For a Democrat, Options in Iraq Could Be Few

By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 29, 2007

In their debate Wednesday night in Hanover, N.H., none of the three top Democratic presidential candidates would promise to have the U.S. military out of Iraq by January 2013 -- more than five years from now.

"I think it would be irresponsible" to state that, said Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).

"I cannot make that commitment," added former senator John Edwards of North Carolina.

And Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) put it simply when she outlined the dilemma that Democratic presidential aspirants face on Iraq. "It is very difficult to know what we're going to be inheriting," the party's front-runner said.

After President Bush's announcement this month of a limited troop drawdown and a continuation of the "surge" strategy through next summer, the key question for centrist Democrats in the presidential race is no longer whether U.S. forces will remain in Iraq but what size, mission and length a post-buildup, post-Bush force would take on. Even if the Democratic hopefuls decline to offer specifics, some of the people mentioned as possible defense secretaries under a Democratic White House offer a vision of a U.S. presence in Iraq that does not differ markedly from that of the Bush administration.

"There's a fairly narrow band of choice here, a relatively limited set of options," said David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency expert who has advised Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. "I think a Democratic or Republican administration will be doing fairly similar things."

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said recently that he hopes to bring the U.S. presence in Iraq down to about 100,000 troops by the end of 2008, eventually falling to a long-term presence of roughly 40,000 to 60,000 troops, whose job would be mainly to back up Iraqi forces.

John J. Hamre, a Clinton-era Pentagon official mentioned as a possible successor to Gates in a Democratic administration, said in an e-mail that when a new president takes over in January 2009, the U.S. mission will include "force protection, overwatch (of Iraqi security operations), continued training/mentoring of Iraqi security forces and direct action operations against known bad guys." There is likely to be some patrolling by U.S. forces in Baghdad," Hamre noted, "but it should be considerably reduced."

At that point, said Richard Danzig, a former Navy secretary also on the Democratic short list for defense secretary, the next president should talk to Iraqi officials about setting a target date for leaving Iraq but make it clear that the date is negotiable, depending on the political progress Iraqis make. Bush has fiercely resisted setting such a timetable. Danzig, an adviser on defense issues for Obama, emphasized that he was speaking for himself.

A third possibility for defense secretary, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a former officer in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, said he agrees with the Democratic candidates that "the reality is that there is a likelihood of an American presence" in Iraq in 2013 but added that he hopes it would be a small, noncombat force. As for the mission under a new administration, Reed said the U.S. military will not have enough troops in Iraq to continue the current effort to protect the population and will have to focus on training, counterterrorism and perhaps border security missions.

Whoever the next president is, said retired Army Col. Robert Killebrew, "the war in Iraq will go on at least for two or three years into the new president's first term."

The first clue to determining how many U.S. troops will be in Iraq in 2009 -- and what they will be doing -- will come in the spring. As the buildup ends and U.S. forces begin to draw down, the United States will assess whether Iraqi forces are able to take over providing security. The U.S. strategy of "clear, hold and build" depends on Iraqi troops and police ultimately being able to "hold." But there has been little evidence so far of their ability to do so in areas that are being contested, analysts note, especially in and around Baghdad.

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