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White House adds 2 words to war plan: Exit strategy
Star Tribune/Los Angeles Times
Paul Richter and Tyler Marshall
November 26, 2005

Political pressures -- at home and in Iraq -- and a strained military have combined to mark a possible turning point for the Bush administration, which is starting to talk about potentially large troop withdrawals.


Even as debate over the Iraq war continues to rage, signs are emerging of a convergence of opinion on how the Bush administration might begin to get out of the conflict.

In a departure from past statements, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last week that the training of Iraqi troops has advanced so far that the current number of U.S. troops probably will not be needed for much longer.

President Bush will give a major speech Wednesday at the U.S. Naval Academy in which aides say he is expected to proclaim the improved readiness of Iraqi troops, which he has identified as the key condition for withdrawing U.S. forces.

The administration's pivot on the issue comes at a time when the White House needs to relieve enormous political pressure by war opponents, including liberals, moderates and old-line conservatives who are uneasy with the costly and uncertain nation-building effort.

It also follows an agreement last week among Iraqi politicians from all three major ethnic and religious groups that the number of U.S. troops ought to decrease. Meeting in Cairo, the Iraqis called for a U.S. withdrawal and recognized Iraqis' "legitimate right of resistance" to foreign occupation. In private conversations, Iraqi officials discussed a possible two-year withdrawal period, analysts said.

The developments seemed to lay the groundwork for potentially large withdrawals in 2006 and 2007, consistent with scenarios outlined by Pentagon planners. The approach also tracks the thinking of some centrist Democrats such as Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Some analysts say the emerging consensus might have less to do with conditions in Iraq than the long-term strain of the deployment on the U.S. military. And major questions over the readiness of Iraq's fledgling security forces pose risks for any strategy that calls for an accelerated U.S. troop withdrawal.

As recently as late September, senior U.S. military commanders told a congressional hearing that just one Iraqi battalion, about 700 soldiers, was considered capable of conducting combat operations independent of U.S. support. Administration officials now dismiss that measure of military readiness, saying more Iraqi units are able to perform advanced operations each day.

A convergence of pressures

A former top Pentagon official who served during Bush's first term said he believes there is a "growing consensus" for a withdrawal of about 40,000 troops before next year's U.S. elections. That would be followed by further substantial withdrawals in 2007 if it becomes clear that the Iraqi forces can contain the insurgency.

"You've got the convergence of domestic pressures, Iraqi pressures and Pentagon [withdrawal] plans that have been in the works for a while," said the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "This is serious."

A senior U.S. official said that in signaling hopes for a large drawdown next year, Rice was only "stating the obvious" last week.

"It looks like things are headed in the right direction to enable that to happen in 2006," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Among the key markers ahead are Dec. 15 elections for a permanent Iraqi government. Officials have said violence probably will increase before the elections. More than 100 more U.S. troops have died in the month since the death toll reached 2,000.

U.S. officials hope that by the end of 2007, the U.S. force remaining in Iraq would be small enough not to offend Iraqi sensibilities yet large enough to help Iraq's military with reconnaissance, intelligence-gathering and air support.

Support for war is low

Such an approach might be more acceptable to Republican candidates who are worried about running in midterm elections next year amid plummeting support for the war and perhaps also to GOP presidential candidates looking to run in 2008.

Bush's handling of the war has the support of about 35 percent of the public, according to the latest Gallup poll

In recent months, Bush has rebuffed questions about a schedule for withdrawal, saying that a timetable would encourage insurgents to wait out the Americans.

There are about 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and a widening field of critics has called for reductions.

This month, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., known as a military hawk, said it was time for U.S. forces to begin withdrawing, initially provoking a furious administration response that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney later sought to temper.

The shift in the administration's attitude also might reflect concern that the U.S. military cannot bear to have the current strains continue indefinitely. Some military and political analysts say the potential long-term damage to America's armed forces, not political pressure, could be the decisive factor for Bush and people around him.

Attrition rates are high

Andrew Krepinevich, a former Pentagon official who now heads the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent defense research group in Washington, argued that these strains have become a key factor driving administration thinking.

Unlike the Vietnam era, when the military had a nearly endless supply of draftees, the Iraqi experience sharply has reduced the flow of new recruits into the volunteer Army at a time when attrition rates are also alarmingly high, Krepinevich noted.

Other factors, such as federal restrictions on the frequency of National Guard deployments, also limit the personnel available.

Differences this summer between the White House and some senior military commanders over troop reductions were the result of these military problems, analysts say. While divisions remain within the administration, there are growing signs that Bush might be calculating that a faster drawdown carries fewer long-term risks.

"I think the administration will yield to the reality of an Army that is apparently beginning to buckle under the strain of these long-term deployments," Krepinevich said.

Other factors are also at work, including signs of a revised sense of Iraq's own military capabilities. Rice's upbeat statement last week that Iraq forces "fairly soon" would be able to defend their country came just a few days after a brief trip to Iraq.

Some analysts see the same progress that Rice does, yet are worried that the White House might move too fast.

Gary Schmitt, director of advanced strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said that while some Iraqi units have improved their capabilities, "to get a force that is really effective requires a lot more experience than this army is likely to have for years."

Schmitt said he views the administration's new signals as significant, but said Bush has not resolved an internal debate between aides who are pushing for a withdrawal to relieve domestic political pressure and those who fear that withdrawal will undermine the success of an undertaking that will provide a large part of Bush's legacy.

With each passing day it becomes obvious the torch has been passed. Some democrats have already taken power (Murtha).