Not Home for the Holidays

It must be the holidays, because, once again, the administration is holding out the prospect of drawing down troop levels in Iraq. Two years ago, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld hinted at the possibility of U.S. troop reductions in Iraq when he announced that two brigades scheduled for combat tours would not be deployed and that troop levels might fall below 130,000 U.S. soldiers in March (the force size in Iraq at the time was about 138,000). Last Christmas, there was no happy talk about bringing troops home because the administration was gearing up for the current surge of troops due to lack of success on the security front (the surge has resulted in about 158,800 U.S. soldiers currently in Iraq). But, in Orwellian fashion, even the surge was portrayed as a way to reduce troop levels – the so-called "Go Long" strategy that called for a short-term boost in troop levels but a smaller force over the longer term with less emphasis on combat troops and more emphasis on advisers and trainers (what one defense official described as "Go Big but Short While Transitioning to Go Long"). Now, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is holding out the prospect that five brigade combat teams (BCTs) could be withdrawn from Iraq by the middle of 2008 and another five BCTs in the second half of the year – leaving 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq at the end of next year.

Of course, all this talk about bringing U.S. troops home is conditional. In 2005, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace said, "If things go the way we expect them to, as more Iraqi units stand up, we’ll be able to bring our troops down and turn over that territory to the Iraqis." But – and there’s always a but – he also said, "But on the other hand, the enemy has a vote in this, and if they were to cause some kind of problems that required more troops, then we would do exactly what we’ve done in the past, which is give the commanders on the ground what they need. And in that case, you could see troop level go up a little bit to handle that problem."

Two years later, Gates emphasizes that any troop reductions in Iraq are "conditions-based." The good news is that violence in Iraq is currently at its lowest levels since 2003, which is the reason for expressing some optimism about being able to bring U.S. troops home. But according to Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, the outgoing U.S. commander in Baghdad, the current situation is "fledgling, fragile and not guaranteed." Hence, according to Fil, "There is absolutely the risk of going to quickly." The reality is that not much has changed since Bush declared "As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down" in August 2005. Since the current conditions are not guaranteed and are believed to be possible only because of the larger U.S. force presence, they could easily change – which would mean continuing to stay rather than go.

Indeed, it seems that – even if U.S. forces are reduced over the course of the next year as Gates hopes – the United States will stay in Iraq for some time. According to a declaration of principles signed by President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the United States is now committed to a "long-term relationship" with Iraq that includes "security assurances and commitments" to defend Iraq "against internal and external threats." Some Iraqi officials foresee a continued presence of 50,000 U.S. troops (about one-third of the current size of the U.S. Army) as a security guarantee.

Ultimately, home for the holidays is a false hope. Not only will American soldiers not be coming home from Iraq for the holidays this year to be reunited with their loved ones, they are not likely to be coming home for a while – even in a post-Bush administration world. After all, at a September 2007 New Hampshire debate, none of the leading Democratic candidates were willing to guarantee that all U.S. troops would be pulled out of Iraq by the end of their first term in 2013.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.