The early leaks on Obama's Iraq withdrawal plan were very promising. Today's report in the New York Times is much less encouraging. According to the Times, the Obama administration has decided to "maintain relatively high troop levels through Iraq’s parliamentary elections, to be held in December " and only then draw down to hit the August 2010 deadline. That would be a shame -- if it turns out to be the actual plan as opposed to one last public salvo in the ongoing internal deliberations and arguments. Those of us pleased with the original report may be much less supportive of a plan which would leave the vast majority of U.S. troops in Iraq for the next year, and put the commitment to withdrawal on the proposed timeline in real question.
I won't recount the arguments on this score since I've made them repeatedly. But I will say that such a plan could dangerously muddle what needs to be a clear signal of a commitment to withdrawal and probably not work the way it's been presented.
Just look at the calender. Iraq's Parliamentary elections have not yet been scheduled and don't even have an electoral law, and according to a number of senior Iraqi politicians probably will not be held until March 2010 (not December 2009). That would then give the U.S. about five months to withdraw the bulk of the dozen combat brigades which would reportedly remain. And then, keep in mind that U.S. officials generally agree (correctly) that the most dangerous period of elections is actually in their aftermath, when disgruntled losers might turn to violence or other destabilizing measures. So the following month will likely not seem a good time either. So that would leave four months to move, what -- 9 brigades? Did someone say precipitous? Good luck with that. And that's assuming, of course, that nothing else risky or destabilizing comes up in April or May 2010 (Kirkuk?) which would make a drawdown at that moment appear risky.
So which is it? "Combat brigades out by August 2010" or "Most combat brigades there until spring 2010 at which point we can have another big debate about how fragile the situation is and how unrealistic it would be to move all those troops in half a year"? Not exactly the same.
It has been my understanding that this "go slow" approach (similar to the Brookings/Council on Foreign Relations plan from last fall) was favored by Gen. Odierno while others in the administration and the military disagreed. Tuesday's leaks suggested that the latter had prevailed. Today's suggest the opposite. I wonder whether the New York Times report represents the real plan or the last public spasm of the internal battles. I suspect (or at least hope) that it's the latter.
Oh how I had hoped that with a decision made we could finally move on past these arguments... oh well. I'm going to wait for the actual announcement of a plan, perhaps on Friday, before commenting again.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.