On last Sunday's Defense News TV, I suggested that although we are officially supposed to have zero troops in Iraq by the end of next year, there was a real prospect that we might have a harder time getting out than most analysts are suggesting. This suggestion was roundly pooh-poohed, and I'm aware that it's a minority view. An extreme minority view.
Monday, though, Gen. Odierno remarked that the withdrawal could be slowed. Although we're supposed to be down under 50K troops by the end of this summer,
"I have contingency plans that I've briefed to the chain of command this week that we could execute if we run into problems," Gen. Odierno said. "We're prepared to execute those."
The commander said he would consider slowing the withdrawal "if something happens" in Iraq over the next two to three months.
This is nothing like a knockout punch for my position, but it's interesting. So is Tom Ricks' column in the New York Times today, which says, as best I can tell, that we should stay in Iraq basically forever:
All the existential questions that plagued Iraq before the surge remain unanswered. How will oil revenue be shared among the country’s major groups? What is to be the fundamental relationship between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds? Will Iraq have a strong central government or be a loose confederation? And what will be the role of Iran (for my money, the biggest winner in the Iraq war thus far)?
Extending the American military presence will be even more politically controversial in Iraq, and for that reason, it would be best to let Iraqi leaders make the first public move to re-open the status of forces agreement of 2008, which calls for American troops to be out of the country by the end of next year. But I think leaders in both countries may come to recognize that the best way to deter a return to civil war is to find a way to keep 30,000 to 50,000 United States service members in Iraq for many years to come.
This, too, is far from a knockout punch for my view that we might be in Iraq well beyond 2011. But keep an eye out for more pieces like this from analysts like Ricks, who is well-connected to the counterinsurgency gurus here in DC and to Odierno himself.