Iraq: Planning a “Responsible” Withdrawal

By: Greg C. Reeson

On his first full day as Commander-in-Chief, President Barack Obama met with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen, CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus, and Iraq commander General Raymond Odierno, and directed them to begin planning for a “responsible” military drawdown from Iraq. The language used by the President was significantly less restrictive than the 16-month timetable he repeatedly promised during the campaign season, and sufficiently broad enough to allow Mr. Obama to follow essentially the same course already embarked upon by his predecessor, George W. Bush.

In executing the President’s directive, military planners will develop a wide range of options for U.S. forces in Iraq. The plans crafted by the Pentagon will be presented to Mr. Obama in the coming months, along with the potential consequences associated with each. Dozens of possible scenarios exist, depending on how much equipment is to be left behind for the Iraqis and how much risk the new administration is willing to deem acceptable. No matter how many alternatives the Defense Department comes up with, though, in the end there are only two generally acknowledged, broad courses of action: a steady withdrawal based on pre-determined dates or gradual adjustments to troop levels based on security conditions on the ground.

The former, of course, is what then-candidate Obama promised during the campaign, and is essentially what is laid out in the recently negotiated security pact governing the presence and conduct of U.S. military forces in Iraq. The latter represents the position held by former President Bush and most, if not all, of the senior military officers responsible for the war, including Petraeus and Odierno. Today’s Iraq is not the Iraq that existed when Mr. Obama made his 16-month withdrawal pledge. The success of President Bush’s surge of troops to Baghdad and al Anbar Province, accompanied by the continued improvement of Iraqi security forces and bottom-up political reconciliation, has created a much more stable and secure Iraq. While conditions on the ground have become significantly better than they were in early 2007, the overall situation remains fragile. But the path Iraq is on is clearly a positive one, and it is one in which President Obama could potentially fulfill his promise of withdrawal, albeit with a bit of creativity when it comes to defining what constitutes a “combat soldier.”

Mr. Obama’s campaign pledge centered around the withdrawal of “combat” troops from Iraq, while leaving open the possibility of a residual force of undetermined size and composition that would stay in the country to target terrorists and to provide training, advice, and logistics support to Iraqi security personnel and the Iraqi government. In military terms, combat forces are traditionally thought of as those forces (typically infantry, armor, etc.) that engage in actual fighting with the enemy. In Iraq, however, there are no defined front lines and every U.S. soldier, infantryman and truck driver alike, is a potential combatant. Additionally, since the fledgling Iraqi security forces need help in virtually every aspect of military operations, all soldier specialties have a place in the future force structure in Iraq.

In order to make good on his promise to remove U.S. combat forces, President Obama need only change the labels currently attached to troops conducting military missions in Iraq. For example, infantry units could be called “combat advisers,” and tank units could be re-designated as “armor trainers.” The re-labeling could take place all at once, be applied to new units arriving for their Iraq rotations, or some combination of the two. This option would allow the President to “reduce” the number of combat forces in Iraq without putting at risk the hard-won security progress that has been made over the past 18 months.

Critics of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq will quickly point out that this is simply a word game, and they would, of course, be right. But what’s happening in Iraq right now is not a game. It is deadly serious, and the costs of failure would be catastrophic, for Iraq and for the entire Middle East. The potential consequences associated with a drawdown that does not take into account changing conditions on the ground must be considered in planning the United States’ future in Iraq. To do otherwise would be both irresponsible and stupid. Mr. Obama is not a stupid man. In fact, he’s demonstrated that he is quite the opposite. He knows that campaign rhetoric is one thing; the realities of the office he now holds are quite another.

The President’s call for a “responsible” withdrawal from Iraq is probably an indication that the 16-month timeline is going to be very flexible, and that he will keep his options open so that troop levels can be reduced if security gains hold, or increased if necessary to prevent the collapse of the Iraqi government and the chaos that would no doubt follow the implosion of the Iraqi state. While adjustments to the oft-promised timetable for an exit of U.S. forces from Iraq might not sit well with some of Mr. Obama’s core supporters, it seems, on initial glance at least, that the new Commander-in-Chief has a keen understanding not only of the gravity of the situation, but also that everything changes when you’re the guy responsible for what follows after the orders you give are carried out.

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