The report recommends that Mr. Bush make it clear that he intends to start the withdrawal relatively soon, and people familiar with the debate over the final language said the implicit message was that the process should begin sometime next year.
The report leaves unstated whether the 15 combat brigades that are the bulk of American fighting forces in Iraq would be brought home, or simply pulled back to bases in Iraq or in neighboring countries. (A brigade typically consists of 3,000 to 5,000 troops.) From those bases, they would still be responsible for protecting a substantial number of American troops who would remain in Iraq, including 70,000 or more American trainers, logistics experts and members of a rapid reaction force.
A person who participated in the commission’s debate said that unless the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki believed that Mr. Bush was under pressure to pull back troops in the near future, “there will be zero sense of urgency to reach the political settlement that needs to be reached.”
Unfortunately, it is at best questionable that were withdrawal to even motivate al-Maliki to act, that he would in fact be able to do anything about the sectarian violence. This argument was also used by advocates of withdrawal in Vietnam. It didn't work, but it made more sense there because the government found itself threatened by both a broad-based insurgency and an outside invading force, yet relied upon American troops to ultimately protect it from both. That dynamic does not exist in Vietnam. The Iraqi government is not so much threatened by the insurgency as it is compromised by Shiite militias who, as they gain more power through their manipulation of the government, have less and less incentive to restrain themselves. Fear of withdrawal might lead some of those hard-liners (like Sadr) to question whether they really want to take on an insurgency that our troops have largely battled for them. But it's more likely it will spur them on to greater acts of violence, as the only check on their rampaging-our soldiers-will be leaving. This represents a fairly basic law of war and politics: the party that has the upper hand rarely feels the need to sit down and negotiate with the other side. If the Shiite militias reject power-sharing with the Sunnis, and continue to respond to Al Qaeda and insurgent attacks by unleashing their militias in the dead of night to kidnap, torture and kill, then most assuredly the Sunnis will not feel compelled to negotiate either. And events will spiral out of control, until we are witnessing Bosnian-like ethnic-cleansing on an even larger scale.
Of course, the reality is that the Study Group's recommendations, although sincerely provided as a means to "solve" the crisis in Iraq, also reflect the political situation at home. As more and more Americans come to the conclusion that we can do no more in Iraq, and since increasing the size of our military and sending more troops to Iraq is out of the question for one reason or another, then withdrawal is really our only option whatever the result in Iraq of such a withdrawal. So perhaps this language about "motivating" al-Maliki to get a handle on the insurgency is more wishful thinking than actual strategy. But then, we can hardly expect the Group to be so honest when our political leaders and we ourselves are not.
UPDATE: Unsurprisingly, President Bush continues to oppose any calls for withdrawal. For what it's worth, al-Maliki has said that Iraqi forces will be able to take over completely by the middle of next year, encouraging withdrawal.
UPDATE II: While the Iraq Study Group has not recommended any firm timetables, the deadline they recommend for a near full withdrawal by 2008. Under their plan, troops would be left behind only to train and advise Iraqi forces.