Over the weekend, I’ve heard from several different sources very close to the Bush Administration about the high-level discussions over the September 15 report on Iraq (usually referred to in the media as the “Petraeus Report,” though, as we’ve detailed here, General Petraeus actually has preciously little to do with it. The report will be a White House product.) Most of these discussions have focused on the way forward.
Up until about a week ago the expectation was that Bush would stick stubbornly to a straight continuation of the “Surge.” There was even some speculation that there might be a further ramp-up of forces over the 200,000 threshold, particularly in order to take into account the accelerated draw-down that Gordon Brown is expected to begin in the south.
However, I’m hearing that for a number of reasons, Bush is ready to move off this position and instead to move to a draw-down strategy of his own. It will not be anything like the British draw-down, of course. The plan I expect to see emerge on September 15 will be a very slow approach, most likely something like the plan that Senators Warner and Lugar put forward.
What’s driving the shift? This is what I’m hearing:
• Continued erosion of the political position in Iraq. Instead of consolidating its position with the greater stability afforded with an increased troop presence, the al-Maliki Government has actually disintegrated steadily on a week-on-week basis. Sunnis have left the Government. And even within the Shiia population, a curiously centrifugal process has been underway for some time. Each of the three major Shiia powerbrokers has lost influence over the last two months. Instead, there has been a steady move to support local, more precisely, tribal leaders. This makes the political position even more amorphous and difficult to manage than it was before. Bush apparently weighed a coup d’état several times which would have installed a more “manageable” leader in Baghdad. His analysts concluded that such a step would produce a more predictable downside than an upside, so it seems to have been rejected. There have been positive developments in the Sunni community, which has grown more engaged in efforts to root out extremist groups (the White House spin is to call all such groups “al Qaeda,” but this is delusional, even as most U.S. media swallows it hook, line and sinker. However, the groups represent a great array of Salafi orientations, are militant and use terrorist techniques, so they are very much like al Qaeda.)
• Military leaders remain optimistic about their ability to score in the Sunni areas, but they don’t really see tactics which would make much difference in Baghdad and other Shiia areas. They have argued that there would be no benefit from a further ramp-up of forces.
• Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates have been given a go-ahead to begin preparations for a major draw down. The objective will be to dramatically reduce the 150,000 U.S. civilians in Iraq by the time the 2008 elections roll around. There will be a similar, but far slower draw-down of uniformed forces.
• A major open issue revolves around what to do with Iraqi civilians who have been employed by the U.S. Many of them would be vulnerable in the event of a U.S. withdrawal. The total number is in the vicinity of 200,000; though perhaps no more than a quarter of those face real vulnerability in a post-U.S. occupation Iraq. Jordan has closed its borders to Iraqi refugees. State Department leaders and contractors are looking for a system under which they can bring a portion of the total out of Iraq and some back to the United States. No guidelines have yet been drawn on this point which is thought to be highly contentious within the administration.
• The time frame for preparation of a draw-down plan: at least four months.
• Security in the Green Zone is a point of increasing worry. Attacks on the Green Zone have escalated, and the situation is expected to deteriorate significantly in the near term.
• A major point driving the move has been the Congressional G.O.P. Bush was told that if he pushed a straight continuation of the Surge strategy after this fall, he would lose most of the Congressional G.O.P. One senior Republican Congressional figure is said to have told him that the G.O.P. would be “committing suicide” if it went into the 2008 elections with the Iraq War as the lead issue and no draw-down in sight. Bush has been assured that he can hold the G.O.P. in Congress together with an extended, slow paced draw-down.