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Even if the U.S. does decide to withdraw troops, it won't simply flee. Washington is spending millions on fortifying a few Iraqi bases for the long haul. "The challenge for us is, what is the right balance--not to be too present but also not to be underpresent. This will require constant calibration," U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad tells TIME. Indeed, last August, Army chief of staff Peter Schoomaker said that as many as 100,000 Army troops could remain in Iraq for four years.
What conditions need to be met to begin a troop drawdown?
First and foremost, the political process--including significant Sunni participation--must pass its capstone test during the Dec. 15 election. Beyond that, Pentagon planners are tracking four main issues: enemy strength, the capability of Iraq's own security forces, effective local governance and technical and communication abilities to allow U.S. troops to talk to and support Iraqi forces when they need reinforcement. The U.S. military insists that all those benchmarks are trending in the right direction. For example, the Americans say that despite launching 50 attacks a day, the insurgents have been unable to derail political progress. Even more heartening are signs that locals are turning against the fighters: tips to U.S. forces have increased from 442 in February to 4,700 in September, although it's unclear how many lead to insurgents' being captured or killed.
According to the Pentagon, less than half of Iraq's forces are combat ready. But that perception may be based on an unnecessarily strict standard. For instance, the Defense Department doesn't consider an Iraqi unit ready to fight until it can sustain itself with supplies, intelligence and communications--a combination that takes U.S. forces years to develop. A Pentagon official said last week that 87,000 of the 212,000 Iraqis that the Defense Department classifies as "trained and equipped" are actually "in the fight," meaning fully capable of planning and waging active combat. The Iraqis have taken over from U.S. forces in a few regions, and the Americans have ceded control of 29 of the 110 military bases established by coalition forces. But U.S. troops on the ground have their doubts. "Don't trust anyone in the Iraqi army," a Marine sergeant told TIME last week as his unit moved out on patrol with Iraqi soldiers. And a senior U.S. official estimates that only 35,000 of the 110,000-strong Iraqi police force are effective and reliable.
Does anyone support Senator John McCain's call to increase troops?
Not many. In a speech in Washington on Nov. 10, McCain countered those calling for a pullout, saying, "Instead of drawing down, we should be ramping up." He wants the military to add 10,000 more troops. Lower-level officers on the ground in Iraq tend to agree with the Senator; many complain that there are not enough forces to hold the territory that has been won from insurgents. But many commanders, including Army General John Abizaid, head of Central Command, argue that more U.S. troops would just mean more targets for insurgents. And some defense analysts contend that the war has so strained the U.S. Army--especially the National Guard and Reserve--that the Pentagon could not send more troops even if it wanted to.
Will Iraq become safer as the U.S. begins pulling out?