Concerns in Iraq that recent security gains are fragile and could backslide mean that President Bush is likely to hand over to his successor a war being fought by as many as 140,000 US troops – about the same number as before the "surge" of some 35,000 troops announced in January 2007.
The White House says Mr. Bush will not make any decisions on troop levels in Iraq until after Gen. David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Iraq, testify before Congress April 8 and 9. But with General Petraeus already recommending against further drawdowns beyond those set to take place by July, and with Vice President Dick Cheney suggesting that further reductions are unlikely to be put in place now, it seems doubtful that Bush would go in any other direction.
The review of troop levels comes just as violence in Iraq is flaring in ways that could place new question marks over US military plans. Intense fighting involving feuding Shiite militias as well as Iraqi forces in the southern city of Basra is challenging the Iraqi security forces' ability to take over combat and public-order duties more fully from their American mentors. Further complicating the decisionmaking on troop levels are growing indications that a cease-fire declared last summer by powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for his Mahdi Army is unraveling.
The Bush administration is thus being pulled by competing goals and constraints. It does not want to jeopardize the gains that have been made – from signs of improving local governance to defeats inflicted upon Al Qaeda in Iraq. But at the same time, it must take into account the limits placed on it by an overstretched US military.
Yet another factor: Bush, looking to his own legacy and to the November election, wants to prove that the surge has worked.
"We're seeing clear signs of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the insurgents taking advantage of the reductions already made," says Wayne White, a former State Department policy-planning specialist for Iraq. "This talk of a pause [in a phased reduction of troops in Iraq] indicates Petraeus and others are thinking a further drawdown will create more problems for them."
Some architects of the surge are wary of even a drawdown to presurge levels. And anything beyond it, they warn, could set the United States and Iraq back to the dire straits of 2006.
Indeed, the withdrawal of the remaining surge brigades entails "considerable risk" and "will make the task of moving forward a bit harder and a little bit longer," says Frederick Kagan, a military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington who advised the Bush administration on last year's revised Iraq strategy.
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."
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."