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Deployments, Deadlines in Iraq

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: November 7, 2006

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The war in Iraq has entered a critical stage, driven as much by escalating violence on the ground as by political calendars in the United States. Throughout all the ups and downs, President Bush has stood by his embattled defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, despite calls for his resignation (NYT) by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Central to this criticism of the defense chief is the accusation he refused to supply enough troops to secure a territory roughly the size of California.

A clamor for a so-called “strategic redeployment” of U.S. forces has risen from congressional Democrats. But how and where would these forces be redeployed? And what effect might their removal have on the rising violence around Iraq? Some lawmakers, inspired by Lawrence J. Korb of the Center for American Progress, have called for a redeployment that envisions 60,000 troops left in Iraq by the end of 2006 and no one left there by the end of 2007 (Korb debates Steven Metz of the U.S. Army War College on America’s long-term presence in Iraq). The soldiers would be redeployed to Afghanistan, Kuwait, or other countries in the Persian Gulf region to act as “rapid reaction forces” should things get ugly in Iraq without their presence. Another plan, hatched by former U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, calls for U.S. troops to be redeployed to the predominantly Kurdish—and peaceful—areas of northern Iraq. They would be nearby to keep an eye on events in Iraq, but, more important, as he tells CFR.org in a new Podcast (transcript here), this would provide "a way of reducing the chances of a Turkish-Kurdish war." Holbrooke also says he supports convening a regional conference to involve Iraq's neighbors but admits that unlike the 1995 Dayton accords he brokered to resolve the Balkans crisis, “none of the major factors that occurred in Bosnia would apply here.”

In Iraq, senior U.S. military officials in late summer spoke of an eighteen-month window to turn things around and hand responsibility to Iraqi security forces. That makes January 2008 a watershed of sorts (NYT). The Iraqi parliament also recently announced it would make no moves to empower the regions of Iraq for at least eighteen months. This timeframe also coincides with an important—perhaps the most important—referendum Iraqis hold on the status of Kirkuk, a political volleyball whose pending status has only inflamed tensions between local Sunni Arabs and Kurds. Finally, of course, by January 2008 the United States will be well into a presidential election season, with Iraq likely to play a pivotal role in determining President Bush’s successor.

Much of this calculus hinges on progress in training Iraqi troops. Experts say the numbers—325,000 police and army forces combined (Brookings Iraq Index)—belie a quality problem. Cultural issues explain part of this gap, as Lt. Col. Carl D. Grunow writes in Military Review. But compositional issues matter, too: Iraqi troops are predominantly Shiite, which creates backlashes among Sunnis and invites accusations of sectarian-motivated arrests or, worse, death-squad-style killings. Also, militias have long held a presence within Iraq’s police force.

Some analysts, including F. J. Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense, say events in Iraq have strained relations (WashPost) between senior U.S. military officers and senior civilian officials. Reports of recruitment difficulties and hints of morale problems among frontline troops have some people concerned. Yet it is easy to overstate these problems or put too much emphasis on isolated incidents like the alleged war crimes at Haditha. For all the stress and strains, writes Colin H. Kahl in Foreign Affairs, American troops are behaving remarkably well by historical standards.

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