Once again, we are being teased with the possibility that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq will be reduced. According to unnamed administration officials, Gen. David Petraeus the top U.S. military commander in Iraq is expected to propose a partial troop pullback in his September status report to Congress. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, once again, there is less there than meets the eye.
To begin, any U.S. troop reduction would only be partial. At best, we might see U.S. forces reduced to pre-surge levels or about 130,000 troops. Yet logic suggests that if 130,000 troops couldn’t stem the violence before, then scaling back to 130,000 troops would not improve the situation (especially since 160,000-plus troops don’t seem to be doing much better according to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index, the number of daily attacks from February through May were at a record high of nearly 160 and although the number of Iraqi civilians killed each month is lower, it is still several thousand).
It is expected that Gen. Petraeus’ recommendation will call for withdrawing U.S. troops from places that have become less violent and turn over security responsibilities to Iraqi forces, which begs the question of where U.S. troops would be withdrawn to. Indeed, it is entirely possible that the force in Iraq could remain the same but be redeployed within Iraq either moved to another hot spot (can you say Wack-A-Mole?) or held as a reserve force to respond to any rise in violence. But rearranging the U.S. military footprint inside Iraq is hardly a troop reduction. Moreover, the British experience of pulling forces out of Basra (a city once lauded by Vice President Cheney as a place "where things are going pretty well") suggests that withdrawing U.S. forces from areas where security and stability have been achieved will result in renewed violence. As British forces have left Basra, violence between Shi’ite militias has escalated over political supremacy and control over oil resources (according to one U.S. official, "it’s hard now to paint Basra as a success story").
The problem with either a partial reduction or redeployment of U.S. troops inside Iraq is that the United States will still be a foreign military occupier. And the problem with foreign military occupation is that it breeds resentment and fuels violence.
One solution to occupation that has been proposed is to withdraw U.S. troops to neighboring countries in the region for example, Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama’s plan would be to "redeploy our troops to other locations in the region, reassuring our allies that we will stay engaged in the Middle East." Although it’s not clear which countries would welcome those troops, what is tantamount to occupying other Muslim countries in the Middle East is no better than occupying Iraq. After all, it’s important to remember that Osama bin Laden’s grievance of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia ("the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places") was a reason why al-Qaeda attacked the United States on 9/11.
If there is a need to keep U.S. forces in reserve to respond against direct threats to the United States emanating from Iraq (or elsewhere in the Middle East), a better place for those forces would be in Europe (even though there is no threat to Europe that requires a U.S. military presence) where they would not be such an affront to Muslims. Better yet would be to bring those troops home. For both Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom, the United States military demonstrated that it could successfully conduct military operations without being forward-deployed in the theater of operations. And the United States military possesses true over-the-horizon power-projection capability U.S. Air Force B-2 bombers flew round-trip missions from Whitman Air Force Base in Montana to Afghanistan.
Partial pullback or redeployment in Iraq (or to other countries in the Middle East) is the same thing as getting a little bit pregnant. It is long past time to acknowledge the reality that the U.S. military presence in Iraq does more harm than good both to U.S. security and to Iraqis. That does not mean that withdrawing U.S. forces will solve all of Iraq’s problems. But it does mean that there is no military solution to Iraq’s problems, which means the only military solution is to withdraw U.S. troops and allow Iraqis to solve their own problems.