‘There will be 100-130K troops in Iraq when Bush leaves. The number will depend largely on who wins the factional infighting between the White House and MNF-I (Petraeus) on the one hand, and CENTCOM, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary Gates on the other hand. The former want the higher number; the latter are concerned about strains on the ground forces and will push for the lower number.
The only political factor that might tip Bush toward a smaller number would be the needs of GOP candidates next year (including the presidential candidate), but Bush appears to want the highest possible number so that the Dems can come in, initiate a substantial withdrawal, and still leave robust enough residual forces so the wheels won’t come off whatever “progress” has been attained by the end of 2008. The administration is also hoping to reach a bilateral security arrangement with the Iraqi Government next year that will put U.S.-Iraqi relations on a sustainable path. The Iraqi government has signaled that they too want such an arrangement.
To be sure, if the Dems win the presidency, there will be a substantial withdrawal. But the frontrunners acknowledge that a safe and responsible withdrawal means about 1-2 Brigades a month. That will take at least a year to get rid of the bulk of combat forces, and probably 2 years to get all forces and equipment out. The size of the residual force they would leave behind depends on public opinion at home, the conditions on the ground in Iraq, and the missions they would be given (counterterrorism, embassy protection, training and advising, border security, etc.).
I think the leading presidential candidates perceive certain enduring interests in Iraq and the region that cannot be accomplished by a complete and rapid withdrawal (regardless of what the left flank of the party wants), and I think all of these missions can be justified to the American public, especially if Al Qaeda in Iraq and Iran continue to meddle in Iraq.
The biggest wildcard is maintenance of the training/advising mission. There have been signs from the Democratic candidates, especially Obama, that continuing the U.S. commitment to train and advise the Iraqi Security Forces would hinge on the nature of the Iraqi government we would be empowering.
Factoring in these uncertainties, my guess is that the residual force left in place by a Dem administration would be in the neighborhood of 30,000-75,000 for a few years. The reason Clinton, Obama, and Edwards will not commit to every last troop being out by the end of their first term is the fact that one could envision numerous scenarios in which small numbers of troops were there and they don’t want to tie their hands.
That said, they envision substantial reductions in force levels, removal of U.S. forces from population security and large-scale combat operations, and no permanent bases. That is a big and meaningful shift from the Bush policy. ‘
Security Studies Program
Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service
Fellow, Center for a New American Security