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Iraq: Is U.S. General Hinting At Firm Timetable For Withdrawal From Iraq?

There are currently 18,000 U.S. troops in Iraq (file photo) U.S. President George W. Bush has long insisted that he will not set a timetable for the withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq. To do so, he says, would only allow insurgents to conserve their resources and then mount a full-scale attack on Iraqi security forces once U.S. troops are gone. Bush says the United States and its allies will stay in the country until the Iraqis are able to defend themselves. But recently the senior U.S. military commander in Iraq seemed to suggest that a withdrawal timetable could be in the works. Is this a shift of Bush administration policy?

Washington, 9 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- General George Casey was standing next to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when he made the statement in Baghdad on 28 July: "If the political process continues to go positively and if the development of the security forces continues to go as it is going, I do believe we will still be able to take some fairly substantial reductions after these elections in the spring and summer next year."

Six days later, however, during a speech in Grapevine, Texas, Bush explicitly restated his position that there was no firm timetable. But in Washington, questions remained about whether his administration was beginning to adjust to the idea of a firm deadline.

To retired U.S. Army Colonel Kenneth Allard, Casey's statement is little more than wishful thinking by the Pentagon. Allard is a military analyst and is writing a book on how the United States came to invade Iraq.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Allard pointed to the conditions in Casey's statement: Iraq's progress in establishing political institutions and a credible security force.

Allard said that won't happen anytime next year because there are too few U.S. forces in Iraq to both fight the insurgency and train indigenous soldiers.

In short, Allard said, there is too much for the U.S. military to do, and too few soldiers to do it.

In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, there are also growing responsibilities for troops at home. Americans soldiers help with recovery efforts following violent U.S. weather like last year's hurricanes. They are also being used for domestic antiterrorism efforts.

With the U.S. military stretched so thin, Allard said, operations in Iraq will remain a daunting task.

"Whether you talk about homeland defense, whether you talk about 'What do you do about national emergencies like hurricanes?' or 'What do we do about Iraq?', what it comes down to is that we simply do not have enough troops in uniform," Allard said. "And I don't care how you [analyze] it, and what the cause is, all the answers come back to very much the same thing."
"Whether you talk about homeland defense, whether you talk about 'What do you do about national emergencies like hurricanes?' or 'What do we do about Iraq?', what it comes down to is that we simply do not have enough troops in uniform. And I don't care how you [analyze] it, and what the cause is, all the answers come back to very much the same thing."

Because of this personnel shortage in Iraq, Allard said, the war is increasingly reminding him of Vietnam.

"So many of the tactics [in Iraq] reminded me of nothing so much as what we saw with Vietnam," he said. "We would clear an area -- we would have operations to do that -- then we would just basically abandon it to the enemy. When they would come back, we would come back, too. We'd have to fight for the same real estate twice. And when I asked that question of the Pentagon people that I talked to, the answer came back, 'Well, yes, but the ultimate answer is, of course, to have Iraqi boots on the ground and Iraqi eyes on those targets, not ours.' Well, what do you do until [the Iraqis are] ready?"

Allard said Bush might eventually have to resort to what he called a "political solution": withdrawing troops to appease U.S. public opinion before the Iraqis are ready to defend themselves -- just as U.S. forces were withdrawn from Vietnam.

Marcus Corbin, who studies military issues at a private policy research center in Washington called the Center for Defense Information, said he is less convinced that Bush will settle for a "political option" in Iraq.

Corbin said the Bush administration seems to be "particularly immune to pubic opinion" as regards the Iraq war. More than 1,800 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq, and dissatisfaction with the conflict is growing.

Still, Corbin said, he doesn't believe Bush is likely to feel the need to appease restive Americans by pulling out before Iraqi forces are ready to provide security on their own.

"I think the [Americans'] feelings are clearly [and] steadily but slowly progressing against the war, and I think they know that in the White House," Corbin said. "But it's still pretty early in terms of strong domestic pressure for a pullout."

Corbin said that when senior public figures like General Casey speculate about a future pullout, it is important to consider the audiences for which they are intended. He said Bush's insistence that there are no withdrawal timetables is clearly meant to improve the morale of the American people by emphasizing U.S. military might.

But Casey's audience, according to Corbin, seems to be the Iraqis and their leaders.

"Perhaps the general's statements are part of the effort to cut the umbilical cord to the new [Iraqi] government," Corbin said. "The U.S. wants to convey to the Iraqis that the U.S. is serious about going, and so the Iraqis had better get in shape quickly and take over full responsibility and get their system -- political system -- set up."

Corbin noted that Casey's message has an additional audience: the U.S. troops now stationed in Iraq. Letting them know that they'll eventually be sent home, he said, is likely to improve morale.

Although Casey did not offer an estimate of how many troops could go home next year, Pentagon officials have mentioned a figure of 20,000 to 30,000 troops.

Before then, however, the Pentagon may sent more troops into Iraq. Defense officials said yesterday that they plan to raise troop levels this fall to increase security for Iraq's constitutional referendum in October and government elections in December.

The Pentagon did not say how big an increase was expected. There are currently 139,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.