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Ivan Eland: The Politics of Troop Withdrawal

The Politics of Troop Withdrawal

August 1, 2005
by Ivan Eland

In Iraq, like everywhere else, if things don’t add up, it is safe to assume that politics is involved. Although the insurgency in recent months has worsened, Gen. George W. Casey, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, astonishingly claims that security in Iraq has improved and that substantial U.S. troop withdrawals are possible by as early as next spring. What gives? The congressional elections in 2006.

Although Bush administration officials have implied that demands by Democrats for a U.S. troop withdrawal timetable are “unpatriotic” and “aid the enemy,” when electoral politics is involved, the administration is all too willing to predict troop reductions during a specified time period. They know that the Democrats will try to make political hay—probably starting around next spring—from the growing unpopularity here at home of the continued occupation of Iraq. By showing some incremental and token progress toward getting out of the quagmire, the administration hopes to contain the damage Democrats could do on this issue at election time.

This short-term politically-expedient strategy, however, will not help the administration toward its long-term goal of stabilizing Iraq and, in fact, will undermine both it and Republican electoral prospects in the 2008 election. Most independent military experts agree that to win decisively against the insurgency, the 140,000 U.S. forces now in Iraq are insufficient. As in Vietnam, U.S. troops routinely clear areas of guerrillas, only to have them return when those overextended forces leave to douse another fire somewhere else. If a quarter of U.S. forces were withdrawn—as Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, a senior military commander in Iraq, has dangled in front of journalists—the problem of “overstretch” would only get worse.

The insurgency will probably continue, even in the wake of an October referendum on an Iraqi constitution and December elections, an improvement in the Iraqi economy and living conditions, and enough adequately trained Iraqi security forces to more than replace departing U.S. forces. Given that the last Iraqi elections did not quell the insurgency, further referenda and polling will probably not do so either. In fact, Gen. Casey admitted that the rebellion probably would not attenuate by next year. According to one highly esteemed military expert, in terms of the number of incidents and casualties inflicted, the insurgency has worsened during the past two years. Since April, when the new government in Iraq took over, rebel attacks have risen sharply.

Improvements in economic and living conditions for Iraqis have not been stellar. For example, as of May 2005, all-important electric power generation in Iraq was still below the level provided at the time of the 2003 U.S. invasion, despite the heavy investment to refurbish facilities. Also, heavy investment in restoring oil production has not staunched a two-year decline in oil production, Iraq’s primary source of funds for reconstruction. In a catch-22, increased security depends on better economic and living conditions, but such conditions can’t improve without enhanced security.

Finally, progress in training Iraqi security forces has been pathetic. According to a recent report by Gen. Peter Pace, the nation’s incoming top military officer, only a “small number” of Iraq security units can fight the guerillas on their own. One-third of them are able to fight the insurgents with the U.S. military’s support, but two-thirds are only “partially capable” of battling the rebels, even with U.S. help. Most experts say that several years will be needed to adequately train enough Iraqi security forces to battle the insurgents. With popular support for the Iraqi occupation in the United States fading, the administration is running out of time.

Furthermore, because U.S. troops are of very high quality, many more newly minted Iraqi security forces will have to be trained to replace those U.S. forces departing. In fact, if the best military in the world has not been able to defeat the insurgency, the green, rag-tag Iraqi security forces, which have already been heavily infiltrated by the rebels, are unlikely to do so.

One reason that U.S. forces have not been able to defeat the rebels is the continuing and astounding ignorance of counterinsurgency warfare tactics by the U.S. Army—an organization that, even after the debacle in Vietnam, has concentrated on fighting conventional wars against nation-states. This ignorance was on display when Gen. Casey opined, “insurgencies need progress to survive, and this insurgency is not progressing.” In fact, as George Washington, the North Vietnamese, and the anti-Soviet Mujahedin fighters in Afghanistan demonstrated, insurgents need only to keep an army in the field and “not lose” until the big power gets exhausted and goes home.

And given all the talk about withdrawal from both the Bush administration and Democrats, if the guerrillas watch the international news, they know that they are winning. By hinting at withdrawing troops, the administration is also trying to buy more time with the American public in order to negotiate with the Iraqi rebels. The insurgents are better off without the U.S. military in Iraq, however, so they have no incentive to throw down their arms and join the political process.

Whether or not the insurgents can be co-opted, the administration’s lawyers are negotiating legal arrangements for a reduced, but permanent, U.S. military presence in Iraq. Yet using the military bases to project U.S. power in the Persian Gulf will be difficult if they are surrounded by an incipient civil war.

The administration needs to give up on the fantasy of a permanent military presence—even if reduced—in Iraq and completely and rapidly withdraw its forces from that country. Republican electoral fortunes will be better in the short-term and long-term if the administration realizes that the war cannot be won—either by U.S. forces or the Iraqi security services—and cuts its losses.


Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute, Director of the Institute’s Center on Peace & Liberty, and author of the books The Empire Has No Clothes, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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