President Bush today announced that he would be following U.S. Army General David Petraeus’ recommendations to withdraw 25 percent of American combat forces from Iraq by the end of July. Despite the president’s assertion that the withdrawal of these troops represents a “return on success” from his “surge” policy, the president is merely making a virtue out of necessity.
The fact of the matter is that these 5 brigades, or about 20,000 combat troops, were scheduled to be withdrawn after their 15 month tours came to an end—whether Iraq witnessed a temporary decline in violence or not. It would have taken extraordinary measures such as an extension of these soldiers’ deployments to 18 months to maintain current levels beyond this time.
Moreover, the 8,000 support personnel that deployed along with the surge’s additional combat brigades will remain in Iraq after the surge draws down. This means that even with the current reduction in force levels, there will be more soldiers and Marines in Iraq after the surge runs its course in July than when it began in January of 2007. The president also announced that Army units would begin a one-to-one deployment-to dwell-time ratio, or 12 months deployed in combat followed by 12 months of dwell time. Dwell time is time at home between deployments to rest, reset, reconnect with family, integrate new unit members, train, and prepare to deploy again for combat.
These decisions are inadequate for two reasons. First, this change will have no immediate effect on relieving the stress and strain on our soldiers because it will not reduce the tours of any soldier currently deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan—and will only affect soldiers deploying after August 1, 2008. In fact, tens of thousands of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan will remain there under the 15-month cycle until their deployment is over.
Second, even with this modest reduction in deployment length, the president will still be forcing the Defense Department to violate its own deployment policy. U.S. Department of Defense policy calls for a 1-to-2 ratio of deployment to dwell time. Dwell time is critically important to maintaining high levels of readiness in our armed forces.
President Bush also made no mention of the Marine Corps in his remarks. Though smaller than the Army, the Marine Corps, too, is feeling the effects of frequent repeated deployments.
To justify his actions, the president insisted that a “strategic shift” has taken place in Iraq. The reality appears more like a “strategic drift.” As the president pointed out, Iraqis are taking increasing control of security in their respective neighborhoods. This is true, but at a cost to the president’s stated goal of a unified, independent, and stable Iraq that is an ally in the war on terrorism
Case in point: The United States today independently funds approximately 90,000 predominantly Sunni militiamen across Iraq, many of whom demonstrate little allegiance to Iraq’s central government, and some of whom until recently were members of the Sunni insurgency attacking U.S. forces in Iraq. These Awakening groups have made it clear their allegiance is to their own religious sect and Sunni tribes, not the Iraqi government or the United States. Their possible return to the insurgency will ultimately (and perhaps quickly) under mine the security progress that has been made.
In recent weeks, the United States has also provided air and ground military support to one side in an intra-Shi’a civil war that has raged throughout the southern and central parts of Iraq. Moreover, the Bush administration continues to provide unconditional and open-ended support to an Iraqi central govern ment bitterly divided along sectarian and ethnic lines.
Consequently, the United States has made achieving lasting national reconciliation more elusive by providing support to different sides in Iraq’s internal conflicts through separate channels. Today, Iraq is no closer to be coming a dependable and independent ally in the fight against radical Islamist extremists than it was in January 2007. And the United States is less secure than it was 15 months ago.
Put simply, President Bush’s 2007 military escalation in Iraq has failed strategically despite some short-term tactical gains. The time to implement a strategic reset of U.S. military and diplomatic strategy in Iraq and around the region is long overdue.
Lawrence Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.
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