Security in Iraq has improved dramatically in the past four months, including much lower casualty rates among American service members. But there is little consensus yet if a safer Iraq can translate to an Iraq with fewer US troops.
The conversation about Iraq has changed from a year ago, just before President Bush announced a "surge" of what would become 30,000 additional troops. At the time, many experts doubted Mr. Bush's new policy, but some of that skepticism has faded, at least for now, as tangible benefits have emerged.
Chief among them is a significant drop in the number of Americans killed in Iraq each month.
During December, 21 US service members died in Iraq, and of those, at least 13 were considered killed-in-action (KIA), as of Dec. 31. That is far below the rates earlier this year, when a total of 126 were killed in May, just as the surge was starting. Even in October, when US officials were comparing how much less violence there was compared with the summer high, the amount of KIAs was double what they were in December. Although 2007 saw the highest total of US casualties for any year of the war, the precipitous drop has stunned many analysts and even military commanders who weren't sure the surge would have much effect.
Overall, violence in Iraq is down dramatically from earlier this year, according to Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq. The number of attacks per week is down about 60 percent from a high in June – a level that is roughly equivalent to that of the summer of 2005. Iraqi civilian deaths are also down in December by 75 percent from the high a year ago, he wrote in an open letter to troops last week.
"With fewer attacks, we are also seeing significantly reduced loss of life," he wrote.
But General Petraeus, who wrote the "how to" manual on counterinsurgency for the US Army, has long said that counterinsurgencies can take a decade or more to fight. At the same time, better security in Iraq brings an expectation by many Americans that more US troops can return home. Petraeus has already signaled his desire to send home as many as five brigades, or about 18,000 troops, by next summer. But many expect he will resist efforts, perhaps led by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, to bring twice that number of troops home by the end of 2008. Instead, Petraeus would like to use the improved security to focus efforts on helping the Iraqi government to rebuild and strengthening Iraqi security forces.
"We remain mindful that the past year's progress has been purchased through the sacrifice and selfless service of all those involved and that the new Iraq must still contend with innumerable enemies and obstacles," Petraeus wrote in the letter.
Analysts worry that improved Iraqi security will cause the American public to think it's time to bring the bulk of forces home. Mr. Gates has already suggested that, if conditions on the ground dictate it, he would like to see an additional five brigades returned home by the end of 2008.
But bringing home five combat brigades from Iraq could spread US forces too thin by next fall, says Frederick Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. Mr. Kagan is not even sure reducing any amount of the surge forces to alleviate strain is a good idea just yet.
"We all recognize the strain on soldiers and we're willing to accept some risk to do that, but when you get to 15 [brigades] and below, you get close to the red line where risk becomes gamble," says Kagan, who co-wrote a report on Iraq last year from which the Bush administration drew heavily before announcing its surge strategy.
Even as the surge strategy can be credited, in part, with better security on the ground, Iraq's central government in Baghdad must overcome key political hurdles before it can govern effectively, say analysts.
"Iraq's political environment and its economy are only marginally better than a year ago," wrote two analysts, Michael O'Hanlon and Jason Campbell, at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
The overall effectiveness of Iraqi security forces must also be weighed before US forces can be reduced in any great numbers. While Iraqi forces are growing, they still confront major challenges refining their logistical capabilities. That's all the more reason US troop withdrawals should be handled carefully, agreed O'Hanlon and Campbell.
"Given Iraq's fragile sectarian relations and weak institutions, the likelihood is that further American troop reductions will have to be slow and careful if the progress is to continue," they wrote.