By YOCHI J. DREAZEN, The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 29, 2008
WASHINGTON -- Despite the rhetoric of the Democratic presidential candidates, significant numbers of U.S. troops will remain in Iraq regardless who wins in November.
In their final push to win the nomination, Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of New York are repeating their vow to start withdrawing U.S. forces shortly after taking office. But both candidates draw a distinction between "combat" troops, whom they want to withdraw, and "noncombat" troops, who will stay to battle terrorists, protect the U.S. civilian presence and possibly train and mentor Iraqi security forces.
Conducting such missions would likely require the sustained deployment of tens of thousands of American military personnel, foreign-policy advisers from both campaigns acknowledge.
"No one is talking about getting to zero," said a foreign-policy adviser to Sen. Obama.
The upshot: When voters go to the polls in November, they will face a stark choice about the future direction of the Iraq war, but they won't be able bring American involvement to a quick end.
Republican front-runner Sen. John McCain was an early and vocal advocate of the Bush administration's troop "surge," which deployed an additional 30,000 combat troops to Iraq as part of a broader shift to a counterinsurgency strategy.
If elected, Sen. McCain has said that he would maintain the current approach, which focuses on protecting Iraq's population by having small units of American troops live in neighborhoods and towns. That would mean keeping U.S. troop levels at or near 130,000, roughly the number deployed there since the start of the war in 2003.
The two Democratic candidates, by contrast, want to abandon the counterinsurgency approach. Both say they will begin withdrawing combat troops shortly after taking office and will shift the remaining U.S. forces to a more limited mission that won't include explicitly trying to deter Iranian activity within Iraq or moving against Shiite militias responsible for much of the country's carnage.
Sen. Obama, on his Web site, says that the drawdowns would begin "immediately" and continue at a pace of one to two brigades -- which each normally number between 3,500 and 4,500 troops -- per month. He hopes to have all combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months of taking office, or by the middle of 2010.
Obama foreign-policy adviser Dennis McDonough says the Democratic front-runner wants the residual U.S. forces to focus on counterterrorism -- largely directed against al Qaeda in Iraq, the homegrown extremist organization responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iraqi civilians -- and protecting the enormous U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
Mr. McDonough says Sen. Obama is open to leaving additional forces in Iraq to train and advise Iraqi security forces, but only if the Iraqi government takes steps to reconcile the country's sectarian groups. Absent such progress, Sen. Obama would halt the training effort, he said. "Our support wouldn't be open-ended," said Bill Burton, a spokesman for Sen. Obama.
Mr. McDonough declined to say how many troops Sen. Obama hoped to have in Iraq after the initial 16 months of withdrawals. But another senior adviser said that Mr. Obama was comfortable with a long-term U.S. troop presence of around five brigades, which -- depending on the numbers of support troops and other personnel -- would likely leave around 35,000 troops in Iraq.
Sen. Clinton takes a similar approach and promises to begin withdrawing combat troops within 60 days of assuming the presidency. Lee Feinstein, the Clinton campaign's national security director, says "the principal focus" of the remaining U.S. forces will be fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq.
U.S. forces would no longer patrol Iraqi streets and towns or seek to prevent sectarian strife between Shiites and Sunnis, or between Arabs and Kurds, he said. "Our troops will not be there to patrol a civil war," Mr. Feinstein said.
Mr. Feinstein declined to say how many troops Sen. Clinton wanted to leave in Iraq, but said that they would be there "in sufficient numbers to carry out the more limited set of missions."
Write to Yochi J. Dreazen at firstname.lastname@example.org