Saturday, November 27, 2004

Hawks push deep cuts in forces in Iraq

Hawks push deep cuts in forces in Iraq

By Bryan Bender, Globe Staff  |  November 22, 2004

WASHINGTON -- A growing number of national security specialists who supported the toppling of Saddam Hussein are moving to a position unthinkable even a few months ago: that the large US military presence is impeding stability as much as contributing to it and that the United States should begin major reductions in troops beginning early next year.

Their assessments, expressed in reports, think tank meetings, and interviews, run counter to the Bush administration's insistence that the troops will remain indefinitely to establish security. But some contend that the growing support for an earlier pullout could alter the administration's thinking.

Those arguing for immediate troop reductions include key Pentagon advisers, prominent neoconservatives, and some of the fiercest supporters of the Iraq invasion among Washington's policy elite.

The core of their arguments is that even as the US-led coalition goes on the offensive against the insurgency, the United States, by its very presence, is stimulating the resistance.

"Our large, direct presence has fueled the Iraqi insurgency as much as it has suppressed it," said Michael Vickers, a conservative-leaning Pentagon consultant and longtime senior CIA official who supported the war.

Retired Army Major General William Nash, the former NATO commander in Bosnia, said: "I resigned from the 'we don't have enough troops in Iraq' club four months ago. We have too many now."

Nash, who supported Hussein's ouster, said a substantial reduction after the Iraqi elections in January "would be a wise and judicious move" to demonstrate that the Americans are leaving. The remaining US forces should concentrate their energies on border operations, he added. "The absence of targets will go a long way in decreasing the violence."

Yonadam Kanna, secretary general of the Assyrian Democratic Movement and a member of Iraq's interim National Assembly, also backed the US-led removal of Hussein. He now says Washington must "prove that the United States is a liberator, not an occupier."

Kanna wrote in an e-mail interview yesterday that the elections and expanded training of new Iraqi security forces "must go in parallel with the partial withdrawal of multinational or US forces." He added that the remaining forces should be kept "away from daily and direct dealing and friction with the people, which lead sometimes to sensitivity and problems or clashes with the innocent."

Exactly how long the roughly 140,000 American troops will stay in Iraq remains unclear. Administration officials have been reluctant to make predictions, saying a departure date would only embolden Iraq insurgents. President Bush has said the US military will stay "as long as necessary" to set the country on the path toward democracy.

Some former top officials have predicted that it will be many years before most of the troops can come home. The former Iraq war commander, retired Army General Tommy Franks, said this month that tens of thousands of American troops will have to stay in Iraq for up to three more years.

But the view that it would be dangerous for the United States to pull out soon and that it may even need more troops is becoming another casualty in this war -- a war that has taken the lives of more than 1,200 Americans and shows little sign of abating.

The best strategy is to substantially reduce the number of American forces after the Iraqi elections, according to the specialists, who say maintaining the large occupation could be as dangerous to long-term American interests as a precipitous pullout.

"I have seen a metamorphosis," said Robert Pfaltzgraff, president of the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis in Cambridge and a vocal supporter of Bush's Iraq policy, referring to debate both inside and outside the halls of government. "We should not be there with a large force. We should be there with a force that begins to quickly diminish."

Few specialists are calling for a complete pullout. They say the United States must first finish training Iraqi forces and use its military might to buy Iraqi authorities breathing space against the insurgency.

Still, a report completed over the summer calling for a complete pullout next year has struck a chord.

"The end of the foreign occupation will seriously undermine the terrorists' claims that their acts of violence against Iraqis are somehow serving the interests of Iraq," according to "Exiting Iraq," published by the conservative-leaning Cato Institute. Moreover, "The occupation is counterproductive in the fight against radical Islamic terrorists and actually increases support for Osama bin Laden in Muslim communities not previously disposed to support his radical interpretation of Islam."

"Staying on the current course, looking at the trends, is not going to work," said the report's chief author, Christopher A. Preble, Cato's director of foreign policy studies.

Evidence is growing of an anti-American backlash that threatens Iraq's stability. Dozens of Sunni political leaders, angered by the recent military onslaught of Fallujah, are threatening to sit out the nationwide elections.

Even leading war supporters such as Max Boot, an influential neoconservative thinker derided by critics as one of those who believe the United States must stick it out for an undetermined amount of time, contends that the US presence is beginning to threaten long-term goals.

"This is turning out to be a lot harder than anyone expected -- and harder than it needed to be," Boot said last week.

"I'm not one of those calling for a quick pullout," he added. "I agree there is some downside to the US troops' presence; it definitely fuels some nationalist resentment. All things considered, I think we're doing better in Afghanistan partially because we have fewer troops there."

Indeed, Afghanistan, where the United States has one-tenth the troops it has in Iraq, was cited by several specialists as a model for the American presence in Iraq following the elections. The US troops are rarely seen by the wider Afghan population, operating primarily along the borders and flushing out remaining pockets of resistance.

"I think that many are now beginning to see that El Salvador and Afghanistan are better counterinsurgency and postconflict reconstruction models than the strategies we've pursued in Iraq," said Vickers, the Pentagon consultant, who as a CIA agent helped oversee US support for Afghan rebels in their guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. "In counterinsurgency, an indirect approach is superior."

Still, officials frequently debate whether more US troops in Afghanistan would stem the burgeoning drug trade and curb the power of warlords. But most agree that anti-Americanism is far less prevalent in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, some specialists say the increased sentiment in think tanks for an expedited Iraqi pullout will spread to the administration, despite its tough rhetoric.

"Bush will surprise his opponents by disengaging from Iraq," predicted Edward Luttwak, a longtime Pentagon consultant who has argued that the push to create a democracy in Iraq will prove futile.

"I personally think it will start with a drawdown, and that, I suspect, will begin in April," said John Hamre, president of the center for Strategic and International Studies and former deputy secretary of defense in the Clinton administration who remains in close contact with senior Pentagon officials.

Said Ken Adelman, a member of the Defense Policy Board who predicted the Iraq war would be a "cakewalk": "If there is a [stable] Iraqi government after January you can withdraw. I would be OK with that."

Bryan Bender can be reached at 

© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company


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