Now that we are getting close (within a month, most likely) to the end of active conflict in Iraq, I wanted to make my predictions for what is coming, so that everyone can laugh at me in a year or so.
For the next three to six weeks, max, we will be cleaning up resistance, spreading our troops throughout the countryside to get rid of Fedayeen and other loyalists hiding in more remote areas, and generally bringing the first trappings of order to the country. We will have a lot of work cut out for us in doing so, and in bringing the first breaths of civil institutions, a renewed economy (based on oil exports at least at first) and liberty. This work will last for at least a year, with the balance tipping more and more from coalition governors to local officials and power bases, starting at the bottom. For at least the next six months, it will be impossible to use the troops in Iraq for missions beyond Iraq.
We will also need to rest and recuperate, and most likely that means that US-based units will be coming home, in whole or in part. European-based units will probably end up being transferred to Iraq semi-permanently, with units based around H2/H3, Mosul/Kirkuk, and Basra/Nasiriya. We most likely will not have combat units in the capital, though some sort of headquarters unit (V Corps?) will be there, and many facilities in other Arab nations will relocate to Iraq. This period of relocation, recuperation and reorientation will take at least six months, and likely closer to a year, with a lot of the timing depending on how well and how quickly Iraq pacifies.
During this year, we will be rebuilding our weapons stocks, absorbing lessons learned, and working on political agreements for long-term basing and joint training. We will begin to rebuild an Iraqi army and police force which is accountable to the civilian authorities, which in turn will be accountable to the electorate. We will look at the kind of lessons that our enemies are likely to learn, and will invent and test out tactics to deal with those alterations in our enemies' behavior. During this time, also, we will reallocate MOSs between the regular forces and the Guard/Reserve component. Depending on whether we keep 2ID in Korea, we will be able to move two or three heavy divisions into the reserves. These will be replaced with two or three medium divisions in the regular forces, and we will move a large number of logistics and administrative jobs from the reserves to active duty positions. This will make a callup of forces less disruptive in a short war. In a long war, the active duty forces will be able to operate effectively during the window it would take to activate and ready for duty any heavy units which would have to be called up.
In other words, it will be at least a year before we are ready to turn our attention elsewhere in force.
Our chief enemies remain those states at the nexus of terrorist financing and other support and development of weapons of mass destruction. These include Iran and North Korea, named by the President as part of the Axis of Evil. The other first-rank threat is Syria/Lebanon, which is less dangerous than Iraq was in terms of weapons of mass destruction, but more dangerous in terms of terrorist support. Secondary threats include Saudi Arabia, the Palestinians, Sudan and Libya. Each of these is mostly a threat in terms of support for terrorism, rather than development of weapons of mass destruction.
North Korea is very close to collapse, and with China finally putting pressure on the Kim Jong Il regime, by shutting down oil pipelines intermittently, it is likely that the situation in North Korea will be resolved by the fall of the Communists. While China won't like a free and united Korea on its borders, it is likely to accept this for two reasons: first, Korea will be absorbed with the reconstruction for a decade; and second, the threat from a united and democratic Korea a decade from now is less than the threat of a nuclear-armed Japan and Taiwan a year from now, particularly since the US would almost certainly withdraw its military from a united Korea. This combination of factors makes North Korea a small threat long-term, so long as we can assure that North Korea is unable to export WMD technologies prior to the regime's collapse, and can ensure that the regime will in fact collapse. This will require not only pressure from China, but a tightening of the Sunshine Policy on the part of the South.
Iran is in a less critical but still interesting position. Iran is currently on the brink of a revolution to throw out the Ayatollahs and replace them with a secular government. As long as we don't actively interfere, but also thwart any external adventurism (particularly in Iraq and with Hezbollah) on the part of Iran, there is a good chance that Iran will re-Westernize within three to five years. We must make every effort, during that time, to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons capabilities. We must be very careful to not allow our relationship with Iran to become mired in the United Nations; otherwise, we will lose the flexibility we need to assist in the downfall of the Ayatollahs without being heavy-handed and obvious.
Syria is the most critical threat, and the most likely next target for the US. There is no internal instability sufficient to cause Syria to reform on its own. There is no external reason for them to cease support for terrorism in Israel and beyond (and much internal reason for them not to, since Assad's position is weak, and his political legitimacy is largely based on sponsoring terrorism in Israel). Although we will apply pressure, it will be difficult for us to truly bring about an end to Syrian support for terrorism, and a lifting of the occupation of the Lebanon, without resorting to the use of force.
In order to pacify the Middle East, Syria will have to be removed as an agent of ill-will and instability. This will, as I note above, likely require force. It will be more difficult than was attacking Iraq, because Syria's army is large, and equipped with advanced equipment. Syria has not suffered under embargo, and has not had the level of self-destruction of the military that Iraq suffered. Also in Syria's favor are their ability to learn from Iraq's mistakes, their time to prepare and the greater dedication of their troops in general.
There are also a lot of factors on our side, however. A large desert expanse in Iraq will be open to us for the basing of heavy units and aircraft, and eastern Syria is largely undefended (with the Syrians oriented mostly towards Israel and somewhat towards Turkey), giving us a large maneuver area. The Syrian equipment tends to be on the level of Iraqi equipment in most areas, though the better units have newer equipment, and the Syrians have more modern anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. A Mediterranean coastlines affords not only good access for carrier-based air and Marine forces, but also for land-based air from Italy. Supply lines would be relatively easy to maintain, given the large number of potential routes and the large stocks available in Europe and (in a year) in Iraq. Most importantly, Syria will have to maintain extensive units in Lebanon and between Damascas and the Golan, in order to oppose Israel. This will make those units very susceptible to airpower. This will be an even worse negative for Syria if Israel decides that Lebanon is a separate country, and invades Lebanon again to remove Hezbollah. Syria would not be able to reorient, in that case, making both our and the Israeli jobs easier.
The issue of domestic politics will raise its head if we attempt to fight Syria in about 12 to 18 months, when we are at optimal readiness to do so. Either the Democratic frontrunners and President Bush will have to come to an agreement to support the same strategy, or we will have to wait until after the election to avoid making a political issue out of the war. While the war would most likely take only four to six months, the political cost to the US ability to further wage the war on terror by taking out the regimes which threaten us would be greatly weakened by political infighting between the mainstream people in the major parties. As a result, if there is not an agreement between the Democrats and Republicans on a common foreign policy strategy, then the war would be put off (even in the sense of threatening it, though not necessarily in the sense of preparing for war) until at least December of 2004.
Sometime around December 2004, the United States will attack Syria in order to overthrow the Baathist regime.