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The Withdrawal Follies
Posted on Jul 26, 2007
This mood was caught perfectly in a question nationally syndicated right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt posed to General Petraeus: “Some have warned that a genocide of sorts, or absolute terms, would follow a precipitous withdrawal of coalition forces. Do you agree that that is a possibility ... and a significant one?” To which Petraeus responded, “[O]ne would certainly expect that sectarian violence would resume at a very high level…. That’s not to say there’s not still some going on right now….”
The Future in Slo-mo
In the meantime, the Bush administration, its ambassador in Baghdad, and its commanders were hard at work trying to push any full-scale assessment of the President’s “surge” plan—promised for September—and the plan itself ever further into the future. This was part of a larger campaign for “more time.” In press conferences, teleconferences to Washington, briefings for Congress, leaks to the press, and media appearances of all sorts, they appealed for time, time, time. (Nowhere in the media, by the way, have the reporters who benefit from this flood of official and semi-official commentary suggested that it might be part of a concerted propaganda campaign.)
Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who oversees day-to-day operations in Iraq, typically claimed that the September deadline was “too early” for any real assessment of “progress” and suggested November as the date of choice. Under pressure, he half-retracted his comments the next day, assuring Congress that there would indeed be a September Progress Report. He added: “My reference to November was simply suggesting that as we go forward beyond September, we will gain more understanding of trends.”
General Petraeus took a similar tack in that Hugh Hewitt interview: “Well, I have always said that we will have a sense by [September] of basically, of how things are going, have we been able to achieve progress on the ground, where have their been shortfalls…. But that’s all it is going to be.” In essence, the once-definitive September report was already being downgraded to a “snapshot” of an ongoing operation.
While Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Peter Pace even hinted that U.S. troop numbers in Iraq might rise in the near future, the horizon for the surge plan to end began to be pushed toward summer 2008. Yochi Dreazen and Greg Jaffe reported in the Wall Street Journal (“Gap Widens over Iraq Approach”): “Despite growing calls from lawmakers for drastic change in Iraq, senior U.S. military officials on the ground say they believe the current [surge] strategy should be maintained into next year—and already have mapped out additional phases for doing so through January.” They indicated that this was part of a Bush administration “gamble”—think campaign—“that Congress will be unable or unwilling to force a drawdown and that the military will have a free hand to keep the added troops in place well into next year.”
There was a drumbeat of commentary by various commanders pushing the plan deeper into the future. Maj. Gen. Richard Lynch, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, typically said: “It’s going to take through [this] summer, into the fall, to defeat the extremists in my battle space [south of Baghdad], and it’s going to take me into next spring and summer to generate this sustained security presence.”
Leaks of plans that took the American presence into the increasingly distant future also began to occur. The most striking came on July 24th in a New York Times front-page piece by Michael R. Gordon. Its headline said it all: “U.S. seen in Iraq until at least ‘09.” Gordon reported that a “detailed document,” known as the Joint Campaign Plan and developed by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, “foresees a significant American role for the next two years.” The article revealed plans to be in Iraq in force at least through the summer of 2009—in other words, well into the tenure of the next administration. Gordon identified the source of this leak as “American officials familiar with the document.” As is often the case with reporter Gordon, the sourcing was indecipherable but undoubtedly administration-friendly, part of the President’s rolling, roiling campaign to secure the future (having lost the past and present).
As it happened, the future was also being wielded in another way. The President’s commanders now embraced their own version of withdrawal and began to turn it into another version of prolonged occupation. Their general attitude went something like this: If you think it took a long time to get into this mess, you have no idea how long it will take to get.
As an example, General Pace recently claimed that a month would be needed to withdraw each of our 20 combat brigades in Iraq non-precipitously; in other words, once we started, it would take almost two years not to get all our troops out of that country. Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon, U.S. commander in northern Iraq, then topped Pace by claiming that 18 months would be needed just to cut the brigades in his region in half.
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