Next Challenge in Iraq

Let's assume that the numbers from Iraq are right and that there has been a significant reduction in violence there. Let's even agree that the Bush administration's strategy is finally showing some success. Isn't that an argument for accelerating the transfer of security to the Iraqis -- and speeding up the withdrawal of some U.S. support troops?

U.S. military commanders are now discussing precisely these issues. Some argue that the Bush administration should seize the moment -- and take advantage of its recent gains -- by handing off more responsibility to Iraqis. That's the definition of success in this mission, after all -- to create enough security that we can bring most U.S. troops home.

Adm. William Fallon, head of the U.S. Central Command, discussed the security improvements in a conversation last week. He said he focuses on two metrics every day: the number of U.S. combat deaths and the number of violent incidents in the country. As we talked on Tuesday, the total of U.S. combat deaths for October stood at just 15, the lowest in many months. The number of violent incidents was averaging in the low 60s per day, compared with 150 early this year when he assumed command of U.S. forces in the Middle East.

"I look at the numbers, and I say the success that General [David] Petraeus and the guys have made is amazing," Fallon said. "But how do we leverage that to get the Iraqi government to take decisions that will provide enduring security? How do we help them take advantage of this?"

Fallon cautioned that the schedule "is where it ought to be" for a gradual reduction by next summer of the U.S. combat forces that do the fighting. But he said he is exploring with Petraeus and his other commanders "whether there is a way to take more of the support force out" on a quicker timetable.

In this new discussion of Iraq options, the commanders are weighing a classic question of military strategy: What's the best way to exploit gains on the battlefield? Should you move cautiously to protect and consolidate those gains? Or should you move more aggressively to seize the new opportunities that success has provided? Not surprisingly, the commanders on the ground are wary of risking the progress they've made, while senior officials at Centcom and the Pentagon are probing for new initiatives.

Southern Iraq will be a good test of whether the transition to Iraqi control can be accelerated. Britain announced this month that it is withdrawing half its troops from Basra and that the remaining 2,500 may be gone by the end of 2008. Rather than moving U.S. troops south to fill the vacuum, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno plans to let the Iraqi military and various militias sort out who controls what. About 400 U.S. troops will be embedded with Iraqi special forces to help in a crisis, and thousands more can be flown in quickly. As other areas of the country become more secure, this hands-off approach can be extended.

The biggest argument against accelerating the handover is that violence is down now only because of the surge of U.S. firepower. But in coming weeks, commanders will be exploring whether it's possible to maintain the same combat "tooth" with less of a "tail" of logistical support.

Politically, the Iraq debate has a markedly different tone than it did a few months ago. At the White House, the sense of political free fall is over. Officials feel they are on a stable glide path toward a reduced but still substantial troop presence when President Bush leaves office. It's not exactly a military victory, with marching bands and flying flags, but it's not a defeat either.

The mood has changed on Capitol Hill as well. Congressional pressure for a quick pullout has eased, in part because Democratic leaders know they don't have the votes. Meanwhile, the top two Democratic candidates, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, have both said they expect that U.S. troops will still be in Iraq when the next president takes office, and they have discussed what role this residual U.S. force should play.

The one certainty about Iraq is that a large U.S. troop presence isn't acceptable over the long run, for Iraqis or Americans. So U.S. military commanders are wise to examine how to use the remarkable success of recent months to create alternatives that rely less on U.S. firepower. That's really the challenge now in Iraq -- how to seize the moment, rather than maintain the status quo.

David Ignatius