The surge of U.S. troops into Iraq will end this summer, as the overstretched U.S. military simply cannot sustain it for any longer than that. In the meantime, the number of U.S. forces in the country will drop over the next few months from some 160,000 to the pre-surge level of 130,000. What U.S. force levels should be beyond that point, though, is already the subject of debate between commanders on the ground in Baghdad—anxious to build on security gains—and the top military brass on this side of the Atlantic.
There's a built-in tension in the goals of these two groups. Commanders on the ground in Iraq are tasked with winning the war, while defense leaders here must consider, too, the military's ability to prepare for fights in the future. Military officials in Baghdad say that in the next couple of months, Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and his advisers will be looking at how many troops can come home beyond the pre-surge level of 15 brigades that the military expects to reach by July. "Then there's going to be a healthy debate about what happens after that," says a senior U.S. military official in Baghdad. As the positive security trends continue, the official adds, more of the war has to be solved politically. The chief concern, he adds, is that "things could still continue to degenerate if we don't continue to be here on the ground."
Dicey situation. But the more troops (and the longer they stay) in Iraq, the more wear and tear on equipment, soldiers, and their families. The Pentagon is well aware that worn-out troops are tougher to hold on to—no small consideration as the military works hard to increase the size of the Army and the Marine Corps in the months ahead. "We are now in a position of having to sustain an all-volunteer force in a protracted confrontation for the first time since the Revolutionary War," Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey said recently. "I've got to tell you, it's a dicey game."
And there are other factors. "There will be those who say that we need to draw down faster to send a message to the Iraqi government," adds the official. The question, others note, is whether such a message would be destabilizing or a catalyst for positive change.
It's a tough balancing act. Military analysts liken the troop drawdown to a game of pickup sticks. "You try to pull each one out without having the whole pile collapse," says James Miller of the Center for a New American Security in Washington. "And you hold your breath."