Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Disengagement in Iraq

Edward Luttwak, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has a bluntly written editorial in today's New York Times calling for "disengagement" in Iraq. To summarize:

There is a promising, long-term policy ready and waiting for President Bush whenever he decides to call off the good old college try of his surge: disengagement. By this, I don’t mean a phased withdrawal, let alone the leap in the dark of total abandonment. Rather, it would start with a tactical change: American soldiers would no longer patrol towns and villages, conduct cordon-and-search operations, or man outposts and checkpoints. An end to these tasks would allow the greatest part of the troops in Iraq to head home, starting with overburdened reservists and National Guard units.

The remaining American forces, including ground units, would hole up within safe and mostly remote bases in Iraq — to support the elected government, deter foreign invasion, dissuade visible foreign intrusions, and strike at any large concentration of jihadis should it emerge. This would mean, contrary to most plans being considered now, that United States military personnel could not remain embedded in large numbers within the Iraqi Army and police forces. At most, the Americans would operate training programs within safe bases.

What would be the result of disengagement along these lines? First, it would not be likely to increase the violence afflicting Iraqi civilians. The total number of American troops in Iraq — even including any surge — is so small, and their linguistic skills so limited, that they have little effect on day-to-day security. Nor have they really protected Iraqis from one another. At most, the presence of American soldiers in any one place merely diverts attacks elsewhere (unless they themselves are attacked, which is a sad way indeed of reducing Iraqi casualties).

I am sympathetic to Luttak's argument, but I'm just a tad skeptical that the removal of 125,000 armed American soldiers would not lead to an escalation in violence against Iraqi civilians. True, our soldiers may have limited linguistic skills, but they also have advanced weaponry and support capabilities unparalleled in the world. My guess is that, if and when we do disengage, it will be am absolute bloodbath in Iraq, far worse than what is happening now. That doesn't mean we shouldn't disengage, if the alternative is having more American soldiers die for a lost cause. But we should be realistic about what is going to happen to the Iraqis. It will be horrible.


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