The Obama Administration may unwisely decide to ignore the advice of its own military advisers and cut the number of U.S. troops in Iraq down to 3,000 by the end of the year, according to press reports.
Iraqi and U.S. officials are currently negotiating behind the scenes about how many of the roughly 45,000 U.S. troops remaining in Iraq will be allowed to stay past the December 31 deadline set by the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement. Senior commanders were reportedly “livid” at the increased risks that will be imposed by the arbitrarily limits set on troop strength: “We can’t secure everybody with only 3,000 on the ground, nor can we what we do what we need to with the Iraqis,” one official said.
Although the Obama Administration denies that it has made a final decision on troop strength, The New York Times reported yesterday that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta supported paring the number of troops from the 14,000 to 18,000 proposed by General Lloyd Austin, the top American commander in Iraq, to a bare-bones force of 3,000 to 4,000 troops. An anonymous senior military officer lambasted the Administration’s decision-making process, which he contended was being driven by numbers rather than by the missions assigned to the troops: “I think we are doing this backwards.”
There is growing tension between military leaders, who are concerned that Iraqi forces are not ready to stand on their own, and political appointees, who are more concerned about fulfilling Obama’s pledge to “end the war” as soon as possible. In rebuffing the plans of military planners, the Administration risks squandering the hard-won security gains in Iraq, allowing Iraq to spiral downward into renewed civil war, and worsening the security risks faced by the skeletal residual force. One military officer stressed the continuing terrorist threat: “Whatever mission is given to us, we want to make sure that we have enough for force protection; that’s the concern.”
Al-Qaeda in Iraq remains a lethal force that launched a series of bloody attacks in recent weeks. Although it has been whittled down by extensive U.S. counter-terrorist operations, it is a resilient force that could launch terrorist attacks outside of Iraq if it is allowed to recover its strength and given room to operate. Iraqi security forces are clearly not yet capable of defeating it on their own.
Iraqi military leaders have recognized the need for a more robust U.S. military presence, although many Iraqi political leaders are reluctant to publicly admit that they still need extensive U.S. support. This week, Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, accused other Iraqi political leaders of hypocrisy and warned: “If U.S. forces withdraw, internal war might take place, and foreign intervention will increase, as will sectarian problems.”
Military experts also widely recognize the need for a continued U.S. presence. Military historian Max Boot has criticized the scaled-down plans: “If we have only 3,000 to 4,000, it’s not clear they can do much of anything beyond defend themselves—and perhaps not even that. Certainly it will be impossible to carry out two of the most important missions now performed by U.S. forces: counter-terrorism (primarily Special Operations raids) and peacekeeping along the Green Line separating the Kurdish region from Iraq proper.”
Congressional leaders have also warned the White House against neglecting to adequately support the mission in Iraq. Three of the Senate’s most knowledgeable leaders on Iraq issues—John McCain (R–AZ), Joe Lieberman (I–CT), and Lindsey Graham (R–SC)—released a joint statement strongly criticizing the administration’s plans:
We are deeply troubled by media reports that the Obama Administration has sharply reduced the number of U.S. troops it is proposing for the post-2011 security force in Iraq to approximately 3,000. This is dramatically lower than what our military leaders have consistently told us over the course of repeated visits to Iraq that they require, and that is needed to support Iraq in safeguarding the hard-won gains that our two nations have achieved at such great cost.
The Obama Administration should rethink its plans for Iraq and follow the advice of its military commanders, who have a deep knowledge of the situation on the ground. If the White House undermines their mission by shortchanging their requests for adequate troop levels, it could jeopardize the prospects for a stable Iraq and a more secure America for years to come.