Inside The Pentagon
by Elaine M. Grossman
September 29, 2005
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Iraq Drawdown Plan Offers Wide-Ranging Options, Including Big Cuts
A wide-ranging U.S. military plan for reducing forces in Iraq includes a best-case option to cut the “steady state” of approximately 140,000 troops in half by spring 2006, according to officials who have seen the blueprint approved by Gen. George Casey, the top Army officer in Iraq.
The classified document also includes the possibility of an uptick in military personnel as a worst case, defense sources say.
But should insurgent violence and political instability continue over the coming months, the most likely outcome will be an initial streamlining that yields just a few thousand troops— mainly administrative staff—brought home from the Persian Gulf next year, officials tell Inside the Pentagon.
Casey remarked in July that a “substantial” force withdrawal could begin as early as next spring, pending continued progress in the political and security environment. Yet it is increasingly unclear if the situation on the ground will warrant significant reductions, according to a growing number of U.S. officials.
“In reality, it’s as unstable [now] as it has been in the past year,” says Michael Janke, chairman of the board of a contracting firm that provides security services to the U.S. military in Iraq.
Discussion of force withdrawal options continues unabated amid growing public unease about future military operations in Iraq, particularly in the wake of two hurricanes that have devastated vast swaths of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region.
Alternative courses of action laid out in Casey’s drawdown plan range from a “notable increase in the size of force to a significant drawdown, and everything in between,” says one defense official who was recently in Iraq, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“What he’s thrown out there is to cover all bases,” says Janke, one of several officials interviewed who have reviewed the plan.
Asked to describe Casey’s drawdown plan, a spokesman at the general’s Baghdad headquarters said this week, “There is no set timetable for reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq.”
Any force withdrawal will rely “on a conditions-based strategy,” drawing on the recommendations of a multinational advisory panel convened in August by Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, according to Marine Corps Maj. Tim Keefe, a spokesman for Casey.
Conditions for reductions include the state of the insurgency, the capability of Iraqi security forces, and the Iraqi government’s ability to support military operations, Keefe wrote Sept. 28 in an e-mail response to questions.
A temporary increase of about 10,000 forces has recently pushed U.S. troop levels to 149,000 in Iraq, says Maj. Todd Vician, a Pentagon spokesman. Two additional battalions were rotated into Iraq to bolster security for the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum, according to Vician. Additional forces may remain in-country longer if instability rises, but higher force levels would be difficult for the U.S. military to sustain over the long haul, defense officials say.
Beginning early next year, “better utilization of combat troops” may set the stage for a reduction of 2,000 to 5,000 U.S. forces in Iraq, with the military handing off to contractors more functions like airport security and base support, says Janke.
Casey’s drawdown plan allows for myriad alternatives, though, according to other sources. The secret document lays out a series of “decision points” at which the commander can “tune” up or down the rotation of American military units into Iraq, depending on the security situation at the time, says one defense official.
The blueprint is “complex but not inordinately intricate,” according to this source, who compared the plan to a set of spigots Casey can adjust to control the flow of units in and out of the wartorn nation. “This is American staff planning at its very best.”
Under the rosiest scenario, Casey can “turn the valve” on high to implement a huge drawdown “if peace breaks out,” this defense official says.
“It’s just prudent to have a broad range of plans that would enable you to increase forces if you need them and reduce them if you don’t,” Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said this week.
Though the possibility may be remote, the document shows a best-case scenario in which some 70,000 forces might be brought home, according to some officials.
However, “peace isn’t going to break out,” says Janke, reflecting a view held widely in the military. A more likely vision of the drawdown is a gradual series of reductions, he says.
If U.S. forces were to depart Iraq too early, there would be “instant instability” in the Middle East, potentially spreading to Saudi Arabia or Iran, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers said at an Aug. 26 press conference.
The costs of a “premature disengagement would likely be calamitous,” Krepinevich writes in the September/October edition of the journal Foreign Affairs. “The insurgency could morph into a bloody civil war, with the significant involvement of both Syria and Iran. Radical Islamists would see the U.S. departure as a victory, and the ensuing chaos would drive up oil prices.”
An alternative is phasing troop reductions over the long term—an option that may prove less politically popular in the short term for President Bush but could reduce the risk of regional catastrophe, some defense analysts are saying.
Army recruiting and retention problems, combined with limitations in the length of time National Guard soldiers can be activated for combat, will likely force Bush to bring at least some of the troops home, Krepinevich says.
“I don’t see how they can sustain the current force there through 2006,” he told ITP this week. “So I think they’re making a virtue out of necessity.”
In addition, “it’s reasonable to hedge against the American public’s concern that by 2006 it’ll be three years since the end of the war,” Krepinevich said. “At what point do Iraqis begin to take over [security functions] for us?”
“The Iraqi army is beginning to shore up its foundation,” Janke says. As that occurs, a U.S. force drawdown “is inevitable” and becomes just a question of “when,” he says.
But some in the military worry about the viability and effectiveness of whatever size U.S. force remains in Iraq for the long term. American troops deployed to Iraq—safeguarding a fragile governing coalition and assisting the nascent Iraqi security troops in battling violent militants—may themselves become increasingly vulnerable, military sources say. Some estimates are that the Pentagon will retain at least 20,000 forces in Iraq for perhaps a decade or more.
Today (Sept. 29) Casey is slated to join Myers, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and U.S. Central Command chief Army Gen. John Abizaid in testimony on the U.S. military strategy and operations in Iraq before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
—Elaine M. Grossman