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What’s dictating the Iraq withdrawal timeline?

What’s dictating the Iraq withdrawal timeline?

A New York Times analysis piece by Peter Baker and Rod Nordland raises two intriguing questions, one about the politics of Iraq and the other about our ability to learn from previous mistakes.

The gist of the Baker/Nordland article is that Obama is doubling down on the rigid Iraqi withdrawal timeline even though the assumptions on which the timeline was based have proven overly optimistic. Respected Iraq hands — some on the record and, more ominously for Obama, some insiders on a not-for-attribution basis — told the reporters that the political delays in Baghdad should be accompanied with a commensurate delay in the withdrawal schedule.  

The original timeline was supposedly dictated by the Iraqi election clock: whatever newly elected Iraqi government took power would need the reassurance of a sizable U.S. combat troop presence for some period of time (months, not weeks) to ensure a smooth transition. On the original political calendar, an August deadline for completing the withdrawal seemed ambitious but doable. The Iraqis are now well off the original political calendar, however, and it now seems likely that by the time of the August deadline there will be no new government seated, or at best one only seated for a few weeks.

The article dangles tantalizingly the possibility that it is the American political calendar that is dictating the timeline now: "… with his liberal base angry at the Afghan troop buildup, any delay of the Iraq drawdown could provoke more consternation on the left." It is hard to predict where August will fall in the Iraqi political trajectory, but it is a rock-solid certainty that August comes comfortably before the U.S. midterm election. The reporters are right that letting the August deadline slide could pose an enormous political headache for an administration already struggling to mobilize its base when the national mood favors the Republicans. But a failure to heed the situation on the ground in Iraq would, I suspect, pose much greater headaches down the road for the administration so I fervently hope that the U.S. midterm elections are not dictating the timeline.

Even without domestic politics confounding the calculation, the strategic challenge would be vexing. One of the hardest things to do in war is to ascertain when developments on the ground require a change in plans and when the plan is still viable despite some setbacks. The Bush administration did not always get this right. It came under withering and justifiable criticism for being slow to adjust to Iraqi realities in the months after the invasion. Even though the unfolding events revealed that several of the assumptions of the original Phase IV plan had been overly optimistic, critics charged that Secretary Rumsfeld stuck with the original military plan.

The Obama administration is now facing its own version of that very same strategic challenge. Even the way the current internal debate is reported is eerily reminiscent of the conventional critique of the first year of the Iraq war:

Two former officials who worked on Iraq policy in the Obama administration said that after it became clear how late the elections would be, Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander in Iraq, wanted to keep 3,000 to 5,000 combat troops in northern Iraq after the Aug. 31 deadline. But the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter, said it was clear that the White House did not want any combat units to remain."

Of course, the article also includes on-the-record denials that Odierno wanted those extra troops and notes that Odierno recently gave the timeline a fairly strong endorsement. And, lest there be any doubt, the president’s foreign policy speechwriter confidently stated, "We see no indications now that our planning needs to be adjusted…"

Yet officials gave similar assessments during the confusing summer of 2003 only to walk them back over the next several years. Given the stakes in Iraq, we should all hope that the Obama team’s assessments prove more durable.