Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

The Withdrawal that Isn't

Mar. 29, 2007

IN JANUARY, President Bush announced the start of a "surge" that wasn't really a surge. Now the House and Senate have responded with a "withdrawal" that isn't really a withdrawal.

Last week, the House passed a bill that many believe would set hard deadlines for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. This week, the Senate followed suit. The House bill would require that troop withdrawals start immediately if the president cannot certify that Iraq or the United States are meeting benchmarks in the war. The withdrawal would have to be completed within 180 days. Even if the United States and Iraq are successful in reducing violence, the bill requires the United States to start a withdrawal by March 2008 and complete it by that August. The Senate bill requires a withdrawal to be complete by March 2008. Supporters of both bills claim they are forcing a withdrawal from Iraq, but a look at the fine print reveals otherwise.

First, to reverse the current surge the House bill requires the president to certify that every Army unit deploying to Iraq for a year-long tour of duty have a minimum of 365 days back home before deployment. (Marine units that deploy for seven months would have 210 days back home.) In addition, units in Iraq could not be extended beyond their one year (or seven months) assignment. This might be an effective way to halt the surge, except for the fact that the bill also allows the president to waive these restrictions in the interest of "national security." It's likely that the president already believes that he is acting in the interest of national security, making these restrictions superfluous.

Although the House and Senate bills set clear timelines for withdrawal of US troops, they also permit some troops to remain in Iraq as long as they are performing one of three specific missions: protecting US facilities, citizens, or forces; combating Al Qaeda or international terrorists; and training Iraqi security forces. How many troops are we talking about? Potentially as many as have been there for the past three years.

There are only four missions that US troops are performing in Iraq: the three above that Congress is willing to continue and the one they're not -- keeping Sunni s and Shi'ites from killing each other. The truth is that up until the current surge and accompanying change of operations, the United States has been trying to do what Congress is demanding -- turn over police work to the Iraqis. This is taking longer than our leadership anticipated and longer apparently than Americans are willing to wait, but it is happening. Let's assume, however, that these bills become law and the president agrees to operate in accordance with their intent. Up until the surge, the United States maintained about 15 combat brigades (Marine and Army) plus support troops in Iraq; about 135,000 troops. How many troops will we need after Congress's withdrawal?

To train Iraqi security forces the United States had been using 5,000 troops, but last fall everyone agreed more trainers are needed, and the number is projected to grow to between 15,000 and 20,000 trainers. Another way to think of the training mission is to imagine that the United States would embed one brigade into each of the 10 Iraqi divisions. Add to that a few US brigades to help fix the training of the equally large national police force, and you are up to between 10 and 15 brigades.

To conduct operations specifically targeted against Al Qaeda or international terrorists in Iraq could take anything from the few Special Forces we have in Iraq to three to four conventional brigades.

Finally, to protect US facilities, citizens, and our own forces would mean guarding at a minimum the Green Zone and the several bases from which US forces would operate, easily employing another two to three brigades. Altogether, the number of brigades we might need to perform the three missions allowed by Congress could reach between 12 and 20 brigades.

How is it possible that after a "withdrawal" the United States might need as many troops in Iraq as it had there before? The reason is that we never had enough troops to begin with. Military experts would rightfully point out that the bills before Congress are more correctly understood as a re-missioning of our troops. Perhaps a good strategy -- but not a withdrawal.

Retired Brigadier General Kevin Ryan is a senior fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Ryan, B.G. Kevin.“The Withdrawal that Isn't.” The Boston Globe, March 29, 2007.