Sunday, January 27, 2008

Hang Tight on Troop Numbers in Iraq

Kimberly Kagan warns against too rapid a redeployment of troops out of Iraq, at the Wall Street Journal:

The Iraq debate in 2007 focused on whether the new strategy and troop increase could stem violence in Iraq. It did. The Iraq debate in 2008 will probably focus on how much the United States can reduce force levels in Iraq this year in the wake of its success.

Many in these discussions give troop numbers and brigade counts almost casually, without ever explaining how they derive the figures. That's a problem. Any realistic evaluation suggests that returning to pre-surge levels by July 2008, as some are suggesting, carries considerable risk.

Ethno-sectarian attacks and deaths in Baghdad security districts decreased more than 90% from January to December 2007. Iraqi civilian casualties have dropped 75% from their peak, and the number of IED attacks has fallen to the lowest level since October 2004. One brigade of U.S. troops returned home in December without replacement. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates believes that Gen. David Petraeus will recommend continuing the drawdown to 15 brigades.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, CENTCOM commander Adm. William Fallon, and Gen. Petraeus are now assessing whether to recommend in March a further reduction in troop levels later in 2008. Mr. Gates stated recently that he hopes conditions will permit the U.S. to reduce its combat forces in Iraq by a brigade a month from August to December 2008, leaving a footprint of 10 brigades at the end of the president's term -- the lowest American force level in the country since the 2003 invasion.

In contrast, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, who commands combat forces for Gen. Petraeus, has stated that he is uncomfortable committing to any further reductions below 15 brigades before commanders can assess the effect of the decrease to that force-size. Gen. Petraeus recently said that March 2008 might be too soon to make that determination. War critics have insisted on reductions to 100,000 troops or fewer.
Kagan dicusses the positioning of American brigade combat teams throughout Iraq, and notes how anti-insurgency operations among U.S. forces have given way to training combat-ready units of the Iraqi army. She then notes this:

"Based on all this and the further progress we believe we can achieve over the next few months, I believe that we will be able to reduce our forces to the pre-surge level of brigade combat teams by next summer, withdrawing one quarter of our combat brigades by that time without jeopardizing the security gains that we have fought so hard to achieve." Gen. Odierno confirmed in a November press conference that he had recommended that Gen. Petraeus reduce the force to 15 brigades by July, "because I believe that we will be able to continue to move forward with the progress."

Achieving the complement of 15 brigades by summer rests upon Gen. Odierno's judgment that he can withdraw not only the headquarters from Diyala, but also others from Anbar and parts of Baghdad this spring. His assumption is that security will continue to improve at about the rate our commanders think is feasible between now and July, and that the Iraqi Army will grow as predicted.
Kagan suggests this is a risky assumption. The decision to remove troops should be based on military calculations - and a number of provinces in Iraq are still unstable, she argues - and not domestic political pressures.

Is this all about numbers, then?

We're seeing tremendous security cooperation on the ground in Iraq, the finer points of which are not being reported to the American public with great regularity.

The fifteen brigade indice equals 75,000 troops. The Odierno number is a bit lower than
the 80 to 100,000 Max Boot suggested in his recent, careful analysis of troop withdrawal scenarios.

Anything below this level - even with continued progress on the ground - would jeopardize the progress in transitioning to Iraqi military control, and place the remaining U.S. forces at greater risk.