WASHINGTON – The Democrats' flagship proposal on Iraq is aimed at bringing most troops home. Yet if enacted, the law would still allow for tens of thousands of U.S. troops to stay deployed for years to come.
This reality — readily acknowledged by Democrats who say it's still their best shot at curbing the nearly five-year war — has drawn the ire of anti-war groups and bolstered President Bush's prediction that the United States will most likely wind up maintaining a hefty long-term presence in Iraq, much like in South Korea.
For those who want troops out, "you've got more holes in here than Swiss cheese," said Tom Andrews, national director of the war protest group Win Without War and a former congressman from Maine.
The Democratic proposal would order troops to begin leaving Iraq within 30 days, a requirement Bush is already on track to meet as he begins reversing this year's 30,000 troop buildup. The proposal also sets a goal of ending combat by Dec. 15, 2008.
After that, troops remaining in Iraq would be restricted to three missions: counterterrorism, training Iraqi security forces and protecting U.S. assets, including diplomats.
This month, Senate Republicans blocked the measure, even though it was tied to $50 billion needed by the military, because they said it would impose an artificial timetable on a war that has been showing signs of progress.
Despite the GOP's fierce opposition and a White House veto threat, military officials and analysts say the proposal leaves open the door for a substantial force to remain behind. Estimates range from as few as a couple thousand troops to as many as 70,000 or more to accomplish those three missions.
There are about 164,000 troops in Iraq now.
Maj. Gen. Michael Barbero, deputy chief of staff for operations in Iraq, declined to estimate how many troops might be needed under the Democrats' plan but said it would be hard to accomplish any of those missions without a significant force.
"It's a combination of all of our resources and capabilities to be able to execute these missions the way that we are," Barbero said in a recent phone interview from Baghdad.
For example, Barbero said that "several thousand" troops are assigned to specialized anti-terrorism units focused on capturing high profile terrorist targets. But they often rely on the logistics, security and intelligence provided by conventional troops, he said.
"When a brigade is operating in a village, meeting with locals, asking questions, collecting human intelligence on these very same (terrorist) organizations, that intelligence comes back and is merged and fed into this counterterrorism unit," Barbero said. "So are they doing counterterrorism operations?
"It's all linked and simultaneous," he added. "You can't separate it cleanly like that."
It's also difficult to precisely say how many U.S. troops are tasked with training the Iraqi security forces.
Christine Wormuth, who served as staff director of Gen. James Jones' commission on training Iraqi security forces, said she estimates some 8,000 to 10,000 troops are dedicated to training. These "transition teams" are tasked solely with training and equipping Iraqi police, army, air force, maritime and intelligence forces.
But an undetermined number of additional troops provide "on the job" training for Iraqi security forces by conducting daily patrols and other combat missions alongside them, she said.
Last year, the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission whose findings were the basis for the Democratic proposal, recommended that 10,000 to 20,000 troops should be embedded with Iraqi combat units.
Senate Democrats who championed the proposal say it was written deliberately to give the military flexibility and not cap force levels. Unlike their counterparts in the House, many Senate Democrats have opposed stronger measures that would set firm deadlines on troop withdrawals or effectively force an end the war by cutting off money for combat.
"There's no way to say down the line how many insurgency threats there will be, how many militia threats there will be, how many al-Qaida and other terrorist threats there will be," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
Still, Levin and other Democrats say the U.S. could still launch effective anti-terrorism strikes in Iraq using elite special operations forces without the massive footprint of conventional forces.
"We've been told now that 90 percent of the Iraqi units are capable of taking the lead, so six or nine months from now we would expect those units would not only be taking the lead, they would be handling those missions," he said.
Rep. John Murtha, who helped lead the anti-war effort in the House this year, said the bill might leave as few as 3,000 or as many as 30,000 troops, but that the broader message would be to blur the U.S. footprint substantially.
"I'm willing to negotiate, but I think the most vulnerable part of this operation is the logistics tail," which should be taken out of enemy reach, he said.
Meanwhile, military analysts caution against worrying too much about the particulars. The legislation has yet to pass Congress by a veto-proof majority. It also isn't binding; under the bill, Bush can ignore the 2008 deadline to end combat.
Indeed, the legislation is more of a signal to the White House that Congress' patience with the war is gone, than any mandate on how to run operations. That could explain why entities like the Government Accountability Office have not examined the ramifications of the bill.
Or as Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, put it: "As long as you're discussing a bill that is designed for political purposes, you don't have to get down to the issue of whether it would work or not."