Why David Petraeus Wants to Go Slowly on Troop Drawdowns

Why David Petraeus wants to go slowly on troop drawdowns

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U.S. soldiers sit and listen to Iraqis at a cafe during their patrol last week in Baghdad.

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BAGHDAD—It took 14 days to transport the two 200-ton electric generators, inching along at just 5 miles an hour, across once restive Anbar Province to the Qudas power plant north of Baghdad. They arrived safely last month, with the result that power generation will regularly exceed prewar levels for the first time since the 2003 invasion. "Nothing in Iraq is easy," says Gen. David Petraeus, citing the complex logistics of the move, which included having to provide security and reinforce bridges along the route. "Come to think of it," he adds, "that's a perfect metaphor for Iraq."

His comment may seem understated given the dramatic drop in violence and other signs of progress in recent months. But Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, knows that some of the hardest work still lies ahead if the fragile peace is to be converted into a lasting one. The political divisions in Iraq remain deep, and if they are not bridged soon, civil war could well erupt again. Further, a battle royal has begun within the U.S. administration over how quickly to draw down troops. There is pressure for an accelerated withdrawal not only because the five-year war has strained the Army but also because more troops are needed in Afghanistan and as a strategic reserve for troubles elsewhere, such as in Pakistan. The concern here is that reducing troop levels too fast, before there is progress on national reconciliation, would jeopardize the gains that have been made.

Petraeus will soon provide assessments to the Pentagon leadership about force levels based on scenarios in which the situation gets better, stays the same, or gets worse. "Our requirement, prior to the next [congressional] testimony," he says, "is to provide assessments of the forces required for each of the alternative futures and also to provide a recommendation that is based on our analysis." Petraeus will make his force recommendation to President Bush and the military chain of command a couple of weeks before his required testimony on Capitol Hill, expected in March or early April.

Debate. Troop levels are already set to decline to 130,000 by July from the current level of about 160,000 (the peak was more than 170,000), so a key question is how many more troops can be sent home by year's end. Some defense officials are pushing for a reduction to a more sustainable level of 100,000 troops. That, however, is unlikely to be the recommendation from Petraeus and his team, according to a senior diplomat here, who supports a slower drawdown.

Iraq has seen a sharp drop in violence as the Shiite militias have mostly obeyed a cease-fire decreed by their leaders and as nationalist Sunni insurgents have largely stopped fighting. Sunni radicals linked to the terrorist group al Qaeda in Iraq have not called it quits, but they are being squeezed to a few remaining sanctuaries. That progress, though, has not been cemented by the political reconciliation necessary to keep sectarian and ethnic tensions in check. Addressing that issue is the tallest order for Petraeus and his diplomatic counterpart, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. They are trying to use whatever opportunity the lull provides to get the Iraqi political leaders to reach some kind of entente.

After two years of wrangling, the Parliament took a step in that direction this month by finally passing a law permitting some former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to return to government jobs or to collect their government pensions. Many technocrats, as well as hard-core Saddam loyalists, were ousted from administrative and security jobs in a 2003 purge of Baathists. But the version of the law that passed may still be used to keep midlevel Baathists from rejoining the now Shiite-run security ministries. And it could be used to force out the current head of the Baghdad Operations Command, Lt. Gen. Abboud Qanbar, who Shiite officials complain has grown too close to the Americans over the past year.

"Much work remains to be done," Petraeus says, adding with a laugh that "we are using all means of persuasion." His staff tracks the legislative process and the maneuvers of the various political parties. During a visit to Baghdad's Dora neighborhood, until September a hotbed of al Qaeda resistance, Petraeus urged Iraqi Parliament member Nada Ibrahim to "tell your party leader that we are watching his vote." Ibrahim's Sunni party, the National Dialogue Front, subsequently boycotted the vote on the de-Baathification bill, regarding the measure as still too restrictive. Petraeus is also pressing the government to provide services to recently pacified Sunni parts of the capital, such as Dora. Sewage, trash, electricity, and health services have been provided in many cases by contractors hired using U.S. aid and military funds.