Prime Minister Tony Blair today announced that 1,600 British troops would return home from Iraq in coming months, but stopped short of announcing any clear exit strategy from the hugely unpopular war. He said a further 500 soldiers may be withdrawn by the end of summer, and that the remaining troops would be involved in supporting and training Iraqi security forces and securing Iraq's border.
Though the British currently have only 7,100 troops in Iraq compared to the 140,000-strong U.S. contingent, they carry symbolic importance as the largest allied presence.
The White House is attempting to put a positive gloss on the news (which hardly could have been unexpected):
"We're pleased that conditions in [British controlled] Basra have improved sufficiently that they are able to transition more control to the Iraqis," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "President Bush sees this as a sign of success and what is possible for us once we help the Iraqis deal with sectarian violence."
There's slightly more detail in the AP article that Adam sent me:
Blair will also tell the House of Commons during his regular weekly appearance before it that a total of about 3,000 British soldiers will have left southern Iraq by the end of 2007, if the security there is sufficient, the British Broadcasting Corp. and The Sun newspaper said, quoting government officials who weren't further identified.
The BBC said Blair was not expected to say when the rest of Britain's forces would leave Iraq.
However, Kevin Drum, reading The Guardian's take on the matter notes some incongruities:
CNN's headline says "UK to begin Iraq pullout," but here's what the Guardian says:The reduction of just 1,000 by early summer cited by officials yesterday is significantly less than anticipated in reports that British troops in southern Iraq, presently totalling 7,200, would be cut by half by May.If the Guardian is right, the real story here isn't that Britain is withdrawing from Iraq, but that they're actually planning to stay longer than previously planned. That seems like a pretty important qualifier.
A more cautious reduction may reflect concern expressed by the Iraqi and US governments about British intentions.
Now, if Tony Blair announces in tomorrow's speech a firm deadline of 2008 for withdrawing the rest of Britain's troops, as the Guardian also reports, that will be news. But I betcha he does nothing of the sort. It'll be "if conditions allow," just like it's always been.
It appears that The Guardian was wrong about the number of troops that would be brought home, and wrong about a firm deadline for withdrawal. But the pace of withdrawal is slower than originally planned, as Drum does well to point out.
Adam also raised a good point in his email to me:
Is there anyway for us to ever remove troops without having a timetable of sorts? I mean, the British are saying Basra is under control, so they are planning to leave. If we get Baghdad under control, and do the same thing, won't we at some point say "well we should have our people out of there by..." Won't this then "embolden the terrorists" and thus make us stay indefinitely? Or am I making too much sense?
Clearly Adam was up too late last night, as he is making perfect sense. Even a withdrawl plan characterized as consisting of "benchmarks" and not a "timetable" must have date for leaving. It's not as if the President can announce that it's time to go, and then our troops can all leave that same day, before the terrorists have time to be emboldened into deciding to wait out our leaving. His point is not a refutation of a plan that includes a timetable. It is a refutation of the absurdity that the insurgents are "emboldened" or "demoralized" solely on the basis of whether we decide to stay or go.