Not since the 9/11 Commission has a report generated so much public scrutiny and widespread speculation in Washington. The Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission cochaired by James A. Baker, III and Lee Hamilton, has dominated the conversation about the war in Iraq. Its report, set to be released December 6, is expected to call for an exit strategy that involves a phased redeployment of U.S.forces, perhaps to Iraq’s periphery or to neighboring states like Kuwait, as well as some kind of regional plan to address Iraq’s cycle of sectarian violence. Whatever the panel’s recommendations, analysts expect a shift (CSMonitor) in President Bush’s Iraq policy in the weeks and months ahead.
Kalev Sepp, an assistant professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and adviser to the Baker-Hamilton commission, tells CFR.org in this podcast that it will be difficult for the White House to dismiss the commission’s proposals because the panel carries significant weight and represents a consensus. “There was some very serious debate associated with reaching the final tenets of the report,” says Sepp. Bush says he is interested in hearing the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton commission, one of several government-sanctioned groups preparing reports on Iraq. His nominee as defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, has expressed openness to new options to how to solve the problems in Iraq.
Meanwhile, a new report by Anthony C. Zinni, a retired U.S. general and vocal critic of the war in Iraq, advocates a temporary boost in the number of U.S. forces there. This recommendation runs counter to a leaked memo sent by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld just days before his departure in which he called for troop reductions from Iraq. Such reductions are also favored by many leading Democratic lawmakers.
The Iraq Study Group is expected to recommend switching large numbers of U.S. forces from combat operations to advisory missions. The aim is to expedite the training (Newsweek) of Iraqi security forces. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki predicts indigenous forces will be able to fully take over security operations by June of next year. But most military experts, Sepp included, figure it may take three to five more years to get Iraqi forces combat ready. Anthony H. Cordesman, who just returned from Iraq, estimates that out of a hundred Iraqi battalions, only twenty or thirty are useful. “In many cases, they are static to the point where they are incapable of acting,” (PDF) he recently told reporters. “It will take years, not months, to fix this situation.”
A greater fear, says Zinni and others, is that a premature pullout may leave Iraq a bloodbath of interethnic and interconfessional violence that could spill over into the region or worse, provide a sanctuary for radical Islamists. One scenario is of an Afghanistan-style civil war that would “provide international terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and Hezbollah with fertile ground in which to recruit, train, and battle-test a new generation of global jihadis,” writes Aparisim Ghosh in TIME.