Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that Gen. George Casey, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, has prepared a plan to reduce U.S. combat forces in Iraq from the current total of 14 brigades to five or six by the end of 2007. The drawdown would begin this fall, by not replacing two brigades scheduled to rotate back to their home station.
With the story, political Washington went into hyper-drive, with Democrats ? fearing that the recent congressional debates over Iraq had been a public relations defeat ? taking to the Sunday talk shows to claim that their plan for troop withdrawal was essentially the same as Casey’s for troop reductions. "That means the only people who have fought us and fought us against the timetable, the only ones still saying there shouldn’t be a timetable really are the Republicans in the United States Senate and in the Congress," said Sen. Barbara Boxer told CBS. "Now it turns out we’re in sync with Gen. Casey."
Casey’s "plan" ? apparently a briefing given to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld during a recent visit to the Pentagon ? is controversial for two other reasons, both more substantive than political. First of all, it’s far from clear whether conditions in Iraq in three months will be such that a reduction in American forces is warranted. Even if the levels of fighting remain about the same ? and does anyone really expect them to be anything significantly better or worse? ? so will the capabilities of Iraqi security forces. In the past, the United States has been too quick to put Iraqi units out front. When they fail, it is a double defeat. Not only does it delay materially the necessary process of fielding competent Iraqi forces, but it is a sharp political defeat for the Iraqi government. Prime Minister Maliki’s position is a fragile one, to say the least, and his just-released reconciliation plan is controversial with both Iraqis and Americans; Democrats have been as critical of Maliki as they have of President Bush.
On the other hand, the cumulative stresses on the Army and Marine Corps may be nearing a point of crisis. Neither service was well prepared to sustain the level of operations in post-invasion Iraq, or Afghanistan, for that matter. That soldiers and Marines have performed as well as they have shows a level of professionalism, patriotism and commitment that, while perhaps not entirely surprising, is nonetheless remarkable. Because the Bush Administration has refused to increase the size of the total force since 9/11, the need for period of large-scale reconstitution has only been postponed, not eliminated. The force needs to be made well; the only way to do that is to slow the pace of deployments.
What strategists and force planners ? both in uniform and in suits ? really need is something more than a plan for Iraq: they need a plan for The Long War. Neither the Bush Administration nor their Democratic critics seem willing to address that need; the more partisan the wrangling in Washington, the harder it will be to forge the kind of consensus needed to sustain the American commitment that President Bush has made in the greater Middle East. This is not simply a matter of who will win the next election, but who can realize the nation’s security interests.