WASHINGTON – It would take nine to 12 months or longer to withdraw all U.S. troops, contractors and equipment safely from Iraq and phase out U.S. bases there, says a respected analyst after extensive talks with U.S. commanders and diplomats and Iraqi leaders in Baghdad.
The U.S. military in Iraq would prefer a somewhat slower-paced scenario to complete a full pullout over two years, while other experts "indicate it would be feasible" to pull out 10,000 troops and 10,000 contractors a month through Kuwait, says Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
These estimates do not mean the United States could not leave Iraq quickly, Cordesman said in a weighty report that is certain to get serious congressional consideration.
The more equipment and facilities the United States and Iraqi forces abandon and destroy, the swifter the exodus, Cordesman said. "Under these conditions, the U.S. could rush out in as little as a few weeks and no more than a few months," he said.
While the former U.S. Defense Department official has endorsed no particular script, he has urged policymakers to take a realistic look at the options.
At the same time, Cordesman said phasing down U.S. forces in Iraq was no guarantee casualties would decline unless those that remained were pulled out of easily targeted forward bases.
With Democrats and some Republicans in Congress pressing for an orderly partial withdrawal, Cordesman cautioned it was absurd to suppose the United States could stand aside and count on air power and special forces to deal with Al Qaeda and other terror groups.
"Reducing troop levels does not reduce risk or casualties unless it is conducted as part of a military plan," the analyst wrote in a report issued by the think tank based partly on talks he held in Iraq two weeks ago.
U.S. officials there made clear, Cordesman wrote, that they were preparing to advise Congress they were examining options for phasing down U.S. forces, which now total about 162,000. At the same time, he said, the officials recommend that the United States extend its Iraq commitment through military spending well into the next administration, which will take office Jan. 20, 2009, but with much lower troop levels and budgets.
Agreeing with the Bush administration, Cordesman said a case can be made that "strategic patience" through at least early next year may make a working plan possible. He emphasized it would be a mistake to focus on terrorists and not also the country's political and economic situation.
Threaded throughout Cordesman's report is an inclination to credit their judgment above that of administration policymakers in Washington.
Overall, and with Washington his apparent target, Cordesman said "half-truths and spin in the past have built up a valid distrust of virtually anything the administration says about Iraq."
And yet, the former director of intelligence assessment in the Pentagon said, "military progress is taking place."
Cordesman urged a shift in the national debate from either "staying the course or rushing out with little regard for the consequences."
However, he called Iraq a gamble and said, "The mistakes and blunders that have dominated U.S. policy ... have interacted with Iraqi failures to make any continued U.S. effort one filled with serious risks."