Various American talking heads have been speculating recently about the chances of being able to pull the troops out of Iraq after the January 2005 election but the U.S. military and the Bush administration have been notably evasive about their plans. Now the answer to the speculation comes - not from U.S. generals but British ones.
According to The Scotsman newspaper, senior military sources in the British Army have said they have been told that the entire British contingent will be staying for 2 years with around 7,000 soldiers, a brigade-sized force, staying until late 2008. They had hoped to be able to get the majority of troops out by the end of this year, with a complete withdrawal by late 2006.
The planned extension in deployment has been prompted by the continuing Iraqi insurgency and the inability of local security forces to control the country without US and British troops. Training the Iraqis is taking longer than expected and forcing the UK and the US to keep their troops in the country. The coalition soldiers will therefore stay not only for January's election, but for a series of elections in 2005 culminating in full government elections planned for December 2005. Whether their continued presence will provide a provocation to insurgents to disrupt these further election plans remains to be seen.
The demand for troops in Iraq means the MoD may not be able to meet its commitment to provide troops to the NATO garrison in Afghanistan. NATO has asked the UK to increase its force by more than 2,000 to tackle to heroin trade outside the capital, Kabul.One senior army officer said:
"When the requirement to keep troops in Iraq until 2008 filtered back to the army, everybody started wondering how we were going to do this."
Now, the British Army must face the fact that it is overextended already, while the Defence Secretary is pressing ahead with plans to cut four infantry battalions and disband the army’s Scottish regiments.
You can bet your bottom euro (or dollar if you want a cheaper bet) that if the British Army will be in Iraq until 2008, there is no realistic chance of getting U.S. troops out any sooner than that - and it will probably be later. President Bush will preside over a full four year term with an Iraq War in progress, come what may.