When will the troops come home?

Senior military officials predict a significant troop withdrawal next year. We've heard that one before.

Published November 23, 2005 4:22PM (EST)

The Pentagon "tentatively" plans to reduce the number of U.S. forces in Iraq by three brigades early next year and could reduce the troop presence from more than 150,000 to under 100,000 by the end of 2006, senior military officers are telling the Washington Post.

Is there any reason to believe them?

In June of 2003, Time ran a story headlined "Iraq: When Can We Go Home?" In it, the magazine noted that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had been predicting that U.S. troop levels in Iraq could be reduced to 30,000 by the end of 2003.

As we approach the end of 2005, there are still more than 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. When will they come home? No one knows the answer to that question, but that doesn't keep Bush administration officials from making one up whenever political pressure suggests that it's time to do so.

In the course of just a few weeks this summer, the administration put out a flurry of semicontradictory predictions about what troop levels would be and how they would be set. First Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. military official in Iraq, said the U.S. could make "some fairly substantial reductions" in troop levels in the spring and summer of 2006. Then Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said he had formed a committee with Iraqis to come up with a detailed plan that would involve withdrawing U.S. troops from specific regions in Iraq. Then it was reported that Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, had outlined a plan that could bring 20,000 or 30,000 U.S. troops home by the spring. Then an unnamed top U.S. military official in Baghdad told the Post that any early drawdown was "still possible" but unlikely. Then the president himself dismissed all talk about future troop levels as "kind of what we call 'speculation.'"

Now such talk is kind of what we call "politically necessary." So last week, as the House of Representatives imploded over Iraq, the U.S. commander who oversees day-to-day operations in Iraq telephoned the New York Times to say that U.S. presence there could drop to 100,000 by the end of 2006. A day or so later, Rumsfeld warned Americans that even talking about withdrawing troops "immediately or soon" amounted to emboldening the enemy -- all while insisting that troop levels will "clearly" drop to 138,000 after the Iraqi election in December. The secretary of defense was asked if he is "counting on or planning to draw down the forces even more" next year. His answer: "That's a decision for the president."

That was Sunday. By Tuesday, senior military officers were laying out a "moderately optimistic" scenario that could reduce troop levels to under 100,000 by the end of 2006. The Post says the officers didn't want their names used in its story. We can't imagine why.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Donald Rumsfeld Iraq Iraq War Middle East War Room