Sometimes I despair of this administration. After three and a half years of fumbling, the president in late 2006 finally made a courageous if overdue decision to send more troops to Iraq. The payoff has been impressive: The war effort was rescued from the brink of defeat. Now the withdrawal of the surge brigades is underway, and no one knows what will happen when the number of U.S. troops goes back to roughly the pre-surge level of 140,000 by mid-July. At the same time thousands of detainees are being released from American custody, and tensions continue between the Iraqi government and neighborhood volunteers—the Concerned Local Citizens.
The only responsible stance in such a situation is to go slow on troop drawdowns. General Petraeus has recommended a pause and evaluation before resuming the withdrawals. But certain sectors of the administration and the military seem determined to accelerate the pace of withdrawals no matter what. On Friday a “senior White House official”—presumably National Security Adviser Steve Hadley or possibly his deputy, Doug Lute—told reports that, as the Wall Street Journal story has it, “the temporary halt in troop reductions set to begin in July would likely last only four to six weeks, and further withdrawals would almost certainly occur in 2008.” This same article quotes aides to Defense Secretary Bob Gates as saying “troop withdrawals could resume this fall and continue at the pace of one brigade — about 3,500-4,500 troops — a month, pushing overall troop levels down to roughly 115,000 by the end of the year, the lowest level since the invasion.”
Why does anyone in the administration think it’s helpful to raise expectations that U.S. troop levels could fall so dramatically by the end of the year? It can’t be for domestic political reasons, surely. The president isn’t standing for reelection, and the Republican nominee, John McCain, has been the most stalwart defender of the surge. In any case, in the past we’ve seen that what has hurt public support for the war effort and the Republican Party is not the total troop levels but the perception that our troops weren’t winning. Now our troops are winning, but a too-sudden withdrawal could jeopardize that progress.
I fully understand and sympathize with the imperative to drawdown. General George Casey, the army chief of staff, is right to warn of the strain on the force. The sacrifices of our fighting men and women have been beyond praise, and everyone wishes we could bring as many of them home as soon as possible. But few soldiers I have spoken to want to come home prematurely if it means leaving the mission undone. And make no mistake: that is the risk we run.
It’s quite possible that it may be prudent to resume a drawdown in the fall. But why speculate about that now? It can only encourage our enemies to wait us out and doubt our resolve. At least that has been the effect in the past of such leaks about troop drawdowns which seemed to emanate every other month from the Rumsfeld Department of Defense.