Troop levels in Iraq once again

(Note: I began writing this at lunch on Wednesday but was interrupted and then managed to lose what little I had already done. So I’m going to try to recreate it today. I’ll try to keep the turkey gravy and from spilling into the post…)

This was the front page of WashingtionPost.com Wednesday just before noon:

threebrigadeswapo.jpg

You can click for a larger look, but the font used (the biggest on the page) probably makes that unnecessary. Three combat brigades may withdraw from Iraq. Good news, of course. But what does “three combat brigades” mean? The story, other than noting that there are currently about 18 brigades in Iraq, doesn’t say. It sure would be nice to see some meaningful numbers to go with that XX-Large headline.

If the “three brigades” number really means three brigades, then that’s 12,000 troops max, assuming about 4,000 per brigade. Brigade sizes vary widely, and even more so as the Army is shifting to a brigade-centric organization from a divisional organization. It all depends on how many non-organic supporting units are withdrawn as the number of troops in the field shrinks. 10,000 or so various supporting troops for 12,000 isn’t totally out of line, so this three brigade cut might get us back down to the pre-referendum level of about 138,000.

Which, if I may be so bold to point it out, has more or less been the plan all along.

The article does have some overall numbers:

Pentagon authorities also have set a series of “decision points” during 2006 to consider further force cuts that, under a “moderately optimistic” scenario, would drop the total number of troops from more than 150,000 now to fewer than 100,000, including 10 combat brigades, by the end of the year

That would make 10 combat brigades (40,000 troops max) and another 40,000 or more additional support personnel. This seems to fit in line with other numbers being tossed around lately (like 92,000), though whether it’s from a different source or merely repetition of earlier estimates isn’t clear.

The equivalent of another brigade’s worth of combat power was added this fall to bolster security for the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum and the coming Dec. 15 vote on a new national government.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld spoke over the weekend of plans to bring the force level back down to 138,000 after the elections, effectively removing the extra brigade equivalent added for the election period.

In addition, officers said, two combat brigades that had been slated to move into Iraq to replace units coming out are now expected to be held back. One of those units — a brigade of the 1st Armored Division based in Germany — will probably be positioned in Kuwait. The other unit — a brigade of the 1st Infantry Division — will probably remain at its home base of Fort Riley, Kan., the officers said.

Neither of these last two divisions were on the list of units published by the DoD on November 7th (that is, weeks before Rep. Murtha started making noise). According to an AP article on the list, the 1st Infantry brigade had originally been slated to deploy before the December 15th elections but it was decided to hold them back until later. Despite this report, they were not on the list. The brigade from the 1st Armored wasn’t noted at all, though I’m reminded of this Stars & Stripes article I wanted to blog about but didn’t get to at the end of October. Only six combat brigades were on that list, though, so it’s hard to draw any conclusions. That’s why I’ve been cautioning against putting too much stock into that list and the 92,000 number. Others disagree, and I must admit as more information becomes available that I’m much more optimistic about the sub-100K number than I was previously.

This is the crux of the matter:

Military officers and defense officials have frequently described the challenge of deciding how many forces to keep in Iraq as a balancing act between trying to provide security and avoiding the appearance of an occupation force that may fuel insurgent violence and engender Iraqi dependence on U.S. assistance.

“The tension that the commanders feel between heavy presence and lower footprint is something they’re measuring all the time,” Lawrence T. Di Rita, the Pentagon’s primary spokesman, said yesterday.

The goal is a stable and secure Iraq. If that can be accomplished with zero US troops, so much the better. (Note: I believe that basing for significant US forces within Iraq is not only crucial to long-term success in the region but that it was a major factor behind the decision to invade. But we’re talking operations within Iraq here, not long-term strategic needs, so let’s leave that alone for the purposes of this discussion.) The fact is that if Iraqis can keep Iraq under control, there is no need for huge numbers of US troops.

To help gauge the particular impact that growth of Iraq’s security forces might have on the pace of a U.S. drawdown, military planners in Baghdad have devised a simple formula — what one general called a “rough rule of thumb.”

The formula estimates that for every three Iraqi battalions and one Iraqi brigade headquarters achieving a readiness rating of level two, a U.S. battalion can be dropped. A level two rating, on a scale of one to four, indicates that a unit is able to take the lead in operations but still requires some U.S. military support.

The withdrawal formula is a planning tool, several officers stressed, not a definitive predictor of how many U.S. forces are likely to leave, or when. [emphasis mine]

Who was it that said ‘Level 2’ was the important measuring stick, not ‘Level 1’? Back when so many in Legacy Media were having kittens over the fact that only one Iraqi battalion was rated ‘Level 1’? Oh, that’s right. It was me at the beginning of October:

As I said yesterday, the real key is getting Level 3 units up to Level 2. That’s the short- and mid-term priority. Level 1 is long-term for two primary reasons: a) It takes a long friggin’ time and b) The Iraqi army is fighting a defensive war on it’s own territory with support services readily available from Coalition forces.

Told you so.

Another thing to keep in mind is that while the units supporting US troops might be able to come home with the combat units, those that also support the Iraqi Level 2 and Level 3 units cannot until Iraqi logistics and rear-echelon systems come online. Don’t hold your breath on that one.

So while I’m cautiously optimistic that the sub-100K number is within reach, I’m not ready to start celebrating quite yet. And let’s not forget that this isn’t a new plan. This isn’t anything spurred on by the “discussion” started by Rep. Murtha or the Republicans. Murtha certainly knows of these plans, and I guess I’d hope that those reporting on troop levels know of these plans, so I’d welcome a little more honesty when covering and discussing them.

Troop levels will be coming down. Initially they’ll be going down to the pre-referendum levels, just like we were told would happen when they were increased. After that, they’ll be going down as progress is made. The speed of the decline depends on the circumstances. “As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.” This has been the plan. The one that doesn’t exist.