Commentary

Don’t Get Fooled Again

President Bush has endorsed General David Petraeus’s recommendation to begin withdrawing 30,000 U.S. troops from Iraq by next summer. Yet the drawdown would only restore troop levels to where they were before the surge began in January 2007.

In the final months of 2006, debate in Washington centered on how fast a reduction from pre-surge levels could occur. The Iraq Study Group recommended that approximately half of the 130,000 troops then in Iraq be withdrawn by early 2008. In marked contrast to that and similar proposals, President Bush is now endorsing a step that would mean a return to the status quo of late 2006. That is something less than a dramatic step.

Even Bush’s proposal for a modest withdrawal is conditioned on a continued improvement in Iraq’s security environment. Gen. Petraeus and other supporters of the surge contend that it has succeeded in dampening the violence in certain areas of the country (most notably some areas of Baghdad and in Anbar province).

But the military’s own statistics, as cited by Petraeus, indicate that the level of violence in the country as a whole has merely dropped to the “normal” levels of spring 2006, when Iraq was hardly a peaceful place. And independent estimates from the Associated Press and other sources dispute the military’s figures, contending that the drop in violence is much more limited. In any case, it is a leap of faith to assume that any decrease in attacks and killings would persist if the troops deployed during the surge were withdrawn.

We have heard Bush administration officials express optimism for a reduction in the U.S. military presence many, many times before. Indeed, the Pentagon’s original plan envisioned — quite astonishingly — having no more than 50,000 to 60,000, and perhaps as few as 30,000 troops remaining in Iraq by the end of 2003.

Periodically thereafter, U.S. officials indicated that a partial withdrawal of troops was likely in the not-too-distant future. In December 2005, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld informed reporters that adjustments “will reduce forces in Iraq by the spring of 2006 below the current high of 160,000 during the [Iraqi] election period to below the 138,000 baseline that had existed before the most recent elections.”

Six months later, Gen. George Casey, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq stated: “I am confident that we will be able to continue to take reductions over the course of this year.”

But the promises of troop drawdowns were always set months into the future — and the future never seemed to arrive. That alone ought to make us skeptical about a new prediction that cuts may occur by next summer. And as with the previous enticements, this latest initiative is predicated on improvements in Iraq’s security environment. For almost four years, President Bush has been telling us that “as the Iraqi security forces stand up, we will be able to stand down.”

The problem with such a prerequisite is that the Iraqi security forces have never been able to stand on their own. Indeed, those forces are so riven with the sectarian divisions that afflict overall Iraqi society that it is misleading even to regard them as a unified entity. A report issued just last week by a panel of retired U.S. military officers concluded that the Iraqi army would not be able to operate effectively on its own in the next twelve to 18 months, and that the national police force was so heavily infiltrated by sectarian militias that it should be disbanded.

The brutal truth is that if the drawdown of American troops is contingent on the emergence of a peaceful security environment in Iraq and the development of an effective, united Iraqi security force, we will not be able to implement even a partial withdrawal in the foreseeable future. The Petraeus-Bush goal of a cut in forces by next summer is merely the latest in a depressing series of false hopes held out to the American people.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of seven books on international affairs. He is also the author of the study, “Escaping the Trap: Why the United States Must Leave Iraq” (February 2007).