Friday, July 13, 2007

Withdrawing from Iraq: who goes and who stays

This week, both the House and the Senate debated and voted on legislation affecting the deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq. In the Senate, the issue was the length of time soldiers and Marines would have at home between deployments to the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. In the House, Representative Ike Skelton (D-MO) introduced a bill requiring the Secretary of Defense to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq within 120 days of the legislation becoming law and complete the drawdown to a “limited presence” by April 1, 2008.

While each of these pieces of legislation directs a substantive change to current tactics and missions of U.S. forces, neither provides an answer to three vital questions:

- Will combat units configured as “quick reaction” forces be positioned in Iraq or be in locations on the periphery or afloat in the Persian Gulf?

- If combat units are kept in Iraq, how many troops will remain and how many “combat support” and training cadre remain in Iraq?

- Where will combat, combat support, and training detachments be located if they are based in Iraq?

In answering these queries, it would be helpful to know how many U.S. military and civilian personnel are in Iraq. With the 29,600 extra troops (21,500 combat and another 8,100 combat support) that constitute the six month-old surge, U.S. military strength in Iraq stands at approximately 160,000 and is expected to stay at that level at least until October 1, 2007, the start of the new fiscal year, or as long as next spring.

Given that the number of troops comprising the “surge” was so widely reported, the administration will be under heavy pressure from its congressional allies to “reduce” the total U.S. military presence in Iraq by at least this number in the initial trache – back to its “pre-surge total of 130,000 – or risk a political and electoral firestorm.

The target date to announce the first reductions is expected to be between September 15- October 1, 2007 – that is, between the date the administration is to send to Congress a promised progress report by General David Petraeus (along with the General to defend his conclusions) and the start of the new fiscal year. Judging from the report released July 12 and defended by President Bush during an hour long press conference, the mid-September report will be carefully parsed by everyone: Democrats, Republicans, the press, and hopefully the public.

Whatever the number and the “schedule” that are eventually announced for pulling troops out of Iraq, the probability is that there will not be a “date certain” that would see all combat troops – let alone all military personnel other than the normal Marine Corps contingent stationed at U.S. embassies – withdrawn from Iraq. Why? Because the Pentagon will continue to try to pursue conflicting if not contradictory mission(s), only with fewer forces left “in-country.”

In general terms, the missions for the residual force will be scaled versions of missions assigned at one time or another plus one new one:

training Iraqi army and police units;

providing “force protection” capabilities for U.S. training personnel and installations;

helping seal Iraq’s borders to prevent arms and anti-U.S. and anti-Iraqi government fighters from entering Iraq;

carrying the fight to al-Qaeda-in Iraq; and a new one of

constituting a “quick reaction” capability for Iraqi government forces as needed.

What is unclear with all the caveats and exceptions and restrictions (all of which the president can waive if he decides to certify that following the parameters of the legislation would be detrimental to national security) is just how reducing troop levels by 30,000 or 50,000 or 80,000 will make any substantive difference in conditions in Iraq – the administration’s proclaimed objective for continuing the occupation of the country. Even with the current troop surge, violence overall has not decreased, only shifted away from Baghdad and al-Anbar province to other parts of Iraq.

Yes, fewer U.S. troops on urban patrols will reduce Iraqi and U.S. fatalities. Removing U.S. troops from vehicular roadblocks and checkpoints will save Iraqi lives (military sources concede 429 Iraqis were killed or wounded by U.S. troops manning checkpoints or running convoy duty in the last 12 months). But these steps will not decrease the level of inter- and even intra-sectarian and ethnic violence that now ravages Iraq.

Another very major consideration is the “other” not-so-secret U.S. army in Iraq: the private contractors working for and being paid by U.S. firms. Even with the surge in military troop strength to 160,000, the private contractors – U.S., Iraqi, and other foreigners – exceed at least by 20,000 those in uniform, according to statistics from the Departments of State (including the U.S. Agency for International Development) and Defense. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, a breakdown of the total shows that, as of February 2007, 21,000 U.S. citizens, 43,000 foreign personnel, and 118,000 Iraqis were employed by companies under U.S. government contracts and thereby financed by U.S. taxpayer dollars. A reduction in military personnel should produce reductions in the total number of contractors needed to feed soldiers and clean and repair bases, but just how many and from which category will not be determined until the Pentagon decides on redeployment.

The contractor picture is further complicated by the presence of a large number of individuals employed by private security firms under contract to the U.S. What this total is seems to depend on who is answering the question. The Pentagon estimate is 6,000 while Central Command’s database lists 10,800. Both totals are well below the private security company association’s figure of 30,000 in Iraq.

Any drawdown of U.S. troop strength probably not affect private security contractors, many of whom protect Iraqis or U.S. executives living in or visiting Iraq in connection with rebuilding its infrastructure and institutions.


Blogger rasphila said...

Interesting analysis. I hadn't been aware how large the private security forces in Iraq were, and this clearly complicates both the security problem and the political problem. In any case, the security problem can't be solved in the long run without a political solution.

I'm concerned about the sheer amount of U.S. equipment that will have to be removed from Iraq as we withdraw. If we don't have a good plan to remove it, the danger is that we may not be able to—at least not in an orderly way—and whatever we can't remove will complicate Iraqi politics, which are already complicated and lethal enough. It's not a comforting thought.

I assume somebody in the Pentagon is making contingency plans on this problem. But with this Administration, it's hard to be confident that the plans will be adequate. Again, not a comforting thought.

7:16 AM  
Anonymous kindlingman said...

I don't think legislation should provide answers to the three questions you pose. Those are not issues for congressmen to decide.

In regards to force reduction: the solution remains the same espoused by Juan Cole more than two years ago and taken up by others since. Namely, remove the US presence province by province and let the Iraqi forces take over province by province.Move the replaced US forces into the next province for training and civilian protection.
When only Baghdad is remaining, cordon off the city into sections.
An orderly process appears to be outside of our capabilities.
It may be that we have been following this process but, if true, no one knows it.

7:14 PM  

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