The Future of U.S. Troops in Iraq

U.S. Intelligence Says Iraqis Will Press for Withdrawal [RSS] (NYT)

The Iraqi government that emerges from elections on Jan. 30 will almost certainly ask the United States to set a specific timetable for withdrawing its troops, according to new American intelligence estimates described by senior administration officials. The reports also warn that the elections will be followed by more violence, including an increased likelihood of clashes between Shiites and Sunnis, possibly even leading to civil war, the officials said. This pessimism is consistent with other assessments over the past six months, including a classified cable sent in November by the Central Intelligence Agency’s departing station chief in Baghdad. But the new assessments, from the C.I.A. and the Defense and State Departments, focus more closely on the aftermath of the election, including its potential implications for American policy, the officials said.

The assessments are based on the expectation that a Shiite Arab coalition will win the elections, in which Shiites are expected to make up a vast majority of voters, the officials said. Leaders of the coalition have promised voters they will press Washington for a timetable for withdrawal, and the assessments say the new Iraqi government will feel bound, at least publicly, to meet that commitment. Such a request would put new pressure on the Bush administration, which has said it would honor an Iraqi request but has declined to set a timetable for withdrawing the 173,000 American and other foreign troops now in Iraq. Officials, including Colin L. Powell, the secretary of state, have said such decisions should be based on security needs, which include training more Iraqis. “Nobody wants to withdraw in such a way as to leave Iraq ill prepared to confront an insurgency which is not going to disappear,” a senior administration official said. “So the focus is, how can we maximize our training program to get as many Iraqis out there as quickly as possible.”

Presumably, the elected leadership will be shrewd enough to assess whether they would be better off with foreign Coalition troops remaining in the country. Given the mixed performance of Iraqi security forces in fighting the insurgents–most of whom will be on the losing side of the election–it is unclear to me why a Shi’a dominated government would want a rapid exodus. Still, they have the right to make that call.

Getting U.S. and other foreign soldiers out of Iraq will remove a major target of the insurgency. It will not, however, end the conflict. The Ba’athist “dead enders” will be in much worse shape under a Shi’a-Kurd coalition government than it is now.

In related news, the American public is simultaneously skeptical about the war but willing to continue fighting it:

Support For War In Iraq Hits New Low (Doyle McManus, LAT, p.1)

Support for the war in Iraq has continued to erode, but most Americans still are inclined to give the Bush administration some time to try to stabilize the country before it withdraws U.S. troops, the Los Angeles Times Poll has found. The poll, conducted Saturday through Monday, found that the percentage of Americans who believed the situation in Iraq was “worth going to war over” had sunk to a new low of 39%. When the same question was asked in a similar poll in October, 44% said it had been worth going to war. But when asked whether the United States should begin withdrawing troops after Iraq’s election Jan. 30, 52% said the administration should wait to see what the new Iraqi government wanted. More than a third, 37%, said the United States should begin drawing down at least some of its troop strength. Americans are almost evenly divided over how long U.S. forces should stay in Iraq, the poll found: 47% said they would like to see most of the troops out within a year, while 49% say they could support a longer deployment — including 37% who say the troops should remain “as long as it takes” to secure and stabilize the country.

The results suggest that while Americans have grown more pessimistic about the chances for success in Iraq, most are willing to give President Bush some time to try to turn the operation into a success. “We are seeing lower support for the war, but I would have expected it to be even lower … given that the main rationale for the war — the weapons of mass destruction — turned out not to be there,” said John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University who is an authority on wartime public opinion. Mueller noted that support for the war had been falling gradually since the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, but that the erosion had not produced a majority in favor of early troop withdrawals. “Support for this war is now lower than support for the Vietnam War was at the Tet offensive,” Mueller said, citing the 1968 battles that were a turning point in U.S. public opinion then. “But in Vietnam [after Tet], the war continued for several years, and many people continued to support it through enormous casualties.”

Mueller is a giant in the international relations field, especially on the issue of the so-called “rally effect.” His Vietnam comparison, while usually silly from a military standpoint, is interesting in the context of public opinion.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Scott_T says:

    The article doesn’t really say who was polled (except 1033 adults).

    If it was LAT readers/subscribers (or a web survey only), that is restricting the demographics of those likely surveyed.

    Hasn’t the LATimes been shown to be even more left than the NYTs, lately? Go look at “which country” LA is known as, “Red Country”, or “Blue Country.”

    I’d take this with a grain of salt, until how the polling was done was found out.

    It’s like that Playboy survey in the 60’s that “found out” that the entire US was more progessive sexually than anyone had realized, then they figured out that only Playboy readers responded, not nonsubscribers.

  2. JakeV says:

    Scott T–

    The LA Times presidential polls were pretty far off, as I recall.

    However, it’s simply unthinkable that they’d use a poll of LAT readers here, or a web poll. That’s Alf Landon-era polling. Modern polling has its problems, but it’s way, way beyond stuff that.

    If you click on the PDF file linked to in the the LAT story and scroll to the bottom, you will see that the poll was conducted nationwide via telephone, using random digit dialing to pick up unlisted numbers. This is, I think, pretty much the universal practice.

  3. Jem says:

    I think the new Iraqi government will need to demand a withdrawal (partial, at least) of US Forces in order to establish its bona fides as an independent element. I imagine the demand will initially be to “discuss” the Coalition presence.

    At the end of the discussions, the US will agree to modify its presence, significantly reducing the size of its force and moving substantial parts of what remains into “temporary” desert cantonments (like those at Prince Sultan Airbase in Saudi Arabia–tents for living quarters, but with trailer-based work/support facilities). Departing Coalition forces would be replaced by Iraqi security forces.

    As the foreign troops depart, the government will be able to take credit for getting foreign “occupiers” out of Iraq, while still retaining “support” forces (both combat support/combat service support and combat troops to augment Iraqis if the situation becomes dire in some area) and the training programs they provide.

  4. Scott_T says:

    OK, I sit corrected regarding the source of the poll. 🙂

    I didn’t see it upon first reading of the article.