In the effort to end the US occupation, the next battle may be over the Webb Amendment, which seeks to codify limits on the length of combat tours and requirements for an equal period of rest, recovery and retraining.
Webb’s effort is about the math of rotations, and just like the surge, it’s math has its own inexorable effect on the occupation forces. If you can impose these limits on tours and down time, you can force the President to maintain fewer troops than he might like and might even force him to withdraw the surge forces a little sooner. But that’s all.
Once the math works its way through the system to force a modest reduction, the withdrawal strategy is done, meaning we still wind up with about 100,000 or so troops in Iraq into 2009. That would still leave the next President to deal with the political and military risks of what to do with a very large occupation and whether/how to end it or change its mission.
The cloture vote on Webb’s Amendment got 56 votes last time, and the Democratic hope of salvaging something from Bush’s term lies in the Amendment getting at least 60 votes this time (although there may be a strategy for attaching the amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill that does not require 60 votes). It says a lot that the Republicans would not allow an amendment that clearly supports the troops and their families to even get to a vote in the Senate.
The Administration is already practicing the arguments against this modest proposal, sending out Secretary Gates and Pentagon spokesmen, as well as neocon favorite Fred Kagan, to claim that such mandatory limits are unworkable. Their main argument? That it would require the Pentagon to keep track of every soldier, his or her specific dates relative to the limits, and the effect on the overall force levels of that soldier’s unit. There are two answers: (1) Yes, but so what? (2) Is Gates saying he can’t meet the promises he made to the troops last winter? Does George Bush now require that Gates betray his troops?
Astonishingly, the Pentagon is claiming that it does not have the ability to do such individual tracking and still maintain functioning combat units. I say astonishing, because 35 years ago, these same people did exactly that: they had to keep track of my individual dates — when I came in country, how long my tour was, what my R&R entitlements were — and the same information for every one of my buddies, as they rotated each of us in individually and rotated us out individually, as our respective tours began and ended.
Fresh troops were continually being cycled in to replace those who had finished their tours. New guys worked along side those who had been there for a few months or many months. We learned from the “short timers”, and we in turn passed on what we knew to others who followed. And the Army did this for all 500,000 plus troops in Vietnam. It’s not rocket science; it’s called accounting.
The rotation policy may well be structured differently now, but the suggestion that the Pentagon doesn’t know how to field an Army while honoring a commitment that our soldiers don’t have tours longer than 12 or 15 months (or whatever the number) and get an equal time off between tours is preposterous and insulting. But in the age of Bush, preposterous and insulting positions get repeated endlessly if left unchallenged, and then become national policy.
Photo of Secretary Gates: AFP/File/Hassan Ammar