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War Planning
Iraq will test whether the pragmatic will trump the political in President Obama's administration.

Friday, January 23, 2009

THE WELCOME tone of pragmatism that President Obama conveyed during his transition and in his inaugural address seemed to carry over, during his first day in office, to one of the issues for which he will most need it: Iraq. Fulfilling an oft-stated campaign promise, the new president met with his defense secretary and senior military commanders and, according to a statement he issued, asked for "additional planning necessary to execute a responsible military drawdown from Iraq."

Accounts of the meeting suggested that Mr. Obama spent much of the time listening to reports from those who know Iraq best -- Gens. David H. Petraeus and Ray Odierno and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker. In addition, the president's statement did not cite the 16-month withdrawal timetable that became one of the signal slogans of his campaign -- though his spokesman mentioned it. We hope that's evidence that Mr. Obama will not repeat one of President Bush's greatest mistakes -- allowing ideological and political considerations to trump good military judgment.

There is broad agreement in Washington and Baghdad that U.S. troops should gradually be withdrawn, consistent with the goal of preserving Iraq's fragile and relative peace. Late last year, the outgoing administration concluded a formal agreement with the Iraqi government, laying out a plan for redeploying and withdrawing U.S. troops over the next three years. Both Iraqi leaders and U.S. commanders have made clear that they do not believe a pullout of all combat forces in 16 months is compatible with that strategy, and some U.S. officers have questioned whether, in purely logistical terms, it could be safely accomplished.

Gen. Odierno, who commands U.S. forces in Iraq, reportedly favors only a modest drawdown of troops this year, when Iraq will be staging two crucial elections and trying to resolve still-volatile questions of how to divide territory and power among regions and sectarian groups. The prospect of American forces leaving at the rate of a brigade a month, as required by a 16-month timetable, is regarded by leading Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish politicians as a potential catastrophe -- though their public statements sometimes suggest otherwise.

Wednesday's briefing should have underlined those facts for Mr. Obama, if he did not know them already. The president can certainly be expected to press for the quickest U.S. withdrawal that logistics and conditions in Iraq will allow. But Iraq's continuing improvement and the low and declining rate of U.S. casualties -- four soldiers have been killed in hostile action so far this month -- ought to decrease the urgency of a quick pullout. Pragmatism calls for working within the agreed U.S.-Iraqi plan, and for allowing adjustments based on positive and negative developments in Iraq, rather than on any fixed and arbitrary timetable.

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