco is that the Bush administration never had any from the outset), and how do we accomplish them?

There's a very serious debate to be conducted in this country—not only about the future of our involvement with Iraq, but also about the use of force, the response to threats, the war on terror, the shape of the Middle East. John Murtha's proposal leaves open a lot of questions, but—seen for what it really says, not for how it's been portrayed—it's a start.