After months of dragging its feet on defining a post-2011 role for America in Iraq, the administration has finally come out with a recommendation on what kind of troop numbers it would like to see going forward. Or at least the secretary of defense has, if news reports are to be believed. Leon Panetta apparently suggests keeping only 3,000 to 4,000 U.S. troops–down from almost 50,000 today.
That’s better than nothing, I suppose, but it’s a shockingly low number–far below the figure of 14,000 to 18,000 troops that, according to the New York Times, has been recommended by Gen. Lloyd Austin, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq. My own view (as I testified before Congress) has been that we need at least 20,000 but could live with 10,000-12,000–the previous low figure which had been discussed in Washington.
If we have only 3,000 to 4,000, it’s not clear they can do much of anything beyond defend themselves–and perhaps not even that. Certainly it will be impossible to carry out two of the most important missions now performed by U.S. forces: counter-terrorism (primarily Special Operations raids) and peacekeeping along the Green Line separating the Kurdish region from Iraq proper. The only mission such a small number could perform would be some limited training and support of the Iraqi Security Forces. Very limited.
Of course, it’s possible we may not be able to keep any troops at all, given the paralysis of the Iraqi political system on this supremely sensitive issue. But at the very least, one would think senior administration officials would lobby aggressively for the highest figure possible. By putting out a figure of 3,000 to 4,000, Panetta is essentially throwing in the towel, giving up hope of any meaningful American presence that could help keep Iraq from spiraling out of control. Iraq may be okay in any case, but the odds of a calamity increase as U.S. troop figures decrease.
Unfortunately, this is part of a pattern with this administration, which supports the military only up to a point. In Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal submitted a range of troop requests; the president chose to send only 30,000 troops–the bare minimum–and then decided to bring them home early in the face of unanimous opposition from senior military leaders. Now this.
There is nothing wrong with civilian leaders exercising independent judgment and not rubber-stamping military requests. But they should present a compelling strategic argument for why the military is wrong. That hasn’t happened in the case of Afghanistan, leading to widespread suspicion the troop drawdown is motivated more by political calculations at home than by the reality on the ground. It will be interesting to see the administration make the case for keeping only 3,000 to 4,000 troops in Iraq–if that is in fact its official position.
My fear is this may be just enough troops to provide targets for Iranian-backed militias but not enough to have a meaningful impact in a country of more than 25 million people.