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Withdrawing From Iraq In 16 Months - Reality or Political Rhetoric?

How serious is President Barack Obama about withdrawing all troops from Iraq in 16 months?

If you read the White House website, you'd conclude he's very serious about it.

Barack Obama and Joe Biden believe we must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in. Immediately upon taking office, Obama will give his Secretary of Defense and military commanders a new mission in Iraq: ending the war. The removal of our troops will be responsible and phased, directed by military commanders on the ground and done in consultation with the Iraqi government. Military experts believe we can safely redeploy combat brigades from Iraq at a pace of 1 to 2 brigades a month -- which would remove all of them in 16 months. That would be the summer of 2010 -- more than 7 years after the war began.

But is he really?  Let's consider a few things.

Since that statement has been on the website since day 1 (Jan 20) and Obama didn't speak to his commanders until the following day, it is obvious that the "military experts" cited were not his commanders.  So the statement is most likely the campaign's rhetoric transferred to the WH site.

It certainly does not reflect the thinking of the military commanders actually involved in Iraq. Theirs is reflected in the present plan calling for withdrawal in 2011. 

So what's the situation now?  Well here's a snippet from a recent DoD press briefing which took place after the Jan 21st meeting with Sec. Gates and Adm. Mullen:

Q     You certainly must, at this point, have a fair idea of what your view is about a 16-month withdrawal.

ADM. MULLEN: All of us, I think, understand where we are on the possibility of various options. That's -- and that's the advice, tied to the risk that's associated with that, that -- that I'll -- I give the secretary and I'll give to the president.

Q     On this --

SEC. GATES: Let me just -- let me just say, I think our obligation is to give the president a range of options and the risks associated with each of those options and -- and he will make the decision. He has said that he wants it to be a responsible drawdown. He has said that before he makes a decision he wants to talk to the military commanders and the chiefs and get their independent views. Once he has all of that, he will make the decision and we will execute it.   

Given their present plan (withdrawal of all combat troops if conditions permitted by 2011) - the plan they recommended to President Bush as the prudent plan - you'd have to think they view the 16 month withdrawal as a high risk option in comparison to theirs.

I would also assume that's how they analyzed the 16 month option when it was discussed that day.  Mullen seems to say that by claiming they all "understand where we are on the possibility of various options".  Gates seems to be pulling a bit of a Pontius Pilate and washing his hands of the whole thing by claiming his only "obligation is to give the president a range of options and the risks associated with each" and then, once Obama has decided, he just executes the decision.

That's the "good soldier" speech, which usually means – at least when I used to use it – that if Obama chooses the high-risk option over Gates recommended option (i.e. status quo withdrawal schedule), the result belongs exclusively to Obama. That leaves Obama standing out there all alone with sole responsibility for his plan's failure if that happens. I may be reading too much into this, but that's how it sounds to me. 

All that being said, however, I think Barack Obama is much more attuned to the politics of this situation than he is the military side of things.

My guess is Obama is going to wait for the results of the regional elections in Iraq before making any decision.  If they goes exceptionally well and the results show a trend toward political reconciliation and setting aside sectarian differences, I believe Obama may actually consider carrying through on the 16 month schedule even though it could carry tremendous political risk. But the election outcome would have to be perfect for him to do so.

If that's the case, he'll have none other than the Prime Minister of Iraq on his side should that decision be made: 

President Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to remove all combat troops within 16 months and has asked the Pentagon to plan for "a responsible military draw down from Iraq."

With planning under way, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told a political rally south of Baghdad that he believes the end of the U.S. mission "will be brought forward" and that Iraq must bolster its own forces to meet the challenge after the Americans leave.  

The Shiite-led government pushed for a faster U.S. pullout during last year's negotiations on the security agreement, overcoming longtime Bush administration opposition to a fixed withdrawal schedule.

If the regional elections turn out as Obama hopes, al-Maliki's words would seem to validate the Obama/Biden plan, at least politically and he may feel the stars are all aligned for him to proceed with his original plan:

Barack Obama and Joe Biden believe that the U.S. must apply pressure on the Iraqi government to work toward real political accommodation. There is no military solution to Iraq's political differences. Now is the time to press Iraq's leaders to take responsibility for their future and to invest their oil revenues in their own reconstruction.  

Obama and Biden's plan will help create lasting stability in Iraq. A phased withdrawal will encourage Iraqis to take the lead in securing their own country and making political compromises, while the responsible pace of redeployment called for by the Obama-Biden plan offers more than enough time for Iraqi leaders to get their own house in order. As our forces redeploy, Obama and Biden will make sure we engage representatives from all levels of Iraqi society -- in and out of government -- to forge compromises on oil revenue sharing, the equitable provision of services, federalism, the status of disputed territories, new elections, aid to displaced Iraqis, and the reform of Iraqi security forces.

The likelyhood of all that happening aren't particularly good, and I think Barack Obama knows that.  And if he doesn't, my guess is Biden does.

So while the politics all sound wonderful as laid out above, what is the reality – the ground truth?  While everyone agrees that the solution isn't a "military one", it is hard to deny that the military is a part of any final solution.  Without security, politics can't be successful. 

The assumption or the risk taken in the Obama plan is that all of the political problems will have been solved and security successfully transitioned to Iraqi Security Forces in the remaining 16 months.  The questions of "oil revenue sharing, the equitable provision of services, federalism, the status of disputed territories, new elections, aid to displaced Iraqis, and the reform of Iraqi security forces" will be resolved and in the hands of a competent Iraqi government.

But can anyone reading this confidently say that in 16 months that will be the case? Obviously everyone would like for that to be true, but will it be true?  If anyone is listening, a man who probably knows the Iraqi government better than anyone in the world - Ryan Crocker, the US Ambassador in Iraq for the last few years - isn't at all sure:

Ryan C. Crocker, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Iraq, warned Thursday that a precipitous withdrawal of American troops runs "some very serious risks," from the resurgence of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq to a collapse of faith in a nascent Iraqi state that still faces what he called "enormous challenges."  

A loss of confidence, Crocker said, could create a "chilling effect," where people "pull back, dig the trenches, build the berms and get ready for what comes next. I'm not saying that that would happen; but I am saying these are dangers that could happen."

Crocker's assessment is that progress in Iraq, though tangible and welcome is "still fragile and still reversible".

Ironically, Crocker said, as that violence has diminished, unresolved conflicts have come into sharper relief: tension between Arabs and Kurds, a debate over power-sharing between the federal government and the provinces, and divisions within Iraq's sectarian and ethnic communities.

The country faces a series of elections, beginning with provincial voting Jan. 31, which could inaugurate a democratic tradition but could also unleash tension as factions mobilize supporters along ethnic and sectarian fault lines. By year's end, Iraqis are to elect a new parliament, which will choose the prime minister.  

Crocker alternated between a sense of accomplishment for a state of relative calm that he deemed almost unthinkable 18 months ago and repeated caveats that progress could still unravel, particularly with a quick U.S. withdrawal. 

He warned that Iran and Syria could perceive a vacuum and carry out their "less-than-benign intentions," while efforts toward national reconciliation could be set aside. 

Al-Qaeda, he said, was waiting for an opportunity to regroup. "If we were to decide suddenly we are done, it would certainly work to use that space that that opened up to do just that," he said of the group, which he described as "incredibly tenacious."  

So the possibilities are that the election could inflame rather than cool sectarian tensions and see the reestablishment of strong ethnic and sectarian "fault lines".  Al-Maliki, who supports early withdrawal, could be gone by the end of this year.  And there isn't anyone who has followed the war that doesn't understand that Iran, Syria and al-Qaeda would all be glad to fill any power vacuum left by the US.

Those are the political risks Obama takes with a hard and fast 16 month timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, regardless of any fudge factor he builds into "remaining forces".  And interestingly, the long-term political payoff for sticking with the 16 timetable is minimal.  If his 16 month plan pays off and all goes relatively well in Iraq, he will get credit for ending a war his predecessor started – but the "win" will go to George Bush.

However the political downside, if his 16 month withdrawal precipitates all of that which Crocker warns against, could be disastrous. 

At the point he commits to a 16 month withdrawal schedule which countermands the more extended schedule for the end of 2011, Iraq becomes his responsibility solely.  He won't be able to blame any problems which crop up afterward on Bush.  He will have taken ownership with the implementation of his schedule and any failure in Iraq will become his and his alone.

The argument used by political opponents will be that his lack of experience and refusal to heed the advice of his commanders (who, again, put the existing schedule together, so it is hard to believe they'll suggest another) has caused us to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  Politically that would reinforce the belief that Democrats in general and Obama in particular, lack the experience and understanding of national security affairs to govern competently.  That would be especially true if, after the withdrawal, the necessity to reintroduce combat troops into Iraq was to come about.  And of course its timing – most likely in the late 2011 early 2012 time frame – could spell certain defeat for any reelection bid.

That brings us to best guess time.  Here's the question:  Is it better to eat a little political crow now and claim that his ability to delve more deeply into the details of our situation in Iraq - and consider the possible consequences of an early withdrawal vs. the later one - has led him to side with his commanders and support their recommendation for the later withdrawal?  Or is it better, politically, to seem decisive and in command of the situation and stick with the early withdrawal and take the very real political risks that entails?

My sense is Obama isn't a political risk taker.  My guess is, while the promise of a 16 month withdrawal was made to please his base, he's not committed enough to it to risk his presidency and his reelection.  Since his promise to give the military a new mission - i.e. end the war in Iraq - is essentially underway, he's less likely to tie himself to an arbitrary number than he might have been had the war still been raging.  If, in fact the withdrawal is extended, but over before 2012 (as it would be under the present plan), he benefits politically.  He can say he had to be pragmatic and realistic, but as promised, he's ended that war. That is totally forgivable and a spinmeister's dream - a real political win-win for him.  And if it falls apart after 2011, he simply reminds everyone that it was the Bush plan.  Business as usual – but with at least some truth to it.

So I'm going to go out on a bit of a limb and guess that Obama will not approve a 16 month withdrawal for the reasons I've outlined, but will instead rationalize the 2011 schedule as the best way to proceed.  Obviously I could be as wrong as wrong can be, but I don't think so.  "Safe and responsible" will rule the day – not only as it concerns our military, but as it concerns his political future.