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Reduction in U.S. Troops Eyed for '04 Gradual Exit Strategy Tied to Iraq's Stability
By Thomas E. Ricks Washington Post Staff Writer Sunday, October 19, 2003; Page A01
U.S. military commanders have developed a plan to steadily cut back troop levels in Iraq next year, several senior Army officers said in recent interviews. Click here!
There are now 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. The plan to cut that number is well advanced and has been described in broad outline to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld but has not yet been approved by him. It would begin to draw down forces next spring, cutting the number of troops to fewer than 100,000 by next summer and then to 50,000 by mid-2005, officers involved in the planning said.
The plan, which amounts to being the first formal military exit strategy for Iraq, is designed to show how the U.S. presence might be reduced without undercutting the stability of the country. Military officials worry that if they do not begin cutting the size of the U.S. force, they could damage troop morale, leave the armed forces shorthanded if crises emerge in North Korea and elsewhere, and help create a long-term personnel shortage in the service.
At the same time, some of the people involved in the discussions said they consider the force reduction plan optimistic, as much a goal as a guaranteed outcome.
If it is implemented successfully, the troop reductions could reduce political pressure on the Bush administration as the presidential campaign gets fully underway.
The cuts are being planned even as other major changes are being set in motion. Most prominently, preliminary steps have been taken to ease out Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, who became the top U.S. commander in Iraq slightly more than four months ago, a senior Army general said. The general predicted that Sanchez will not be fired but may be promoted next year into a less challenging slot, such as chief of the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees operations in and around South America.
Sanchez, senior officials said, is expected to be replaced sometime next year by Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, who earlier this year became chief of the Army's 3rd Corps. That umbrella headquarters is based at Fort Hood, Tex., and oversees several of the major units that are in Iraq now or will go next year, such as the 4th Infantry Division, the 1st Cavalry Division and the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
Metz, who is traveling in Iraq, told reporters Friday that he expects U.S. troops to remain in the country until at least 2006. He is scheduled to move to Iraq by the end of this year, first as Sanchez's deputy, but in that position would take command of most military operations and leave Sanchez to focus more on political work, a senior military official said.
Some top officers and Pentagon civilians have expressed concern that Sanchez is overmatched strategically, but a senior official who works closely with him dismissed that, saying that "Sanchez is doing a great job over there." Asked for comment, Sanchez said yesterday that it is "news to me" if any senior officials are unhappy with his performance. He confirmed that he expects Metz to deploy in Iraq around December and eventually to succeed him, but described that as part of a planned rotation of headquarters operations. Metz did not respond to e-mail and telephone requests for comment.
In another shift in the U.S. presence, plans are being made to withdraw U.S. and British forces from some major Iraqi cities, a senior military official said. The first two cities being eyed for this change are Basra in the south and Mosul in the north. Those might be followed by a withdrawal from some "well-policed" neighborhoods in Baghdad, but there would not be a complete pullout from the capital, the official added.
Officials involved in the discussions about troop reductions insist that implementation will be dictated not by a set timetable, but by security conditions in Iraq. Nonetheless, the drawdown is tied to events that are scheduled to begin in January, when a major round of U.S. troop rotations that will last several months is to get underway.
During that period, the U.S. military hopes to turn over as many basic security functions as possible to the Iraqi security forces now being created and to any additional foreign peacekeepers that U.S. diplomacy secures. If the Iraqi security forces can shoulder more of the security burden, it might be possible to replace the departing divisions of about 16,000 troops each with brigades of about 5,000 each.
Over the spring, that changeover would represent a cumulative reduction of more than 30,000 soldiers; along with other cuts, it could lower the U.S. troop level to fewer than 100,000 by mid-2004.
As more units of Iraqi soldiers and civil defense troops are created, and as some additional foreign peacekeepers begin to arrive, cuts in U.S. troop levels would continue next year. Ideally, said one official involved in the planning, by mid-2005 the number of U.S. troops would be as low as 40,000. Army planners consider a presence of that size to be sustainable for years without placing undue stress on the overall force.
"That's what we're looking at right now," an Army general involved in the discussions said last week. He said the key question is, "What will it take to sustain the conditions under which you can have political and economic progress?"
Though the answer has not been reached, he said, the basic equation is in place. Army Gen. John Abizaid, chief of the Central Command, the U.S. military headquarters for Iraq and the Middle East, said last month in congressional testimony, "The more Iraqis that are policing, that are patrolling, that are doing the security work to defend their own country, the sooner we will be able to draw down our forces."
There is deep worry in the Army that if Iraqi security forces cannot shoulder more of the burden, the Army will have to maintain its current troop levels beyond the spring, which could create a personnel exodus that would threaten the viability of the all-volunteer force.
The cutbacks being contemplated would help the Army reduce that stress. "By my estimate, we can sustain six brigades in Iraq indefinitely," said retired Army Lt. Col. Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent think tank. With the addition of some Marines, Green Berets and troops from civil affairs, intelligence, military police and other specialized units, he noted, "That would put us in the 40,000 to 50,000 range."
"There isn't going to be any victory parade," said retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson, who has been advising the Pentagon on the creation of the Iraqi civil defense force. "But slowly, but surely, you might be able to say, we don't need a division, we need a regiment with a mobile reserve."
Some of the advocates of the troop drawdown concede that they consider it a "best-case" scenario. The "mid-case," said one defense expert, is that the security situation continues as it is and Iraqi units prove unreliable, requiring more U.S. troops than the drawdown plan would provide, while the worst case is that conditions worsen and Shiite attacks increase, increasing the number of U.S. casualties and possibly requiring U.S. reinforcements.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Gordon Rudd, a peacekeeping expert and military historian who worked this spring for the Coalition Provisional Authority, the civilian reconstruction administration in Baghdad, called the projection of major cuts "rosy and optimistic . . . but not beyond the realm of possibility -- nor inappropriate as a goal."
Nor would the cutbacks mean an end to the fighting or to U.S. casualties. Planners say they expect that while Iraqi forces would carry out many day-to-day military operations, such as checkpoint duty and patrolling, U.S. forces would continue to execute raids and other more sophisticated combat operations.
"American troops will stay on the offensive -- just smaller numbers, rather than big sweeps," said Eliot Cohen, a Johns Hopkins University expert on strategy who sits on the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, an advisory panel.
An array of Iraqi military and police organizations is being created to take up the burden. Current U.S. planning calls for Iraqi civil defense militiamen working with U.S. troops to number 25,000 by mid-summer, up from about 6,000 now. Also, the new Iraqi army, which now has just three battalions of about 700 men each, is slated to have about 40,000 troops a year from now. And there are supposed to be about 80,000 retrained Iraqi police officers within two years.
There already are 20,000 Iraqi security guards in a hastily created force that is assigned to protect 240 key sites, such as power transmission lines, oil pipelines and other key parts of the Iraqi infrastructure.
U.S. officials believe that having all those Iraqis conduct more front-line work, such as searches of homes and cars, will lessen the resentment Iraqis feel about Americans carrying out such invasive tasks.
"As they field those [Iraqi] battalions, they ought to put them on the street and put the Americans in garrisons -- and so put an Iraqi face on security," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner, who oversaw the initial U.S. reconstruction effort in Iraq this spring.
But some experts doubt that the new Iraqi forces will be capable of picking up those tasks, which could undercut the plan to draw down U.S. troops. "I do not place a lot of hope in the new Iraqi security forces, at least in the time frame" being discussed, said Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst of Middle Eastern militaries.
Also, there is some worry that even if Iraqis can execute tactical missions to provide security, they may not be able to carry out the larger, more difficult task of holding together Iraq as a nation.
"There is a fallacy in the 'turn it over to the Iraqis for security' argument," said retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner, who has taught strategy at the National War College. "The strategic problem, and the problem that will demand keeping a large U.S. presence, is the danger of a fractured Iraq." Without a large number of U.S. troops on Iraqi ground, he said, the country could quickly split into a Kurdish north, a Sunni center and a Shiite south.
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