Factor 4: The U.S. military and events in Baghdad will contribute to decision making in Washington.
2006 prediction At the end of October, the top military commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. said more troops may be needed in Baghdad, and repeated his declaration that he will ask for more troops if necessary. American troop levels may be increased or maintained by calling in soldiers and marines stationed in nearby countries, or by extending the deployment of those already in Iraq.
In 2008: The military continues to be the primary lever on troop numbers in the country. The surge of troops over the last year was made at military behest, and current decision making will be guided similarly. Military requests rely on assessments of events in Baghdad and beyond, as the current attempt to assess whether violence has meaningfully decreased, and what that signals about Iraq's security.
Factor 5: Competent Iraqi troops are not going to materialize as necessary.
2006 prediction:We hear a lot these days that Iraqi troops are supposed to be taking over where the Americans leave off, and protect their own country. Regardless of who controls Congress, an accounting of why they aren't, and a reckoning with the consequences will have to take place, and could affect American engagement.
The entire story of why Iraqi troops are so poorly prepared has not unfolded yet, and there are complex reasons on the Iraqi side. However, on the American side, it will eventually unfold that, among other reasons, American and regional subcontractors tasked with training have been either incompetent or corrupt – and this revelation may alter events.
In 2008:The state of the Iraqi Army and Police will remain a crucial factor in whether US forces can leave. According to U.S. government sources, there are now 350,000 trained Iraqi troops, up from 96,000 in 2005. Nevertheless, in January, the New York Times reported that:
The Iraqi defense minister said ...that his nation would not be able to take full responsibility for its internal security until 2012, nor be able on its own to defend Iraq’s borders from external threat until at least 2018.
There are other issues too: keeping those who are in the armed forces alive, and ensuring the integrity of the forces. According to the UK Independent, 8037 Iraqi soldiers and police are known to have been killed so far. They are often the target of militants (whether they identify as Iraqi resistance or al-Qaeda in Iraq) who see them as collaborators or do not want the Iraqi state in its present incarnation to succeed. Additionally, a substantial number of those in the police are there because the U.S. has paid them to be there, instead of with anti-U.S. insurgents, which is where they used to be. These police are members of the highly touted "Awakening Councils," Sunni tribal sheikhs who independently decided to turn their backs on al-Qaeda in western tribal areas. Fighters under these sheikhs are paid by following his allegiances, and financial and other forms of expedience inform their decisions. If the money from the Americans dries up, the direction of these forces is unclear.
Factor 6: Iraqi desires, and Iraqi negotiations with Americans, will shape the future of U.S. engagement.
2006 predictions Contrary to appearances at times, Iraqis do have some stake in their own future. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said on November 2 that U.S. troops should stay in Iraq for "up to three more years." That's two years longer than the current agreement that leaves Americans in control through 2007. The push and pull between Shiite militias, the Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, and Sunni contingents, and how sectarian politics play out vis-a-vis the Americans will also affect American decision-making in Iraq.
In 2008Iraqi desires continue to be a factor in American decision making. Iraq has maintained a split attitude for several years. There is no desire for an American occupation, and a recogntion that the American presence is itself a provocation to violence. Yet there are other calls, some from government and some from the street, for the US to stay until Iraq can ensure its own security.