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Risky Business

The biggest danger in Iraq now is drawing down too quickly.

Jan 23, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 18 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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HAS THE AMERICAN WITHDRAWAL from Iraq begun? The Defense Department has announced troop reductions there amounting to 29,000 soldiers almost immediately and has dropped broad hints that another 31,000 will come out by the end of 2006, "conditions permitting."

The conditions in Iraq, however, do not seem to support such reductions. A series of spectacular attacks in recent weeks highlight the continuing vigor of the insurgency. And the disenchantment of the Sunni Arabs with the results of the December 15 elections portend a critical time in the months ahead. The president has repeatedly declared that the withdrawal will not adhere to any "artificial" political timeline. How can such statements be squared with a reduction in the U.S. presence at a time many regard as the tipping point in this war?

There were approximately 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq in the months leading up to the October referendum and the December elections. This represented an increase from the "normal" baseline of 138,000, intended to secure those momentous votes. The extra soldiers were not just pulling guard duty, however. On the contrary, the coalition used the additional forces to conduct a series of intelligent and aggressive operations along the Upper Euphrates valley and elsewhere in the Sunni Triangle to clear towns and villages of insurgents and establish Iraqi Security Forces in their wake to hold them. Coalition commanders and spokesmen have subsequently claimed that these operations played a critical role in allowing peaceful elections and in reducing the overall level of insurgent violence in the country (at least until recently). They are probably right.

In the wake of the elections, the Department of Defense announced that U.S. forces in Iraq would come down to the level of 138,000--a reduction of 22,000 soldiers. Early this month, it announced a further reduction of 7,000 soldiers. The administration has attempted to minimize the significance of these reductions, claiming that the drop from 160,000 to 138,000 was simply a return to normalcy and that only the ensuing cut of 7,000 troops was really a reduction. But, from the standpoint both of military operations and of perceptions, what matters is the 18 percent cut from the levels of December 15. The further drop to 100,000 mooted for the end of 2006 is not what many would consider a measured withdrawal.

The effectiveness of American forces in Iraq does not result simply from the number of soldiers, of course, but also from what they are doing. Here the news is even more disturbing. Instead of exploiting the successes in the Euphrates Valley and elsewhere, coalition commanders seem to foresee a dramatically reduced role in fighting insurgents and have announced their intention to concentrate the remaining U.S. forces on training Iraqis. Once again, coalition commanders and spokesmen are bombarding the media with the numbers of trained or training Iraqi Security Forces and police recruits. Military news releases since the election have described no large-scale counterinsurgent operations at all.

Those releases have focused, instead, on the numbers of operations led by the Iraqis or conducted jointly with U.S. forces. The growing number of such operations is in one sense positive. There can be no question that the development of a robust Iraqi counterinsurgency capability is essential to success in this war. But the operations the Iraqi Security Forces are carrying out differ dramatically from the clear-and-hold operations carried out by U.S. forces in the months leading up to the election. ISF troops are not, on the whole, capable of planning and conducting such complex operations, and U.S. military releases describe instead "cordon-and-knock" missions that tend to net relatively few suspects.

The result of this shift in military operations is worrisome. From the beginning of the war, the coalition has lacked the number of forces that would be needed to clear and hold the Sunni Triangle, let alone the major population centers in Iraq. It will likely be many months before the ISF is capable of conducting such missions on a significant scale. If U.S. forces withdraw to training areas and cease operations against insurgents except for the odd joint raid or "cordon-and-knock," the insurgents may once again begin to establish safe havens in which to train and operate. The longer safe havens persist, the harder it will be to clear them out--and the longer it will be until the ISF troops are able to undertake the mission.