Tom Ricks is the champion of insider information. He almost always knows what's happening in the U.S. defense establishment as it's brewing. If he reports it, it's probably true. Tom reported yesterday that Gen. Raymond Odierno has asked the Obama administration to breach its force levels planned for Iraq. The Obama administration's mantra for leaving Iraq has been "responsible drawdown." If Tom's right, we're about to see that concept tested.
When the president announced his exit strategy from Iraq, he was careful to describe the force remaining after 100,000 "combat troops" were withdrawn by Aug. 31, 2010. These "support troops" could number 35,000 to 50,000, depending on "tactical adjustments." It is just such an adjustment General Odierno seems to be proposing. Six brigades of troops were slated to remain in Iraq after the Aug. 31st deadline. Odierno evidently requested that one more brigade currently in Iraq continue through the conclusion of its 12 month tour, rather than be curtailed by the president's self-imposed deadline.
The U.S. Embassy and Multinational Force Iraq (it reorganized into U.S. Forces Iraq in January) have long insisted their joint campaign plan for the drawdown was "conditions-based." That always seemed a dubious supposition, given the political value to the president of being able to send anti-war Democrats into the 2010 midterm elections armed with some milestone about ending the war in Iraq as an achievement.
The White House itself has further muddied the issue, often speaking of the withdrawal of combat troops rather than the end of combat operations. The distinction between combat and support troops is a specious one -- isn't any soldier or Marine a combat troop? Don't their rules of engagement permit them to defend themselves and others using lethal force? But the president wasn't making a substantive point, he was -- and is -- making a politically salient point for a crucial constituency.
The question this raises for me is why it has taken so long for a change to the timeline for withdrawing troops? The withdrawal is set to occur between the March 7 elections and Aug. 31; that's a very steep slope for the line. Meeting it would mean having U.S. Forces Iraq focused very much on its own ebbing out of country rather than stabilizing the likely extended period of government formation after elections and reassuring Iraqis as the new government begins its work.
It's surprising that the events of the past six months haven't already precipitated significant changes to the timeline. After all, we've seen vetoing of the election law, exclusion of nearly 500 candidates in what looks to be politically-motivated machination by the pro-Iranian former exile Ahmed Chalabi, the heartening display of judicial independence as Iraq's court forced reconsideration of the election commission's bans, prime ministerial intervention in support of the election commission (which coincidentally helps his re-election prospects), leading Sunni politicians threatening a boycott of the elections - raising the spectre of a return to sectarian warfare of the kind and magnitude engendered by Sunni boycotting the last elections. One doesn't have to adopt General Petraeus' too-cutely termed description "Iraqracy" to think some of those events might have affected the timeline.
It could be that the situation would be much more uncertain and brittle if the U.S. government were not managing the day to day policy of Iraq well; but I doubt it. The political section of the U.S. Embassy in Iraq is our largest anywhere, yet they somehow missed Ahmad Chalabi maneuvering the elections commission to an outcome invidious to Iraq's stability and U.S. interests. The administration is focused on Afghanistan and the inattention to Iraq is showing. Let's hope Odierno's request surprises the administration into paying closer attention at this crucial juncture and giving the commander of U.S. Forces Iraq the resources he needs to manage well the endgame of the Iraq war.
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