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Bring The Troops Home?

Creating new and effective institutions like an Iraqi or Afghan army takes time, as does fighting an insurgency.

3:00 PM, Jul 11, 2005 • By GARY SCHMITT and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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TODAY'S FRONT PAGE of the Washington Post carries a story about a classified memo from Britain's defense minister to Prime Minister Tony Blair detailing "emerging U.S. plans" to reduce by half the number of soldiers in Iraq by next summer. This would leave American troop levels at around 66,000. The Pentagon has denied there are any fixed plans as yet and reductions will depend on conditions in Iraq.

Although the Pentagon is surely accurate in saying that no final determination to reduce troop levels has been made, it is almost certainly the case that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has been pressuring the military to do precisely that. Indeed, we have also heard that the secretary has told his new Afghan commander, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, to try to get U.S. forces substantially out of Afghanistan within two years.

The reason is obvious. As the British memo goes on to say, the U.S. military wants reductions "to bring relief to overall U.S. commitment levels." And there is no question that American forces are stretched thin.* Having rejected any idea of significantly expanding the size of American ground forces, the Rumsfeld-led Pentagon is on the verge of breaking the backs of the National Guard and the active duty Army. Moreover, there is no question that the U.S. is ill prepared for another serious crisis that might require the use of American military forces.

But the cost of reducing troop levels in Iraq or Afghanistan will be high. Neither Iraq's nor Afghanistan's militaries will be ready to take on the burden of fighting their respective insurgencies in the time frame Secretary Rumsfeld is pushing for. Creating new and effective institutions like an Iraqi or Afghan army takes time, as does fighting an insurgency. Neither task here is at all impossible but, if rushed, we do risk ultimate failure for lack of patience.

Secretary Rumsfeld has time and again said that he defers to his generals in Iraq about the number of troops needed. No one vaguely familiar with how decisions are made in this Pentagon believes that to be the case. And, indeed, as visiting members of Congress and military reporters have repeatedly reported from Iraq, the military officers there know quite well that more troops are needed, not less.

The British memo notes that, while Pentagon officials favor "a relatively bold reduction," the battlefield commanders "approach is more cautious." That is one way to put it. Another would be to say that Secretary Rumsfeld is putting the president's strategic vision at risk, while those soldiering in Iraq are trying to save a policy in the face of inadequate resources.

* On the need to increase overall U.S. ground force strength, see the bipartisan "Letter to Congress on Increasing U.S. Ground Forces," January 28, 2005. The letter was signed by 35 former senior military officers, defense officials and strategic analysts. It can be found here.