Geopolitical Diary: U.S. Troop Allocations and Future Priorities
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day.
Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider
what might happen tomorrow.
U.S. President George W. Bush said on Monday that he will withdraw up to 8,000 troops from Iraq before he leaves office. At the same time, he intends to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan. The reduction in forces will begin in November. A Marine battalion will be withdrawn and its replacement will be sent to Afghanistan instead. Then an Army brigade plus support troops will be withdrawn and not replaced, bringing the total withdrawn to about 8,000 troops. That means that the number of troops in Iraq when Bush leaves office will be slightly higher than when the surge began. There are two reasons for the withdrawal. First, there is clearly the need for additional troops in Afghanistan. The situation there is deteriorating because the Taliban have gained strength over recent years and because the number of troops there is insufficient to defeat them or even to guarantee that at some point the Taliban won't be able to inflict substantial regional defeats on U.S. and NATO forces. Reinforcements have to be sent, and the primary pool of available forces is either in Iraq or scheduled to go there. Secondly — and this is an objective and not partisan observation — there is an election going on in the United States, and the president wants John McCain to win. That means that he must reinforce McCain's assertion that the surge has worked by withdrawing at least some forces. The argument that the surge has succeeded is not compatible with the argument that force levels can't be reduced. So between Afghanistan and the election, some reduction was necessary. What is interesting is that only an 8,000-troop reduction is being proposed. Bush is following the recommendation of Gen. David Petraeus, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq and who, as U.S. Central Command chief, is now responsible for both Iraq and Afghanistan. Petraeus is clearly uncomfortable with the state of things in Iraq. He has said as much. The tensions within the Iraqi government are substantial, and if they are not resolved, some of the factions may choose to resume the civil war. Relations with Iran remain unclear, and in spite of some assurances that the Iranians no longer have the kind of clout they used to with Iraqi Shiite militias, that is a hypothesis that might be true but no one wants to see tested. Iraq remains a priority over Afghanistan; its status is improved but uncertain, and the bulk of U.S. forces remain committed to Iraq. The problem the next president will face is that the U.S. military will be dealing with more than reinforcing Afghanistan while maintaining stability in Iraq. U.S. forces are also facing the much larger question, as we have discussed, of how to deal with Russia after Georgia. This administration continues to discuss including Georgia and Ukraine in NATO. We do not think this will happen, as European members will block it, but NATO has already included the Baltic countries at a time when NATO couldn't imagine an assertive Russia. Now, the United States and others have made military guarantees to defend the Baltics but have not allocated the forces needed to deter hypothetical Russian moves. We do not know that the Russians will do anything there, but the point of deploying forces is to deter such an action. Put simply, the United States cannot put the forces on the ground in the Baltics to act as that deterrent. There is a broader issue, however. The Russians and the Venezuelans are talking about naval maneuvers in the Caribbean while U.S. warships are in the Black Sea. The Russo-Venezuelan exercises cannot be taken seriously militarily, and it is unlikely that the United States will try to get aggressive in the closed waters of the Black Sea. That said, it is unclear what Russian capabilities and intentions will be in five to 10 years, and it takes at least that long to enhance naval power for the United States. If there is to be a competition with the Russians at sea, Washington will need to budget more money for anti-submarine warfare systems, enhanced anti-missile systems on more vessels and so on. These are systems that the United States has and is funding, but not with a sense of urgency. It will be for the next administration to determine how serious the Russians are going to be in a decade. But the U.S. Navy is certainly going to try to lay claim to a greater budget share, while NATO and U.S. troops in Europe may no longer appear to be an anachronism. Keeping substantial forces in Iraq, building up forces in Afghanistan, reinforcing NATO and funding faster and deeper naval development are not possible within the current Defense Department budget. Something has to give, and that is either some of these commitments or the budget. President Obama or President McCain will have an interesting opening act.