Sunday, 18 January 2009

Signals and noise on Iraq troop withdrawal plans

No opinion from me here, just links and excerpts on the upcoming troop withdrawals.

Linked to earlier, the Christmas Eve editorial in the New York Times fretting that the coming withdrawal might not be all they hoped:
The new security agreement with Iraq heralds an overdue end to President Bush’s ill-advised war. But while it calls for American combat forces to be out of the cities by June and all forces to withdraw from the country by the end of 2011, there is disquieting talk in Washington of having tens of thousands of troops stay longer and slyly redefining their missions.

Military commanders are drawing up plans for a faster withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in anticipation that President-elect Barack Obama will reject current proposals as too slow, Pentagon and military officials said Wednesday.

The new plans would provide alternatives to a timetable drawn up by the top American commanders for Iraq to bring troops home more slowly than Mr. Obama promised during his presidential campaign. Those plans were described to Mr. Obama last month.

The officials said that Mr. Obama had not requested the new plans, but that they were being prepared in response to public statements from the president-elect and on the basis of conversations between military officials and members of Mr. Obama’s transition team.
Curiously the IHT online archive has the same version of the story as the NY Times site, but the version in the January 15th print edition, not availabe online, was very different. The headline was “Timetable for Iraq too slow for Obama”, with the subhead “He tells U.S. generals to speed up pace for withdrawal of troops”.

Also on January 15th,  reporting the story differently than either version from the NY Times /IHT, the American Forces Press Service wrote Planners Prepare Options on Iraq, Afghanistan for Obama:
Military planners are hard at work preparing options for drawing down troops in Iraq and moving forward in Afghanistan to present to President-elect Barack Obama after he takes office, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said today.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ discussions with Obama have been “broad in nature” to this point, and the president-elect won’t receive specific options until he is commander in chief, Morrell told reporters. But planners will ensure they’re prepared to give him “the full range of options as soon as he is ready,” he said.

“We will be ready to go when he is ready to go,” he added.

Among the options being explored are ways to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months.

“Our military planners do not live in a vacuum,” Morrell said. “They are well aware that the president-elect has campaigned on withdrawing troops from Iraq on a 16-month timeline. … So it would only be prudent of them to draw up plans that reflect that option. But that is just one of the options that they are drawing up.”

Gates hopes to replicate with Obama the process that he used with President George W. Bush, who received insights directly from top military leaders as well as the secretary, Morrell said.

Earlier last week, on January 13th, an AP story on Vice President-elect Biden visiting Iraq, headlined Iraq official: Biden affirms ‘responsible’ pullout:
Vice President-elect Joe Biden told Iraqi leaders Tuesday that the incoming U.S. administration is committed to a responsible troop withdrawal that does not endanger improvements in security, an Iraqi spokesman said.

Biden delivered the message in talks with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on the second day of his visit to Iraq, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told The Associated Press.

President-elect Barack Obama pledged during his election campaign to withdraw all American combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office and shift the focus to Afghanistan to combat a resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militants.

Since the November election, however, the U.S. and Iraq have signed a new security agreement that provides for all the more than 140,000 U.S. troops to leave by 2012, despite concerns among senior U.S. commanders that Iraqi forces might not be ready by then to ensure stability.

Biden, a Democrat from Delaware who has been a frequent visitor to Iraq as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the agreement sets out a new strategy between Iraq and America, according to al-Dabbagh.

“He said that Obama is committed to withdraw but he wants the withdrawal to be a responsible one. Obama does not want to waste the security gains that have been achieved,” al-Dabbagh said.

The president-elect had said he wanted most U.S. combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months of his inauguration. But late last year, the Bush administration signed an agreement with Iraq that takes a different approach, requiring the removal of U.S. combat troops from Iraqi cities by June, and the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the entire country by the end of 2011.

It is not clear exactly what orders Obama will give, but he has said he will listen to the concerns of top military officers before making any final decisions.

One of the main concerns he will hear relates to Afghanistan, where the U.S. commander has asked for 14,000 more combat troops and several thousand more support troops. The new president's appointee for Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Michele Flournoy, was asked about that at her Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday. “I actually think the intent of both President-elect Obama and (Defense) Secretary (Robert) Gates is to move as quickly as possible. I have not yet been briefed on the details in terms of what would be required to do that. But I do believe that in principle we should be moving as quickly as possible,” she said.

But Pentagon officials say moving quickly to add troops in Afghanistan means reducing troop numbers in Iraq. General David Petraeus, the former U.S. commander in Iraq who now has responsibility for the entire Middle East and Central Asia region, says he, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and the new U.S. Iraq commander, General Ray Odierno, believe the United States needs to be careful about removing troops from Iraq too quickly. “The ambassador and General Odierno and I have reminded everyone, it is our view that the progress does remain fragile. It does remain reversible,” he said.

Via the Small Wars Journal, the outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Iraq quoted in the Washington Post:
The key to success in Iraq, insists Crocker, was the psychological impact of Bush’s decision to add troops. “In the teeth of ferociously negative popular opinion, in the face of a lot of well-reasoned advice to the contrary, he said he was going forward, not backward.”

Bush’s decision rocked America's adversaries, says Crocker: “The lesson they had learned from Lebanon was, ‘Stick it to the Americans, make them feel the pain, and they won't have the stomach to stick it out.’ That assumption was challenged by the surge.”

Soon, Iraq will be Barack Obama’s problem. And I ask Crocker what mistakes the new administration could make. He answers that he thinks it will avoid these errors, but he lists them anyway: “Concluding that this was the Bush administration’s war, that it’s stable enough now, that we don’t want to inherit it, so we’re going to back away.”

Most of all, says Crocker, policymakers need to understand that this is a long game. A lasting change in Iraq isn’t an on-off switch: “Not this year, not in five years, maybe not in 10 years.” 

Two additional articles which I’ve yet to finish:

Via Abu Muqawama, John Nagl and Brian Burton in the World Policy Journal, Striking the Balance, The Way Forward in Iraq.

Colonel Robert Killebrew in the SWJ, Transition in Iraq, Withdrawing the BCTs.

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