The general conventional wisdom, as I understand it, is that some kind of substantial US troop reductions in Iraq are going to occur at some point over the course of 2006. On the surface, I don't exactly have a problem with that, so long as it's being done for the right reasons. The problem is that I don't think that this issue is altogether clear, which is one of the reasons that I think needs further examination.
Now contrary to the belief of some, I don't derive any neo-colonial satisfaction that US troops are off in a distant land killing foreigners and it has never been my view that Iraq subsist under some kind of permanent US military occupation. This should be distinguished from the view that the US should foreswear any kind of future military presence in Iraq altogether, which I see as a different issue altogether from whether or not US forces should continue to function in the security and counter-insurgency aspects on the scale that they currently are. As long as our considerations for drawing troops down are being motivated by realistic security concerns as well as the very real state of the Iraqi military and security infrastructure - Cordesman's projections, for instance, state that they aren't likely to have a working intelligence service until around the end of this year and it'll be interesting to see what change, if any, occurs in the performance of the Iraqi units once they get their own intelligence networks up and running.
What I'm worried about, and this was underscored by my Thanksgiving trip back home to Fort Leavenworth and talking with literally dozens of officers and enlisted who have recently served in Iraq (I communicate with a lot of them, as well as folks still serving in Iraq, on a regular basis via e-mail, but there's a big difference between getting this sentiment in one-on-one conversations versus getting it from dozens of people in person in 24-48 hours), is that a lot of the impetus to pull US forces from Iraq are due to the fact that the National Guard and the Reserves are more or less broken and aren't likely to be replaced any time soon. One officer that I have a lot of respect for stated that had we increased the total size of our military in 2001 or 2002 or 2003 or even 2004, it would have gone a long way towards avoiding many of the current problems that we are currently facing. Assuming this officer wasn't relying on hyperbole, this would seem to add further ammo, at least to me, for the McCain/DLC initiative to increase the total size of the US military.
The other major issue with drawing down US troops that concerns me is that, yes, 2006 is an election year and given the unpopularity of both Congress and the administration I think that it is becoming increasingly attractive among much of the GOP political class to declare victory and go home in the hopes of placating increasingly dropping public support for the war. During the run-up to the 2004 election, I remember reading a liberal pundit (whose name I cannot recall from memory) write that the best way for Kerry to win the election was to take on Bush's strength in the area of fighting terrorism head-on by declaring that he could fight a better war. While we can debate the wisdom of Kerry's proposals, I do feel under an obligation not to hold the administration that I supported under any less scrutiny when it comes to Iraq than I would its opponents and if both the administration and the GOP Congress are willing to place political expediency above principle, it's nothing short of detestable.
One further point that I want to make regarding the stakes of leaving Iraq prematurely, I want to take issue with my former Belgravia co-blogger Eric Martin on this point:
Should I point out what a big favor it would be to us if Bin Laden and Zawahiri decided to come out of hiding and take up residence in one of Saddam's palaces? Out in the open? Within range of an air strike even if our troops are out of country? Regardless, I don't really think I need to explain how utterly and completely out of the realm of possibility such an al-Qaeda led coup would be.
Perhaps because I don't think it as far as out of the realm of possibility as Eric, allow me to note a few criticisms of his critique. The first is that neither bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, or Zarqawi appear to have any interest in serving as the open rulers of any state, at least until the Caliphate is reformed. Bin Laden, for instance, never held any official position in the Taliban government (though there were rumors that he was granted the title of acting defense minister after his suicide bombers killed Massoud) regardless of the fact that he and his organization were the power behind the throne there. Much the same can also be said of Zarqawi with respect to his status in Fallujah, there was a mujahideen council that oversaw control of the town that included prominent members of his organization including Omar Hadid, but he wasn't a member of it. As with the spiritual leaders of their respective groups, all three men appear to regard the positions of head of state and the alike with a strong degree of apathy that is perhaps drawn from their apparent belief in conspiracies at both the national and international level. There is little reason to believe that an al-Qaeda ruled Iraq wouldn't operate the same way, with perhaps someone like Harith al-Dhari serving as the day-to-day operations of government and Zarqawi or someone comparable to him serving as the real power behind the throne.
In any event, the issue of whether or not an al-Qaeda ruled Iraq is possible is worth considering on a number of fronts, not the least of which being that Zarqawi already commands a formidable coalition that includes both Baathists and indigenous Iraqi jihadi groups and that contrary to media reports trying to draw an artificial distinction between foreign and Iraqi fighters, Cordesman and the head of CENTCOM intelligence all agree that the vast majority of Zarqawi fighters are themselves Iraqis. The argument that al-Qaeda cannot win in Iraq simply because it's a minority also needs to be compared with the fact that the Sunni Arabs were a minority (as are the Syrian Alawites, the Pakistani Punjabis, the Indonesian Javanese, and so on) and had no problem being able to dominate the country for decades relatively unchallenged. While the overwhelming majority of Iraqis don't seem to care for Zarqawi's brand of sha'riah, I doubt that most cared much for Saddam's rule either. If Zarqawi is able to credibly claim success at having driven the US from Iraq, I have no doubt that he can attract a sizeable number of Sunni Arabs to his banner on the grounds that he can restore their hegemony.
Having noted all of this, the question then becomes whether or not all of the various regional actors (particularly Turkey, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia) will just sit back and let al-Qaeda take over Iraq. The answer is of course not, but it is important to keep in mind that the Taliban's rise to power in Afghanistan didn't occur overnight either and that on 9/11 all of the major regional powers save Pakistan were pledging substantial support to the Northern Alliance. There is no reason, for instance, to think that potential Iranian support to various Iraqi Shi'ite groups wouldn't be just as ineffective as their support for the Northern Alliance was - especially given that Zarqawi has proven himself as being quite effective at going after targets in Iraq's southern Shi'ite region. Turkish military action against the Kurds to prevent them from declaring independence would likewise seriously hinder the PUK and KDP's effectiveness to serve as a bulwark against Zarqawi.
Now in fairness to Eric, I don't think that this is a terribly likely scenario. What's more likely is a Middle Eastern replay of the Congo with various regional actors intervening in Iraq (perhaps for the ostensible purpose of stopping Zarqawi) either on their own or in support of various factions, none of which would be able to achieve victory. The result of such violence, as in the Congo, would be that various insurgent groups (among which we can be assured Zarqawi's would be among) would be able to maintain crude but substantial zones of control within the Iraqi Sunni regions, thus providing al-Qaeda with enough of a legitimate base to plan and carry out attacks both inside Iraq as well as on neighboring states from a position of relative security.
Now I see that Daniel Benjamin also takes issue with this view, so allow me address his specific criticisms:
The jihadist organizations lack the heavy weapons and the manpower that would be required to seize control of Baghdad, to capture and hold large tracts of territory that are occupied by hostile Shiites and Kurds who outnumber Sunnis four to one, or to run the country.
Concerning the lack of heavy weapons, this is also a problem shared by the other Iraqi factions and militias so al-Qaeda in Iraq and its allies will be fighting on a relatively even playing field. Moreover, they have a robust international financial network with which to purchase such weaponry, something that is quite lacking for either the Shi'ites or the Kurds at present. As to the issue of numbers, Saddam maintained brutal control of the country despite his followers not consisting of a majority of the population and if Zarqawi is able to credibly take credit for driving the US from Iraq and reinvents himself as a restorer of Iraqi Sunni hegemony, he'll have more than enough followers to accomplish whatever he wants to achieve.
The insurgents might remain a formidable force by evading those who tried to hunt them down ó as they have done with U.S. and Iraqi forces ó but they could not conceivably prevail in the full-scale battles that the takeover of Iraq would entail. Only with the rapid influx of tens of thousands of fighters from outside Iraq could jihadists win control of the country. That scenario is farfetched.
Here again, I'm not necessarily certain that full-scale battles would be what we'd see unfold in Iraq so much as a somewhat faster replay of the Taliban conquest of Afghanistan because of the logistical issues hampering all sides. As for the issue of raising tens of thousands of fighters, if Zarqawi starts exercising open control of Anbar the way he did Fallujah from April to November 2004 in the wake of a US withdrawl, he'll have all of the fighters he needs.
These objections appear to be the main substantive criticisms that Benjamin offers in the course of the article. Now maybe he's right and maybe I am, but it's worth seriously looking at such a scenario rather than simply dismissing it off-hand as too perposterous to achieve during a time when discussion of drawing down troops seems to dominate discussion of Iraq on Capitol Hill. If you always plan for the worst, the only surprises you have will be pleasant ones.