Blunt pronouncements of a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq, once a highly sensitive subject, are now commonplace. Some Iraqi officials say they envision U.S. troops in their country for “a considerable amount of time” (AP), while others are calling for an extended security agreement (TIME) with the United States. In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the Senate Appropriations Committee on September 26 that he also predicts a long-term presence in Iraq. Gates, who has scored a quiet victory (Newsweek.com) in the debate over troop withdrawals, says up to five combat brigades (NYT) could remain in Iraq for years to “go after al-Qaeda in Iraq and help the Iraqi forces.”
The pronouncement is not universal. Democrats in Congress continue to push for withdrawal; House lawmakers on October 2 vowed to stall President Bush’s $190 billion war funding request unless it is linked to a redeployment plan (Reuters). Yet some presidential candidates are already talking as if a lasting—although slimmed-down—presence in Iraq is a foregone conclusion. During a presidential debate in New Hampshire last month, none of the top three Democrats would promise a full-scale military withdrawal by 2013 if elected. Only Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson offered withdrawal timelines (Newshour). “The key question” is no longer whether the United States will remain militarily involved in Iraq, says the Washington Post, “but what size, mission, and length” the next administration’s build-up will be.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, likely contributed to acknowledgement of a longer time horizon on Iraq. While he faced sharp questioning and skepticism in the Senate last month, the general’s message that the “surge” is working appears to have bought President Bush time to pursue his war strategy, while quashing Democrats’ hopes of an immediate pullout. CFR Senior Fellow Charles A. Kupchan, a National Security Council official in the Clinton administration, says there’s another, less political reason for the shift: “a palpable fear” that pullout could lead to genocide and regional instability (SFChron).
A protracted presence in Iraq would come with a high price tag. The Congressional Budget Office concludes that a Korea-like model (PDF), employing fifty-five thousand troops in Iraq—well below the current 160,000—would cost taxpayers $25 billion annually. A non-combat scenario would lower annual costs by about $10 billion. The scenario includes roughly ten thousand trainers working to develop the Iraqi security forces.
Regardless of the model and the availability of funding, training of Iraqi soldiers will likely continue, military experts say. Since 2005 coalition forces have embedded with Iraqi military and police units to assist in logistics and mission planning. Col. David Abramowitz, chief of staff for the Iraq Assistance Group, which oversees the training program, tells CFR.org that assisting Iraqi forces will become increasingly important when U.S. troops eventually leave. Others, including some U.S. commanders that lead training in Iraq, say an even more aggressive training regime is needed to build up Iraqi fighters. They say a strong Iraqi security presence (McClatchy) is the key to victory in Iraq—politics aside.