Downsizing, Iraq-Style

On July 6, President George W. Bush celebrated his 59th birthday in Copenhagen with a friend, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. It was an important moment for Bush, and not only because of the Greenland stamp collection he received as a birthday present. He also got a chance to show his appreciation to members of a club that has become increasingly unpopular: the “coalition of the willing.” There are roughly 520 Danish troops stationed in Iraq, and Bush paid tribute to their families. Unfortunately for Bush, there may be a lot fewer people around to thank at his next birthday party.

Chances are the Danes will remain members of the coalition. Rasmussen has repeatedly pledged his allegiance to Bush and the U.S. efforts in Iraq. But the Spaniards have famously pulled out of the group, following the March 2004 election of a socialist government headed by Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. The Italians confirmed on July 8 that their 3,160 troops would start leaving Iraq in September. The Poles announced earlier this year that they would pull their 1,500 troops from Iraq by January 2006. And less noticed, perhaps, but no less important is the planned withdrawal of Ukrainian troops (1,650 of them, scheduled to leave in the fall). Meanwhile, Dutch troops have already left, and Bulgarian soldiers are on their way out.

In May 2003, the coalition was composed of 30-plus countries and had a total of 173,000 troops stationed in Iraq, according to the Brookings Institution's “Iraq Index.” By June 2005, the group had dropped by a dozen members and to roughly 158,000 troops. As a journalist at the French publication La Croix writes, it's beginning to look less like a “coalition of the willing” and more like an “alliance in tatters.”

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It doesn't help that Britain, America's leading ally in the Iraq War, was targeted in a recent terrorist attack. On July 7, shortly after rush-hour bombings killed more than 50 commuters in London, an al-Qaeda group posted a warning, which may or may not be authentic, on the Internet that Italians and Danes could be next. The threat was brushed off by Italian and Danish officials, who renewed their commitment to the coalition shortly after the bombings occurred.

Some observers say the attacks will unite the countries under attack more than divide them. “It will increase the solidarity among Western countries and put the issue back into a pre-Iraq mind-set,” says Ivo H. Daalder, a senior fellow at Brookings and co-author of America Unbound. “They will say, ‘We're not to be derailed from policy by a bunch of terrorists.'”

At least not for a few weeks. And, of course, no nation should leave the coalition because of threats from terrorist networks. But the fact is that several countries now withdrawing or considering withdrawal -- Italy and Japan among them -- had begun thinking of pulling their troops well before the London bombings occurred. It's a delicate process. Elena Potodorova, the Bulgarian ambassador in Washington, says her compatriots were upset by the deaths of five Bulgarian soldiers in the Iraq War earlier this year. “That was the first time Bulgarians had experienced loss as a U.S. ally and a member of NATO,” she says. “It was a real baptism by fire.”

But, she adds, her government's decision to pull out of Iraq was reached mainly because a United Nations Security Council mandate for military operations in Iraq expires on December 31. The plans for withdrawing Bulgarian troops were discussed over a long period and finally approved by the parliament in May. “We were trying not to react in an unexpected or panicky way,” she explains.

Regardless of how a decision about withdrawing troops is made, the results are the same: fewer soldiers in Iraq working to tamp down the violence. And even though Pentagon officials like Lieutenant Colonel John Skinner are enthusiastic about the group -- “I still think there's a strong and healthy coalition,” he says -- the upcoming departures isolate the United States even more.

“The coalition was there to permit the Bush administration to say, ‘Hey, we are acting in conjunction with a wide range of like-minded nations,'” says Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University and author of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War. “But at the time, the argument was not that persuasive.”

It's even less convincing now. And besides the public-relations problem, there's the question of military strategy. The troops being withdrawn may be small in number, but they serve a purpose. Charles Heyman, a London-based defense consultant with Jane's Strategic Advisory Services, says the loss of troops, especially the Poles (because they're considered to be particularly well-trained), will hurt the anti-insurgency efforts.

“The coalition forces are very skilled,” Heyman explains. “They can go to a place like Fallujah and clear it out, but they can't stay there to dominate the ground by night and day. In Vietnam, Americans had the ground during the day and lost it by night. In Iraq, they really don't have it.

“When you have any sort of insurgency campaign, the number of military forces is absolutely vital,” he continues. “An analysis of past insurgency campaigns in places like Malaya, Northern Ireland, Cyprus, and Algeria shows you need one member of security forces for 30 members of a population. To make a good dent in the insurgency in Iraq, which has a population of 20 million, you need about 500,000 members of the security forces. We just don't have anywhere near that. The total figures for coalition forces -- and for operational Iraqi troops -- are about 220,000.”

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Poles, Bulgarians, and others may be heading home, but there's one coalition member not planning on leaving anytime soon -- at least if you judge by the new sidewalks, fitness center, and facilities being built at Camp Victory, a U.S. Army base located at Baghdad International Airport. And while the rest of Iraq may be increasingly unstable, Americans on the base are trying to instill a sense of order and stability (a Pentagon official told me that they've even started to give out speeding tickets).

But real stability is a long way off, and the impending departure of a few thousand well-trained soldiers only raises more questions about America's diplomatic position and about how long U.S. forces will have to stay.

Tara McKelvey is a Prospect senior editor.