Yesterday, I noted that when General Petraeus reports to Congress in September, he probably won’t be able to provide the kind of news that will sustain support for the current “surge.” At that point, as I put it, “President Bush may be forced to agree to a reduction in troop levels, along with a new strategy, in order to be able to continue operating militarily in Iraq at all.”
Today’s Washington Post speculates about what that new strategy will be. The Post suggests that “the drawdown of troops is likely to begin by the middle of next year, with roughly two-thirds of the current force of 150,000 moving out by late 2008 or early 2009.” In one plan, a mechanized infantry division of around 20,000 troops would guarantee the security of the Iraqi government and assist Iraqi fighters if they get into fights they can’t handle. Meanwhile, an additional 10,000 or so troops would work with Iraqi military police units.
This approach is not terribly different from the one I recommended last fall before the surge began, although I was thinking in terms of a U.S. presence of 50,000 to 60,000 troops. Its main weakness, I think, is that it leaves us unable to protect Sunni populations in mixed or predominantly Shia areas. Since we cannot expect the government to provide such protection, sectarian violence might well increase dramatically. And since this scenario implies a strong de facto tilt by the U.S. towards the Shia, we may not be able to retain enough trust from Sunni leaders to sustain the progress we’ve made in places like Anbar province. In addition, a diminished presence means diminished influence over Shia politics, and that carries the risk that anti-American Shia radicals will become even more influential.
Nonetheless, this looks like where things are heading in Iraq. The challenge for the administration in its last year likely will be to find an approach that minimizes U.S. casualties but maintains a sufficient presence to prevent the worst scenarios in Iraq. Assuming there is such an approach to be found.
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