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.
"Recent U.S. government estimates state that the Iraqi security forces will not be capable of taking on this mission for at least 18 to 24 months," said Nora Bensahel, a security analyst at Rand Corp., "and I think there are reasons to be skeptical about this forecast, since that's the same time frame that U.S. government estimates included in both 2005 and 2006."
The second unknown is whether the U.S. standoff with Iran escalates, or other regional problems emerge that knock the U.S. effort in Iraq off track. "Wild cards that could alter the present trajectory include escalating tensions with Iran and/or Syria, as well as the physical or political meltdown of the Iraqi government in Baghdad," said Patrick Cronin, director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank in London.
Finally, the third factor is the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November 2008, with the vote likely to be shaped in part by how the United States stands in Iraq.
After years of worrying about "mission creep" -- that is, the expansion of its tasks -- the U.S. military will have to adjust to a shrinking mission. The ambitious goals that the Bush administration set forth in 2003 of turning Iraq into a beacon of democracy for the Middle East have been set aside, replaced by the more limited aim of a stable Iraq that does not fall apart, does not engage in a full-blown civil war and does not spill over into a regional strife.
As the force is cut, said Kilcullen, the U.S. mission will have to change to training, advising, supplying and backing up Iraq forces. The hardest part of this transition for U.S. officials will be giving up control of operations, he predicted: Once the United States sets broad parameters, it will have to defer to Iraqi officials on issues such as timetables and nature of the operations to be carried out.
But if the mission is narrowed too much or too fast, then the U.S. position in Iraq could deteriorate rapidly, some military experts argue. In this view, the U.S. military only recently has begun to get the strategy right, by moving troops off big bases and into the population.
If the United States "reduces troop strength" and "withdraws from living with the population," worried retired Army Col. Howard Clark, a veteran policy planner, it would be quite possible to have a full-blown civil war emerge, with Sunnis fighting Shiites and the Kurds combating Turkish forces in the north. This could be followed by Iranian intervention on behalf of the Shiites and Saudi intervention to support the Sunnis. Some possible consequences, he noted, would be spiraling oil prices, destabilization of Pakistan and further problems in Afghanistan.
Even if it goes well, Americans may not be happy with the result, officers who have served in Iraq warned. If the empowerment of local tribes and militias continues, the country may break up. And if it does not, said one Army lieutenant colonel who has served two tours in Iraq, "the most likely outcome is a Shia tyranny of the majority, either with our assistance or despite our opposition."
Ultimately, however, it appears now that no matter who inhabits the White House, the United States may be resolved -- or resigned -- to an enduring presence in Iraq. "America has taken a deep breath," Kilcullen said, "looked into the abyss of pulling out, and decided, 'Let's not do it yet.' "