Barack Obama is taking heat for hinting that he might refine his 16-month timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. But a forthcoming Pentagon-sponsored report will recommend an even steeper drawdown in less time, NEWSWEEK has learned. If adopted, the 300-page report by a defense analysis group at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., could transform the debate about Iraq in the presidential election.
Expected to be completed in about a month, it will recommend that U.S. forces be reduced to as few as 50,000 by the spring of 2009, down from about 150,000 now. The strategy is based on a major handoff to the increasingly successful Iraqi Army, with platoon-size U.S. detachments backing the Iraqis from small outposts, with air support. The large U.S. forward operating bases that house the bulk of U.S. troops would be mostly abandoned, and the role of Special Forces would increase.
The report's conclusions have been discussed inside Secretary Robert Gates's Defense Policy Board, a body of outside experts. And they've found favor with some former members of the Iraq Study Group, such as former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta. "That's basically the approach we thought made sense—embedding some of our forces at smaller outposts, transferring major combat to the Iraqis," says Panetta.
Now, General Petraeus is saying he knew nothing about this study, and that's reasonable to conclude--he isn't exactly sitting around waiting for studies to pour in. What General Petraeus needs to do is align himself with the idea that the war in Iraq is not an endless hole in which to stuff troops that we don't have. If he wants to continue his career, he has to break with the Bush Administration and join the reality-based club. Obama at least realizes that this is about numbers, not a wish list for neocons. We don't have the numbers to sustain 140,000 troops in Iraq--not unless we empty Afghanistan, Europe, and Japan and walk away from those commitments. The Republican Party has broken the US military, and that should be the number one issue this fall, closely followed by the issues of tearing up the Constitution, abandoning Veterans, and ruining the economy.
The US Army needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. A radical reorganization and retraining needs to take place--emphasizing lessons learned and mistakes acknowledged. We have a unique situation with our military. We have hundreds of thousands of combat Veterans who can form the cadre and the backbone of a transformed Army that can defend American interests, if we can keep them. If we don't emphasize their medical care and their quality of life, these men and women are going to bolt the service and the institutional lessons of the Iraq War will leave with them.
I am not in the school of thought that says we must place strong emphasis on Counterinsurgency (COIN) tactics. All we are doing when we do that is hand the civilian leadership the justification to go out and find us the next insurgency to fight somewhere in the world. Build an Army that does only COIN, and that's the fight that the civilians will pick with someone. Better to have light units that can do COIN and their current missions; better to emphasize to all troops that COIN is something they might have to do one day and allow those hundreds of thousands of Veterans to train accordingly for it, but not exclusively for it. Nation building does not work. If a President Obama decides to go out and engage in nation building, I will be extremely disappointed.
None of this can happen under a President McCain. There will be no drawdown or resting of our exhausted forces under him--only a slow, grinding hell that allows him political cover until the next opportunity for glory reveals itself.