WASHINGTON – New calls from lawmakers to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq may trouble the White House but are not too out of step with scenarios envisioned by war commanders.
The disagreement mainly is about how deeply to cut, not when to begin.
Anti-war Democrats and some Republicans want to bring all combat troops home in a matter of months. Generals in Iraq favor starting the transition next year from a predominantly combat role, but only gradually; this approach would leave a six-figure force in Iraq for the next president to command.
About 162,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq now. Some 30,000 were added between January and June as the main element of President Bush's revised strategy to stabilize Baghdad. The first of five Army brigades in that buildup is expected to go home by April, if not a few months earlier.
Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the top day-to-day commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said this month that all five brigades probably would be out of Iraq — and not replaced — by August 2008. That would take the troop total back down to roughly 132,000.
It is not clear how much lower the total might go by the time Bush leaves office in January 2009. For some military officials, the hope is below 100,000 by then.
A war-fighting plan by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker that went into effect July 26 foresees a significant U.S. role at least until 2009.
The plan does not contain troop numbers or withdrawal schedules. Rather, it sets a goal of achieving "sustainable security" by the summer of 2009, leading to some degree of political reconciliation.
Often lost in the Washington talk about troop cuts is the fact that security conditions in Iraq vary widely by region and that some less contested areas may be ready for the transition to control by Iraqi security early next year.
Thus, a modest cut of 5,000 troops, asSen. John Warner, R-Va., urged on Thursday to begin by Christmas, is within the range of what commanders may have in mind to recommend to Bush. It could be done without affecting the outlook for improved security in the Baghdad area.
Barry McCaffrey, a retired Army general who was a division commander during the 1991 Gulf War, said in an interview Friday that he has no doubt the U.S. will begin pulling some forces early next year.
"We're going to draw down, one way or the other, or they'll wreck the armed forces," McCaffrey said. He cited mounting strains on troops and their families from repeated and lengthy deployments.
"The only right answer is that we've got to be down to 10 brigades by next November," he said, referring to 2008 and describing a force total somewhat below 100,000. "That's from a military, not a political, perspective."
Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon, commander of American forces in northern Iraq, said in a recent interview that he has proposed reducing his troop levels starting in January and shifting to missions focused less on direct combat against insurgents and more on supporting the operations of Iraqi security forces.
There are nearly 24,000 U.S. troops in Mixon's area, which stretches north from Baghdad to the Turkish border. Mixon said he might be able to reduce that total by one-half in the 12 months to 18 months after beginning a transition this January.
Top commanders in Anbar province, in western Iraq, also have suggested they could begin reducing troops next year.
Those are examples of how troop cutbacks can be tailored and timed in accordance with regional security conditions. The transition to Iraq security control may be possible at varying speeds around the country rather than waiting to be done across the board and simultaneously.
The big risk is putting the Iraqis in charge before they are ready. U.S. commanders have tried to hand off security responsibilities to the Iraqis in the past, only to see the Iraqi forces crumble or stumble.
Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of U.S. forces in a volatile swath of territory south of Baghdad, told reporters Friday that he will not allow that to happen again.
"When we started operations back in June there were four enemy sanctuaries and we fought hard, with major cost of human life, to deny the enemy those sanctuaries," he said. "Now, we're sitting on those sanctuaries. And only when the Iraqi security forces can come forward and say, 'OK, here I am. I'm trained and equipped. I'm ready. I'm the Iraqi Army. I'm the Iraqi police,' can I turn those sanctuaries over."