A reduction of 60,000-70,000 soldiers in our presence in Iraq would certainly be significant, at least from the standpoint of the U.S. military and domestic public opinion. But what are the likely consequences in Iraq? The notion, commonly expounded by Rep. John Murtha and other advocates of redeployment, that American troops are the main irritant causing the violence in Iraq is demonstrably untrue, as it does not explain the fact that the recent crisis results from Iraqis killing each other wherever U.S. forces are absent. The idea that keeping 70,000 soldiers in Iraq rather than 150,000 would reduce the sense of an American "occupation" is also nonsensical. The Osama bin Ladens of this world will call our presence in Iraq an occupation as long as there is a single American soldier there. Nor would the average Iraqi be likely to notice our "lighter footprint"--U.S. raids and patrols are by now so restricted that most Iraqis never see an American soldier anyway.
Finally, the idea of "incentivizing" the Iraqis by such a partial withdrawal is a will-o'-the-wisp. The Iraqi army relies on our troops for more than logistical support and training. American soldiers are also the ultimate backstop for Iraqi military operations. There is no force in the country capable of withstanding an American battalion in open or even unconventional combat for very long. That doesn't mean we can easily win the war, of course. But it does mean that Iraqi army troops can take the field, and when they do, with reasonable confidence that if the enemy escalates the fight, the coalition will have the last word. Removing that confidence won't encourage Iraqi troops to fight harder. It will encourage them not to fight at all. An Iraqi policeman quoted in the New York Times last week was eloquent on this point:
A National Police officer posted at a checkpoint near the Habibiya Bridge entrance to Sadr City said the departure of the Americans, who had left 15 minutes earlier, would make his job more difficult. "They helped us to stop everyone," said the officer, who gave only his first name, Salam. "If we are alone, we can't say a word against certain people."
Add to these problems the sense of abandonment the Iraqi military will feel, the loss of the role-modeling our professional military units provide, the loss of the ability to plan and conduct military operations in tandem with the best soldiers in the world, and it becomes clear that "redeployment" can only harm the capability of the Iraqi army.
So much for reality in Iraq. The reality in the United States seems to be a progressive loss of will to continue the struggle. Drawing down 70,000 soldiers will be unsatisfactory to many people, but to some it will signal at least a commitment to moving in what they see as the "right direction," i.e., pulling out. It might take the heat off the Republican party (although it might also start a rush for the door). One thing it will certainly do is take some of the pressure off an overstretched U.S. Army and Marine Corps--something that advocates of "redeployment" increasingly demand.
There is no question that U.S. ground forces are strained. It has been clear to some for more than a decade that there are not enough soldiers in the U.S. military, and years of (bipartisan) neglect have come home to roost. Many soldiers are now in their third tour in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many officers are kept in the ranks through "stop-loss" orders that prevent them from retiring in the period surrounding their unit's planned deployment. Others reenlist primarily because they fear that they will be called back to active duty immediately upon retirement by virtue of their status as members of the "individual ready reserve." It is highly likely that the end of these conditions will see a significant flight of talented officers and non commissioned officers from the force. In addition, years of continual and rough use have worn out most of the ground forces' vehicles and equipment. Units are now reduced to sharing tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and Humvees. Often, units that are not deployed do not have the vehicles they need to conduct fundamental training. The president who took office in 2001 promising that "help is on the way" to the military will leave in 2009 having gutted it.