Clearly one of the main issues facing the United States in terms of foreign policy decisions, is the future of our involvement in Iraq. It is a valid argument that we shouldn't waste time re-hashing the pre-war situation as these discussions are moot. However, I think it is instructive to look honestly at the situation as it stands. In order that we don't make the same mistakes going forward, I think it is essential to analyze present events to instruct ourselves in future policy. We should look at what we did, where it got us, where we succeeded, where we failed, and what we should do now. It is very hard to argue that the current form of the occupation is tenable. It is even harder to argue that it is generally supported by the population of Iraq. And it is impossible to argue that the lofty goals of a reconstructed infrastructure paid for with Iraqi oil will be reached anytime in the near future. The harsh realities of the state of affairs in Iraq will force the United States to make important decisions about our future involvement there. I will first look at the state of affairs in Iraq. Secondly, I will look at the likely policy prescriptions the US will employ in 2006. And finally, I will ask where that leaves us.
When I say that the current position is untenable, it is for a variety of reasons. First and foremost however the ability of the military to continue to supply soldiers and all that a soldier needs. I think that the ability to provide supplies is not a problem. There has been a bit of talk about a lack of body armor or armor kits for Humvees, but more or less, you have 150,000 of the best equipped soldiers in the world on the ground. As long as the military can keep the soldier levels up, there is no reason to think that they can't supply them with uniforms, weapons, transportation, food, etc.. The only real question is whether or not the current level of troops can be supported. We are loosing just over two soldiers per day and have been consistently since March 2003, resulting in total losses of over 2,200 troops to date. This in itself is not a strategic problem for the military. Considering the size of the fighting force, these losses are strategically rather insignificant. (They do, however, pose a problem for domestic support of the war which should probably not be overlooked). So the only real question is this: how long can the military expect to be able to keep 150,000 troops on the ground in Iraq?
Before I get to that question, let's just briefly look at the numbers. According to icasualties.org, the average number of coalition casualties per day since the March 2003 invation is 2.34 per day. It fluctuates month to month and period to period, but interestingly enough, as we get further and further into this war, the average remains virtually unchanged and it seems to be getting more and more consistent. Whereas early on we had months with over 4 per day and as little as .79 per day in February 2004, 2005 has seen a much more consistent loss of coalition life. But if you throw out the first few months of "major combat operations" you will see a pretty consistent pattern. So the next time you hear someone on the left saying things are getting worse, or someone on the right saying things are getting better, just remember this: things are essentially unchanged. Unchanged as well are the number of insurgent attacks. There are less suicide bombings of late, yet more air strikes. So for the civilians, they are still being killed at about the same rate. The only difference is who is killing them.
The air strikes are, in my view, one of the main reasons why the Iraqi population wants us out. The most recent polls suggest as many as 80 percent of Iraqis want the US to leave the country. In a democracy, that makes our exit ostensibly precipitous. Another thing to consider is the Iraqi oil output. Before the war it stood at 2.6 million barrels per day, or thereabout. It is now barely 1 million per day. This drop is due mostly to sabotage. So some would argue that we should stay if for no other reason that to protect the pipelines, since the revenue created from these is the only thing that could fund Iraqi reconstruction. But is our continued presence, or indeed an expanded presence viable?
Assuming that the situation is unchanged year on year, what should be the policy prescriptions for the United States? Some would argue that the troop level should be increased. This seems logical enough if the US is serious about quelling the insurgency. If no progress is being made (in terms of attacks and coalition losses) then a stronger force is needed. Others would argue that the US should start getting out since no progress is being made. They gave it their best shot. They were successful at removing Saddam from power, but they cannot quell the insurgency and by many accounts may be fuelling it. Either way, some change ought to be made. It seems illogical to continue down the exact same course when year on year the results are the same. So what will the US do?
According to Senator Joseph Biden on the Armed Forces committee, in 2006, either the laws of National guard deployment will have to be changed, or they will have to institute a draft, or make some other major change in the distribution of troops world-wide if current troop levels are to remain the same (never mind what would have to be done to increase the levels significantly). A clear possiblilty is the deployment of a percentage of the troops in Germany (some 70,000) into Iraq. The problem with any of these solutions is that the US military then shows the world its hand. There has been a lot of heated discussion on the blogs as to whether or not the US Military is over-stretched. I think if any of the three possible policy prescriptions above are taken, those who believe that the military is over-stretched will be vindicated.
Therefore, I think in the coming months you will see a gradual drawdown of troops. However, it will not be for the reasons posited by either side. The conservatives will point to the nearly quarter of a million Iraq troops now at least partially trained. They will argue that the Iraqis are ready to "stand up so that we can stand down." The liberals will argue that democracy has prevailed and the fact that a majority of Americans want to see at least some drawdown this year, coupled with widespread support of immediate withdrawl amongst Iraqis was the root cause of the drawdown. However, in the end, the real reason will be much simpler: the administration will start voluntarily drawing down troops before it is forced to make serious, and seriously unpopular, changes in the structure of the military. In the end, poitically, they will have little choice.
We will only see these types of structural changes when the American people can be convinced that Iran is the next "imminent threat."
Hmmm, maybe these changes won't be so hard to push through after all.