By William Maclean
BRUSSELS, Feb 18 (Reuters) - The insurgency in Iraq could reignite if the United States withdraws troops too fast in order to boost forces in Afghanistan, a military adviser to Western governments said on Wednesday.
David Kilcullen told Reuters that if troop movements were mistimed Washington could again find itself fighting two insurgencies at once.
"The gains in Iraq are fragile. The situation is reversible. We need to be cautious about drawing down too quickly," he said on the sidelines of a security conference in Belgium.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama ordered 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan to tackle an intensifying insurgency. The units had originally been scheduled to go to Iraq, where violence has fallen over the past year.
"We shouldn’t be sleepwalking into an escalation in Afghanistan. We should proceed deliberately and carefully," said Kilcullen, an Australian counter-insurgency specialist who was a technical adviser to Washington on Iraq in 2005-08 and now consults informally on security for several Western governments.
"Seventeen thousand troops isn’t going to break the bank, so if this is an initial step, fine, but at other times people have been talking about an additional 30,000 or 60,000."
U.S. forces that invaded Iraq in 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein must withdraw by the end of 2011 under a bilateral security pact signed by the previous U.S. administration of George W. Bush.
Obama would like the pullout to occur faster. During his election campaign, he promised to be out of Iraq within 16 months of taking office in January. The U.S. military has included the 16-month option among its battle plans.
Asked if there was a danger that Iraq’s insurgency could revive, Kilcullen said: "Yes, there’s a very significant danger of that and I think the most important danger is not that it will happen quickly but that it happens slowly.
"Because let’s say it takes 2 or 3 years to become unstable. In that time we’ll probably be very heavily committed in Afghanistan and find ourselves fighting a two-front campaign.
"We need to ask ourselves very carefully whether the best use of the troops we’ve finally freed up from Iraq is to throw them straight back into the fight in Afghanistan or whether we might not be better to create a regional reserve that can react to developing situations.
"I think the decision’s already been made by President Obama to send those troops to Afghanistan, so that argument is kind of moot now."
U.S. officials have said Washington and its allies are not winning in Afghanistan, more than seven years after they toppled the Taliban for giving sanctuary to al Qaeda leaders responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
The forces are part of an anticipated build-up that could expand the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan to 60,000 troops, from a current 38,000. As well as U.S. forces, there are also some 30,000 troops from NATO nations in Afghanistan.
Kilcullen said the history of insurgenices showed that a withdrawal plan could be a powerful tool in promoting peace, providing it was not done strictly on the basis of a timetable.
"If you make a declaration of intent to leave based on conditions on the ground, that generally has a positive effect. So if you say ‘when it’s secure in a particular area we’ll hand over control’, that tends to have a good effect.
"If you make a purely timetable-based declaration of drawdown, that often has a negative effect because it makes your local allies turn against you because they realise they need to prove their anti-government credientials before you leave." (Editing by Robert Woodward)