Barack Obama is taking heat for hinting that he might refine his 16-month timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. But a forthcoming Pentagon-sponsored report will recommend an even steeper drawdown in less time, NEWSWEEK has learned. If adopted, the 300-page report by a defense analysis group at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., could transform the debate about Iraq in the presidential election.
Expected to be completed in about a month, it will recommend that U.S. forces be reduced to as few as 50,000 by the spring of 2009, down from about 150,000 now. The strategy is based on a major handoff to the increasingly successful Iraqi Army, with platoon-size U.S. detachments backing the Iraqis from small outposts, with air support. The large U.S. forward operating bases that house the bulk of U.S. troops would be mostly abandoned, and the role of Special Forces would increase.
The report's conclusions have been discussed inside Secretary Robert Gates's Defense Policy Board, a body of outside experts. And they've found favor with some former members of the Iraq Study Group, such as former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta. "That's basically the approach we thought made sense—embedding some of our forces at smaller outposts, transferring major combat to the Iraqis," says Panetta.
Like the Study Group, this report also calls for a regional diplomatic effort complementing negotiations with the Iraqi tribes, which echoes the previous recommendations of such analysts as John Arquilla, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. "Even with a small leavening of American troops the Iraqis perform quite well," he says.
The biggest problem: Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus, who oversaw the surge, is said to oppose the recommendations, according to a Defense contractor who is privy to the discussions. Asked about the report, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told NEWSWEEK that Gates "feels the most important military advice he gets is from his commanders on the ground." As the next head of Central Command, Petraeus will soon have responsibility for Afghanistan and Pakistan too, which could change his views on troop deployments and the new report. Spokesman Col. Steve Boylan says Petraeus "is focused on Iraq at this point and will continue to be."