"Is it Wise to Pause in Iraq?"
Op-Ed, Orlando Sentinel
February 25, 2008
Author: Kevin Ryan, Director, Defense and Intelligence Project, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
After months of expressing optimism that the Iraq troop drawdown would extend past summer and into the fall, top Bush administration officials have recently changed their position. "The notion of a brief period of consolidation and evaluation probably does make sense," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters at Baghdad's Forward Operating Base Falcon earlier this month, endorsing the "pause" in troop drawdowns advocated by Gen. David Petraeus.
It's true that holding U.S. combat presence in Iraq at 15 brigades would help hedge against a rise in insurgent activity, and ensure that the hand-off to Iraqis does not jeopardize security gains made during the surge. No one, after all, is really sure whether the breathing space gained over the past 12 months will last.
As Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch said from central Iraq in January, "If you've got an area that you've taken away and you walk away from it, 96 hours later the enemy is back."
From the ground at Forward Base Falcon the pause makes sense. But while it may be good news for commanders in Iraq, it is bad news for commanders in Afghanistan and policy makers in D.C.
In Afghanistan, a country 50 percent larger than Iraq, a coalition force one-third the size of that in Iraq is fighting a war that is heating up. International Security Force Commander, Gen. Dan McNeill, has asked coalition states for about 8,000 more troops for combat and training missions. In an interview this month, McNeill said that it would take more than 400,000 troops to fight a real counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, but he and his commanders (many of whom have also served in Iraq) are realistic about what they can hope to get.
McNeill said he accepts he will not get huge numbers of troops and, "The trick, then, is to manage the risk that is inherent in having an under-resourced international force and reaching the level of capacity at which the Afghan national security forces ought to be."
This spring the U.S. is temporarily putting 3,200 more Marines into Afghanistan to help fill the gap -- the same number of Marines withdrawn from Iraq last September in the initial rollback of the surge. The swap is emblematic of the fact that we have no surplus U.S. troops to send to commanders in Afghanistan. If you want more troops in Afghanistan, you pretty much have to take them out of Iraq.
Despite our decision to grow the Army and Marine Corps and to make National Guard units more accessible for deployments, America is still bumping up against the limit of how many ground units it can deploy at one time. Before we started the surge last year, the 15 Army and Marine brigades in Iraq and two in Afghanistan already had the ground forces deploying at a pace that service leaders told Congress was breaking the force.
The surge, although good for field commanders in Iraq, was a disaster for the Army and Marines, which could only sustain the full increase for about three months. That's when the realities of 15-month deployments forced a decision to end it. But even after we get back to 15 brigades in Iraq this summer, America still will have no strategic flexibility to raise force levels in Afghanistan, or anywhere else for that matter.
If, however, we continue the drawdown in Iraq to 10 brigades (about 100,000 troops with support units), America will realize a number of strategic benefits. At 15 brigades, the force levels in Iraq cannot be sustained indefinitely, and everyone knows it. At 10 brigades, the forces can stay as long as we and Iraq want. At 15 brigades in Iraq, America cannot reinforce its operations in Afghanistan. At 10 brigades, we can. At 15 brigades in Iraq, America cannot consider helping prevent genocide in Kenya or Darfur nor can it realistically deal with an implosion in North Korea or a crisis in Pakistan. At 10 brigades we can.
Ten brigades in Iraq is a magic number, because it removes many of the near-term institutional and logistical pressures restricting our strategic choices, and enables policy makers to consider longer-range factors in deciding where our nation's military power should be employed.
If we could get to 10 brigades in Iraq before the end of 2008, it would provide the next president with a flexibility for action that hasn't existed since 2003.
Whether a Democrat who wants to shift troops to Afghanistan or a Republican who wants to stay in Iraq "until the job's done," the next president cannot do what he, or she, wants while there are 15 brigades in Iraq.
Retired Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan is a senior fellow with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and a 29-year veteran of the Army. He wrote this commentary for the Orlando Sentinel.
For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.
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