A change in strategy may be in order, but how much of a change will it be?
The results of U.S. midterm elections will clearly have an impact on U.S. policy in Iraq. Less than one day after the Democrats took the House of Representative, and prior to the capture of the Senate, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tendered his resignation. President Bush immediately stepped up with an nomination for Rumsfeld’s replacement: Robert Gates, a former director of the CIA and a member of the Iraqi Study Group, the bipartisan team of experts assigned to search for answers to the problems in Iraq’s development.
STRATFOR’s Fred Burton has an excellent analysis of the political implications of the election on Iraq policy and Mr. Gate’s appointment as Secretary of Defense, which we will not replicate. There are two points which are worth highlighting.
First, Mr. Burton notes that the election, while a rejection of the current strategy in Iraq, does not equate to approval of calls for withdrawal. “What is clear is that the U.S. electorate has shifted away from supporting the Bush administration’s conduct of the war. What is not clear at all is what they have shifted toward. It is impossible to discern any consensus in the country as to what ought to be done,” said Mr. Burton.
This theory is backed by polling data from voters. While there is a clear majority that is unhappy with the current strategy, only one-third of the voters want a full withdrawal. A majority of the American public are searching for a solution, not the abandonment of Iraq. This has political implications on Iraq policy, and may temper the calls for withdrawal.
Polls of voters found a strong majority – about six in 10 – disapproved of the war in Iraq. About a fourth of those polled said they sided with Democrats on wanting to withdraw some troops from Iraq and another three in 10 said they want all troops withdrawn…
But while setting timetables may have helped Democrats win votes, they may have a tough time pushing their plan through Congress. Democratic incumbents are divided on how soon to pull troops out of Iraq, and the party risks being held responsible by voters in the 2008 presidential elections if an abandoned Iraq collapses into a full-blown civil war.
Second, Mr. Burton notes the appointment of Mr. Gates is an endorsement of the yet to be released Baker-Hamilton Commission’s report. “The question mark as to the president’s response [to the Baker-Hamilton Commission’s report] seems to have been erased, and the forthcoming ISG report soars in significance.” Appointing Mr. Gates, who worked with James Baker, is an implicit signal that President Bush is going to implement some or all of the commission’s suggestions.
But the real question is what is contained within the Baker-Hamilton Commission’s report? What are the recommendations? Military and intelligence sources inform us they are quite concerned about the recommendations, and fear the report will signify an acceleration of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq before the Iraqi Security Forces are capable of holding their own. The year of hard work getting the vast majority of the Anbar tribes to reject al Qaeda and cooperate with the government will be in jeopardy. And the U.S. would be leaving an al Qaeda sanctuary in Ramadi intact, with the potential loss of Anbar, Salahaddin, Babil and Diyala provinces, as well as failing to properly deal with Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iranian backed leader of the Mahdi Army. We would be allow the political process to be dominated by the worst elements of Iraq’s terror groups [Note: we disagree with Mr. Burton’s assessment that the Iraqi political process has collapsed.]
But without knowing the specific details of the report, it is difficult to determine how it will impact policy. One assumption is that U.S. forces will be pulled back to large bases to act as a ‘quick reaction force’ while the Iraqi Security Forces assume daily patrols and security responsibilities.
This process has been in the works for some time. The Iraqi Army has been ramping up its numbers and taking control of the battlespace over the course of the past year. This fall, the Iraqi government and Multinational Forces-Iraq announced the expansion of the Army by three divisions and increase the manpower of the Army by 37 percent over the next nine months. This includes:
– 18,000 new personnel to replace combat losses, desertions, etc.
– 12,000 new personnel to over-man the combat battalions at 110 percent (this will account for the Army’s liberal leave policy.)
– 18,700 new personnel to establish 3 new Division headquarters, 5 new Brigade HQs, 20 new Battalions and 1 new Special Operations Forces Battalion.
– 10,000 new personnel will be trained every 2 months.
The three extra combat divisions are obviously designed to replace U.S. combat troops at some point in the future (it appears the end of 2007 is a target date) and allow the U.S. to draw down to a single division, along with support/logistical personnel, advisers, Air Force, and Special Forces. The U.S. needs to ensure it maintains enough troops in country to fill the gaps when Iraqi forces fail – and they will from time to time – as well as dramatically increase the embedded trainers in the Army and police formations to nurture the development of the security forces.
Will the Baker-Hamilton Commission accelerate this process by setting timetables and establishing benchmarks to push the Iraqi government to make hard decisions? Will this create too great a burden on the Iraqis security forces to shoulder the responsibility before they are prepared? One thing is clear: a public, dramatic shift in U.S. troop numbers, as well as rhetoric to bring the troops home at all costs will only embolden the enemies of Iraq to increase their attacks and undermine the Iraqi government.