I'm fast becoming angry and frustrated over talk of withdrawal plans for US troops, even though I am in favor of withdrawal as fast as it can be sensibly arranged. Not a single plan so far proposed has been a true plan for total withdrawal - all have been cheats which would leave Iraq as a satrapy of the USA, beholden to the United States and its allies for at least the next decade if not forever for national security. So please, forgive me as I write yet another defense-wonk post but I think it contributes an important and so-far much ignored part of the debate.
A key element of the drawdown plans, not mentioned in the President’s public statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced by American airpower. Quick, deadly strikes by U.S. warplanes are seen as a way to improve dramatically the combat capability of even the weakest Iraqi combat units. The danger, military experts have told me, is that, while the number of American casualties would decrease as ground troops are withdrawn, the over-all level of violence and the number of Iraqi fatalities would increase unless there are stringent controls over who bombs what.
However, this plan as set forth by Hersh makes one heck of a lot of sense - if the whole point is to leave Iraq dependent on the USA's military might for its very existence.
When an independent nation, owned by its own citizens and no others, plans for national defense it has two areas to look at, two possible directions that threats could come from. Those are internal and external threats to its security and national integrity. There is absolutely no way that the Iraqi armed forces have been allowed to become prepared to meet external threats on their own.
I think most people would agree that the two most immediate external threats to Iraqi territory (let's leave out the Coalition occupation itself for now, for the sake of argument) are the armed forces of Iran and Syria. To those, I feel, we have to add NATO member Turkey. Turkey has threatened more than once in the past two years that if the US didn't sort Kurdish seperatist incursions into their country fromNorthern Iraq then they would send their own forces across the border to do what America is unwilling to do - root out and destroy the Kurdish terrorists who have been blowing up and assasinating innocent Turks for years now. But without the aid of Coalition armor, artillery, air and sea power, Iraq has exactly zero chance of stopping any other nation in the region, let alone these three, from doing whatever they want to against Iraqi interests.
Want some facts and figures to back that up?
Syria still has one of the strongest militaries in the region. 1600 T-77 tanks, over 4,000 armored troop carriers, over 2000 pieces of artillery (including Scuds), thousands of advanced anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles - all supported by over 650 combat aircraft. Syria also has a small but functional navy based around a couple of deisel subs and a score of fast missile boats.
Iran is the indigenous naval power of the Gulf - although it would be no match for even one US carrier group it has a couple of missile destroyers (ironically, one is ex-British and the other is ex-American navy), a score of highly capable missile craft, a couple of missile-armed frigates (again, ex British and American vessels) and a half dozen very capable deisel subs. Enough to put a dent even in a US fleet and enough to clean the clocks of the rest of the Gulf states. In the air, Iran has over 400 modern combat aircraft including American F-14s and F-4s, Mig 29s and 31s and even Russian "Backfire" supersonic heavy bombers armed with cruise missiles. It's air defenses are formidable, including US Hawk missiles and russian SA-10s. On the ground, Iran masses some 1600 tanks (including around 100 of their own design which is rumored to be as good as the U.S. Abrams), over a thousand armored troop carriers, 3,000 artillery pieces including cruise missles and Scuds and 50 helicopter gunships.
By alarming contrast, the current Iraqi armed forces are entirely designed to provide cannon fodder for US counter-insurgency operations. They recently received exactly 77 refurbished russian T-77 tanks from Hungary - and there are no plans to increase that number before 2010 at the earliest. They have a scant 200 armoured troop carriers and again no plans to increase that number. The army has no artillery, no helicopter gunships, no anti-tank missiles - indeed a vanishingly small amount of heavy equipment of the kind needed to fight another national army at all. The Air Force and Navy are even worse off - the Navy consists of a scant handfull of small (22 metre) patrol boats while the Air Force has only unarmed craft - recon and transport copters and planes but not a single thing with a real weapon. Iceland is better armed. Locally, the United Arab Emirates, a tiny nation, has an air force that could destroy the entirety of Iraq's armor from the air in about 30 minutes. It's a joke.
In fact, when you stop and think about it the Iraqi armed forces are even a joke when it comes to counter-insurgency operations in their own country. American and British troops in Iraq have relied heavily on their armored vehicles and superior equipment to cut casualties. They have relied on air power and artillery for supporting the infantry even in towns. They have needed a heavy airlift capacity to get supplies to those troops when the roads are too undafe for trucks. The Iraqis have none of this on their own. None. At the moment, all it is good for is helping fight a civil war.
This is why the "we will step down as the Iraqis step up" line is so misleading. It is why any exit strategy which does not include fully and properly equipping the Iraqi military in the way a national military should be is misleading. To talk of withdrawal without giving Iraq the prerequisites of a true national self-sufficiency in military affairs is either abandonment to fate or a badly disguised move to set up an American protectorate - a satrapy that is reliant on the U.S. for the heavy equipment, support and firepower any nation needs to keep the wolves at bay.
Several months ago, I suggested that, as part of any withdrawal plan, American forces should leave much of their heavy equipment in place and pair that with small teams left behind to train the Iraqi armed forces - air force and navy as well as ground troops - to use that equipment. Either that, or ship American second rank equipment, tanks, planes, artillery - the lot - to Iraq. It could be done as a lend-lease against future oil revenues, which would go some way towards mollifying the hawks who need an Iraq that is dependant on America. What I am suggesting is a real withdrawal strategy which leaves Iraq beholden to no other nation for its defense against even its own insurgents or the tiny Arab Emirates but instead sets it up in a manner befitting a sovereign nation. The time to do this is now not after the Iraqi army "stands up" - as we've seen, it cannot stand up without the equipment.
In the absence of some such component it isn't an exit strategy. Its either a Soviet-style plan to create a satellite state or a true "cut and run". Hawks and those who believe in America's right to police the world on both left and right, such as Bush and Biden, want the former and are carefully concealing it as a "withdrawal". Others would take the second option, leaving the Iraqis open to a new foreign invasion and unable to defeat al-Qaida even if the rest of the insurgency were to down arms. Both should at least have the gumption to call a spade a spade. Others will note that re-arming Iraq will cause even greater loss of life if, as seems likely, that country descends into full-scale civil war followed by the rise of a new strongarm dictator. That is indeed true - but depriving Iraq of the opportunity to make its own way deprives it of any chance, even the slimmest one, of being its own nation again.
The matter should at least be discussed. The hawks are being careful not to talk about it, the doves aren't thinking about it. Someone should.