The drawdown of forces in Iraq and a return to the pre-“surge” state is well underway. Troop levels have come back down and now US troops are pulling back from cites and villages:
The U.S. military in Iraq is abandoning — deliberately and with little public notice — a centerpiece of the widely acclaimed strategy it adopted nearly two years ago to turn the tide against the insurgency. It is moving American troops farther from the people they are trying to protect.
Starting in early 2007, with Iraq on the brink of all-out civil war, the troops were pushed into the cities and villages as part of a change in strategy that included President Bush’s decision to send more combat forces.
The bigger U.S. presence on the streets was credited by many with allowing the Americans and their Iraqi security partners to build trust among the populace, thus undermining the extremists’ tactics of intimidation, reducing levels of violence and giving new hope to resolving the country’s underlying political conflicts.
Now the Americans are reversing direction, consolidating in larger bases outside the cities and leaving security in the hands of the Iraqis while remaining within reach to respond as the Iraqi forces require.
The use of the term “abandoning” is ridiculous, but otherwise this is a decent write up of the situation. This was always the plan. In fact, this is exactly what we were doing in 2006 before the “surge” became necessary. Here’s what I wrote in February 2007 in On the “surge” of victory?:
As discussed previously, the “surge” of 21,500 additional combat troops is the least important part of what is basically a three-pronged strategy:
- The additional boots on the ground will make it a bit easier to conduct missions as quickly as possible when opportunities arise.
- More importantly, the missions themselves appear to be much more offensive in nature, “war fighting” rather than “peace keeping”, and we seem to be intent on maintaining a presence in areas once they’ve been cleared rather than pulling back to base.
- Most importantly of all, the Iraqi government finally seems almost serious about dealing with the issues they’re facing. The protection of Sadr was lifted, and additional Iraqi forces have been committed to the problem areas.
I cannot emphasize enough that the increased troop levels were welcome, but in fact were the least-important aspect of the “surge.” The shift to more offensive tactics and the move out of the big bases into the local cities and villages was much more important, and that is what is now being shifted away from. That mission has been largely completely, and that leaves the most critical of the three prongs in place: the Iraqi security forces.
If they can manage things, victory is ours. If they cannot, we’ll be back to 2006, where insurgents, terrorists, and sectarian fighting threatened to tear everything apart. All along, the long-term success of the campaign has hinged on the ability of the Iraqi government to govern effectively and maintain security.
Retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, who served as Petraeus’ right-hand man in Baghdad during the U.S. troop buildup and has written a book, “Baghdad at Sunrise,” about the counterinsurgency effort, also has misgivings. He said in an e-mail exchange Tuesday that his main concern is sectarian violence.
“Without U.S. forces in the cities, the Shiite and Sunni militias could once again take to fighting each other without an honest broker to keep the peace,” he said. “The Iraqi army is not ready to play this role, in my view — not yet, anyway.”
The Iraqi army really took it to the Shiite militia of Sadr, but that was when they were side-by-side with US troops and against an organization that threatened the government. If the government will be willing to crack down on Shiite groups that post little direct threat and when US troops are uninvolved is a major question.
Even if the Iraqi government decides to do what it needs to and the Iraiq troops are up to it, there is a very real risk that we will abandon (and here I truly mean “abandon” as it’s defined in the dictionary) the Iraqi government and people in the future. I think that today, more than at any other time so far, we are in Vietnam territory. Not in the sense of the fighting or the state of the public at home, but in the sense that victory is very much within reach but there is going to be great pressure to not follow through for as long as it takes. If too many troops come home, it’s going to be very hard for anyone to send more back, even if the decision-makers want to. And Murdoc doesn’t think that they will want to.