The "pause" is now official, replacing the surge. Once the summer's withdrawal of five-plus brigades from Iraq is completed, a broad consensus of defense leaders appears to believe, a period of consolidation and reorganization will follow with the remaining U.S. forces. This period will take us into the general elections, during which time the likelihood of any significant change in Iraq is slim.
The pause makes sense, if for no other reason than a new president should be allowed to make his or her own policies for the future, regardless of what he or she is promising now on the stump.
Beware, though: This road to the pause has been in play for some time, and those in the military and defense establishment who believe that the United States requires a long-term presence in Iraq are quietly putting in place the pieces that will indeed tie the next president's hands. This isn't some conspiracy to install "permanent bases" in Iraq. What is unfolding is much more insidious.
Gen. David Petraeus now says that it would be "sensible and prudent" to pause with the drawdown of forces once the surge troops return this summer. "The consensus is that when you have withdrawn over one quarter of your combat forces -- it's literally a quarter of our brigade combat teams plus two Marine battalions and the Marine expeditionary unit - that it would be sensible and prudent to have a period of consolidation, perhaps some force adjustments and evaluation before continuing with further reductions," Petraeus told Army Times.
With all eyes on the number of troops physically stationed in Iraq, one of the ways in which further reductions will be allowed is by shifting missions to other Persian Gulf countries, a process that is already underway. In Kuwait, for instance, the Army is completing the finishing touches on a permanent ground forces command for Iraq and the region, one that it describes as being capable of being a platform for "full spectrum operations" in 27 countries around southwest Asia and the Middle East.
Permanently deployed with the new regional headquarters in Kuwait will be a theater-level logistical command, a communications command, a military intelligence brigade, a "civil affairs" group and a medical command. "These commands now have a permanent responsibility to this theater," Lt. Gen. James J. Lovelace told the Mideast edition of Stars and Stripes. "They'll have a permanent presence here."
The Air Force and Navy, meanwhile, have set up additional permanent bases in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman. By permanent I mean large and continuing American headquarters and presences, most of which are maintained through a combination of coalition activities, long-standing bilateral agreements and official secrecy. Tens of billions have been plowed into the American infrastructure. Admiral William J. Fallon, the overall commander of the region, was just in Oman this week after a trip to Iraq to secure continuing American military bases in that country.
When a war with Iran loomed and World War III seemed to be gaining traction in the Bush administration, this entire base structure was seen as the "build-up" for the next war. The build-up of course began decades ago, but since 9/11, the focus has been almost exclusively "supporting" U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran is there, but to interpret the planting of the American flags and the moving of chess pieces as being focused on Tehran is to miss what is really going on.
Regardless of who is elected, in the coming year U.S. combat forces in Iraq will undoubtedly continue to contract to a fewer number of combat brigades and special operations forces focused on counter-terrorism and the mission of continuing to train and mentor the Iraqi Army and police forces. Much of the "war" that is already being fought is being supported from Kuwait and other locations, and the ongoing shifts seem to point to an intent to increasingly pull additional functions and people out of harm's way.
Of course they will not be out of harm's way at all, because a permanent American military presence in the region brings with it its own dangers and provocations. But most important what it brings for the next president is a fait accompli: a pause that facilitates a drawdown that begins to look a lot like a continuation of the same military and strategic policy, even at a time when there is broad questioning as to whether this is the most effective way to fight "terrorism."
By William M. Arkin | February 20, 2008; 8:40 AM ET