Counting Troops in Iraq

This past week, both the House and the Senate debated and voted on legislation affecting the deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq. In the Senate, the issue was the length of time soldiers and Marines would have at home between deployments to the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. In the House, Ike Skelton (D-MO) introduced a bill requiring the secretary of defense to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq within 120 days of the legislation becoming law and complete the drawdown to a “limited presence” – a heretofore unknown parameter – by April 1, 2008.

While each of these pieces of legislation would substantially change the current tactics and missions of U.S. forces, neither provides an answer to three vital questions:

  • Will combat units configured as “quick reaction” forces be positioned in Iraq, on its periphery, or afloat in the Persian Gulf?
  • If combat units are kept in Iraq, how many troops will remain, including combat support and training cadre?
  • Where will these soldiers and civilian personnel be located if they are based in Iraq?

The current legislation raises as many questions as it answers. There is a simpler alternative.

Current Troop Levels

With the 29,600 extra troops (21,500 combat and another 8,100 combat support) that constitute the six month-old surge, U.S. military strength in Iraq stands at approximately 160,000. It is expected to stay at that level at least until October 1, 2007, the start of the new fiscal year, if not until next spring. The administration will come under increasingly heavy pressure from its congressional allies to “reduce” the total U.S. military presence in Iraq to its “pre-surge” total of 130,000 or risk a political and electoral firestorm in November 2008.

The administration will likely announce the first reductions between September 15- October 1, 2007 – that is, between the date it must send Congress a promised progress report by General David Petraeus and the start of the new fiscal year. Judging from the interim report released July 12 and defended by President Bush during an hour-long press conference, the mid-September report will be carefully parsed by everyone: Democrats, Republicans, the press, and perhaps the public as well.

Whatever the details of the troop drawdown announcement, there will not likely be a firm date by which all combat troops – let alone all military personnel other than the normal Marine Corps contingent stationed at U.S. embassies – are withdrawn from Iraq. The Pentagon will continue to pursue conflicting if not contradictory mission(s), only with fewer forces left “in-country.”

In general terms, the residual force will assume a scaled-down version of missions assigned at one time or another. These include: training Iraqi army and police units; providing “force protection” capabilities for U.S. training personnel and installations; helping seal Iraq’s borders to prevent arms and anti-U.S. and anti-Iraqi government fighters from entering Iraq; and carrying the fight to al-Qaeda-in Iraq. There will also be one new mission: providing a “quick reaction” capability for Iraqi government forces as needed.

The proposed legislation contains all sorts of caveats, exceptions, and restrictions, all of which the president can waive if he determines them detrimental to national security. What remains equally unclear is how reducing troop levels by 30,000 or 50,000 or 80,000 will substantially improve conditions in Iraq – the administration’s proclaimed objective for continuing the occupation of the country. Even with the current troop surge, violence overall has not decreased. It has only shifted away from Baghdad and al-Anbar province to other parts of Iraq.

Fewer U.S. troops on urban patrols will produce fewer Iraqi and U.S. fatalities. Removing U.S. troops from vehicular roadblocks and checkpoints will save Iraqi lives (military sources concede that U.S. troops manning checkpoints or running convoy duty killed or wounded 429 Iraqis in the last 12 months). But these steps will not decrease the level of inter- and even intra-sectarian and ethnic violence that now ravages Iraq.

Another Private Matter

The proposed legislation also doesn’t clarify the role of the other not-so-secret U.S. army in Iraq: the private contractors. Even with the surge in military troop strength to 160,000, the U.S., Iraqi, and other private contractors exceed at least by 20,000 those in uniform, according to U.S. government statistics. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, a breakdown of the total shows that, as of February 2007, companies under U.S. government contracts and thereby financed by U.S. taxpayer dollars employed 21,000 U.S. citizens, 43,000 foreign personnel, and 118,000 Iraqis. A reduction in military personnel should translate into reductions in the total number of contractors needed to feed soldiers and clean and repair bases, but just how many and from which category will not be determined until the Pentagon decides on redeployment.

The contractor picture is further complicated by the presence of a large number of individuals employed by private security firms under contract to the United States. The Pentagon estimates 6,000 such contractors while Central Command’s database lists 10,800. Both totals are well below the private security company association’s figure of 30,000 in Iraq. Any drawdown of U.S. troop strength probably will not affect private security contractors, many of whom protect Iraqis or U.S. executives living in or visiting Iraq in connection with rebuilding its infrastructure and institutions.

One sure way to cut through all the ambiguities and uncertainty would be to start withdrawing troops no later than October 1, 2007 and simply keep going until all armed forces – combat, combat support, and combat service support – have left Iraq. This would enable the Iraqi government to determine which American companies it wants to help rebuild the country and how many U.S. citizens it allows within its borders. But until Baghdad gets firm control over its economy – and no longer has to deal with occupation conditions – it will continue to struggle to achieve political coherence among its many ethnic and sectarian divisions and to re-emerge as a single sovereign state.

U.S. and coalition troops have little or no effect on the levels of intra- and inter-sectarian and ethnic violence, which are the main impediments to the political, constitutional, social, and economic regeneration of Iraq as a sovereign country. So there can be no reason for keeping even a “limited presence” of foreign military troops in Iraq. The logic of the remedy could not be clearer. The generals on the ground in Baghdad and the politicians in Washington admit that there is no military solution to the Iraq imbroglio. This argues in and of itself that there is no mission for U.S. troops. Without a mission, they should return home – no ifs, ands, or buts.

Reprinted with permission from Foregin Policy in Focus.