It would take nine to 12 months or longer to withdraw all US troops, contractors and equipment safely from Iraq and phase out US bases there, says a respected analyst after extensive talks with US commanders and diplomats and Iraqi leaders in Baghdad.
The US military in Iraq would prefer a somewhat slower-paced scenario to complete a full pullout over two years, while other experts "indicate it would be feasible" to withdraw 10,000 troops and 10,000 contractors a month via Kuwait, says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
These estimates do not mean the US could not leave Iraq quickly, Cordesman said in a weighty report that is certain to get serious congressional consideration.
The more equipment and facilities the US and Iraqi forces abandon and destroy, the swifter the exodus, Cordesman said.
"Under these conditions, the US could rush out in as little as a few weeks and no more than a few months," he said.
While the former US Defense Department official has endorsed no particular script, he has urged policymakers to take a realistic look at the options.
At the same time, Cordesman said phasing down US forces in Iraq was no guarantee casualties would decline unless those that remained were pulled out of easily targeted forward bases.
With Democrats and some Republicans in the US Congress pressing for an orderly partial withdrawal, Cordesman cautioned it was absurd to suppose the US could stand aside and count on air power and special forces to deal with al-Qaeda and other terror groups.
"Reducing troop levels does not reduce risk or casualties unless it is conducted as part of a military plan," the analyst wrote in a report issued by the think tank based partly on talks he held in Iraq two weeks ago.
US officials there made clear, Cordesman wrote, that they were preparing to advise Congress they were examining options for phasing down US forces, which now total about 162,000.
At the same time, he said, the officials recommend that the US extend its Iraq commitment through military spending well into the next administration, which will take office Jan. 20, 2009, but with much lower troop levels and budgets.
Agreeing with the Bush administration, Cordesman said a case can be made that "strategic patience" through at least early next year may make a working plan possible. He emphasized it would be a mistake to focus on terrorists and not also the country's political and economic situation.
US Ambassador Ryan Crocker and US commander General David Petraeus are expected to begin crucial congressional testimony the week of Sept. 10.
Throughout the Cordesman's report is an inclination to credit their judgment above that of Bush administration policymakers in Washington.
Overall, and with Washington his apparent target, Cordesman said "half-truths and spin in the past have built up a valid distrust of virtually anything the administration says about Iraq."
And yet, the former director of intelligence assessment in the Pentagon said, "military progress is taking place."
Cordesman urged a shift in the national debate from either "staying the course or rushing out with little regard for the consequences."
However, he called Iraq a gamble and said, "The mistakes and blunders that have dominated US policy ... have interacted with Iraqi failures to make any continued US effort one filled with serious risks."