Pause likely in U.S. drawdown in Iraq
Troop levels could settle at 'presurge' levels of 140,000.
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Still, Mr. Kagan says, reducing troop levels to the 15 brigades, or roughly 140,000 troops, in Iraq before the surge would not be "mission-jeopardizing." But he notes the political pressure in the US for maintaining a steady drawdown of troops and adds that it's "very hard to imagine how we could go below 15 brigades this year without seriously jeopardizing the mission in Iraq."Skip to next paragraph
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Kagan lists two accomplishments he says the surge was able to achieve: The civil war that was brewing in Iraq in 2006 was "nipped in the bud," and Al Qaeda in Iraq was handed a clear-cut defeat. Both were achieved by higher numbers of US troops undertaking operations that reduced destabilizing violence.
But renewed fighting in the Shiite south, a worrisome uptick in violence in Baghdad in recent weeks, and indications that Al Qaeda in Iraq is establishing a redoubt in the northern city of Mosul raise doubts about the preparedness of Iraq's military and police to take over more duties from the Americans.
Recent bombings in Baghdad neighborhoods that had been peaceful for several months suggest that Al Qaeda in Iraq and insurgent groups are once again finding ways to operate in the capital, says Mr. White, now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. He calls them "diversionary attacks" designed to stall an expected joint US-Iraqi offensive in the north to clean out Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters who have withdrawn from areas, like Anbar Province, where Sunni Arabs have switched sides and are now working with the Americans.
That change of heart by Sunni Arabs in Anbar and other areas is cited as a major reason the sectarian violence of presurge Iraq has abated. It's hailed as a major victory for the US – but not yet for the Iraqi government and security forces. Too few Sunni Arabs from these areas are being absorbed into the Iraqi Security Forces, experts say. "Political reconciliation is not keeping pace" with security gains, White says.
Indeed, this week's uptick in intra-Shiite violence and Mr. Sadr's enigmatic call to his sizable following for a "national disobedience campaign" suggest the political settlement that the surge was designed to facilitate is a ways off.
Still, given the political realities in the US and the constraints of an overstretched military, the US will have to devise a plan to build on the progress of the past year without the extra troops that made it possible, some experts say. One scenario is that Bush would pencil in, conditions on the ground permitting, a further reduction of perhaps a brigade after a pause of several months – timed, in other words, to the US elections.
What's needed now, says Michael O'Hanlon, a specialist in US military policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, is a strategy that allows a drawdown while maintaining the logic of the surge – protection of the Iraqi population, undertaken by American and Iraqi forces working together in joint operations. "We have to find a way to make that possible even with fewer American combat troops in Iraq," he says.
But still-fragile conditions are likely to mean that the horizon for this strategy stretches at least until the end of 2009, Mr. O'Hanlon says – not this summer or even the end of this year.
Speaking at an AEI event assessing the surge ahead of next month's Iraq review by Congress, O'Hanlon said that US policy planners on Iraq should work with a timeline that extends to the next Iraqi national elections, set for the end of 2009, and the subsequent creation of what will be Iraq's second postinvasion government.
That might mean a reduction of as many as 50,000 combat troops over the course of the next presidential term – and perhaps no reduction below the presurge level until those Iraqi national elections took place.
If the US continues "with the logic of the current policy," he says, "it's going to take the entire first term of the next US president to get it done."