Military Envisions Longer Stay in
Officers Anticipate Small 'Post-Occupation' Force
By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Post" -- - BAGHDAD -- U.S. military
officials here are increasingly envisioning a "post-occupation"
troop presence in Iraq that neither maintains current levels nor
leads to a complete pullout, but aims for a smaller, longer-term
force that would remain in the country for years.
This goal, drawn from recent interviews with more than 20 U.S.
military officers and other officials here, including senior
commanders, strategists and analysts, remains in the early
planning stages. It is based on officials' assessment that a
sharp drawdown of troops is likely to begin by the middle of
next year, with roughly two-thirds of the current force of
150,000 moving out by late 2008 or early 2009. The questions
officials are grappling with are not whether the U.S. presence
will be cut, but how quickly, to what level and to what purpose.
One of the guiding principles, according to two officials here,
is that the United States should leave Iraq more intelligently
than it entered. Military officials, many of whom would be
interviewed only on the condition of anonymity, say they are now
assessing conditions more realistically, rejecting the "steady
progress" mantra of their predecessors and recognizing that
short-term political reconciliation in Iraq is unlikely. A
reduction of troops, some officials argue, would demonstrate to
anti-American factions that the occupation will not last forever
while reassuring Iraqi allies that the United States does not
intend to abandon the country.
The planning is shaped in part by logistical realities in Iraq.
The immediate all-or-nothing debate in Washington over troop
levels represents a false dilemma, some military officials said.
Even if a total pullout is the goal, it could take a year to
execute a full withdrawal. One official estimated that with only
one major route from the country -- through southern Iraq to
Kuwait -- it would take at least 3,000 large convoys some 10
months to remove U.S. military gear and personnel alone, not
including the several thousand combat vehicles that would be
needed to protect such an operation.
"We're not going to go from where we're at now to zero
overnight," said Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the U.S. commander
for day-to-day operations in Iraq.
U.S. officials also calculate that underneath the anti-American
rhetoric, even Shiite radicals such as cleric Moqtada al-Sadr
don't really want to see a total U.S. pullout, especially while
they feel threatened by Sunni insurgents. Also, officials think
any Iraqi government will prefer to keep a small U.S. combat
force to deter foreign intervention.
Such a long-term presence would have four major components. The
centerpiece would be a reinforced mechanized infantry division
of around 20,000 soldiers assigned to guarantee the security of
the Iraqi government and to assist Iraqi forces or their U.S.
advisers if they get into fights they can't handle.
Second, a training and advisory force of close to 10,000 troops
would work with Iraqi military and police units. "I think it
would be very helpful to have a force here for a period of time
to continue to help the Iraqis train and continue to build their
capabilities," Odierno said.
In addition, officials envision a small but significant Special
Operations unit focused on fighting the Sunni insurgent group
al-Qaeda in Iraq. "I think you'll retain a very robust
counterterror capability in this country for a long, long time,"
a Pentagon official in Iraq said.
Finally, the headquarters and logistical elements to command and
supply such a force would total more than 10,000 troops, plus
some civilian contractors.
The thinking behind this "post-occupation" force, as one
official called it, echoes the core conclusion of a Joint Chiefs
of Staff planning group that last fall secretly considered three
possible courses in Iraq, which it categorized as "go big," "go
home" and "go long." The group's recommendation to reshape the
U.S. presence in order to "go long" -- to remain in Iraq for
years with a smaller force -- appears to carry weight in
Baghdad, where some of the colonels who led that planning group
have been working for Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S.
commander in Iraq since February.
Despite the significant differences in the way the war has been
discussed in Washington and in Baghdad, this plan is emerging as
a point of convergence between the two capitals. Defense
Secretary Robert M. Gates and White House spokesman Tony Snow
both recently made comments indicating that the administration
is thinking along the same lines as military officials here.
Snow has likened the possible long-term mission of U.S. troops
in Iraq to the protective role American forces have played in
South Korea since the end of the Korean War 54 years ago. And
Gates said recently that is he considering a "protracted" U.S.
presence in Iraq rather than a complete withdrawal.
This is hardly the first time officials have considered troop
reductions. The original U.S. war plan called for the Army to
have only 30,000 troops in Iraq by fall 2003; later, top
commanders planned for a drawdown in the summer of 2004. Neither
option came to pass, as the military found itself engaged in a
tougher and longer war in Iraq than it or the Bush
administration had expected.
But officials here insist that they are now assessing the
situation more soberly. For example, when Maj. Gen. Benjamin
Mixon, the commander of the 25th Infantry Division, briefed
reporters last month, he expressed worries about the performance
of Iraqi forces and called the Iraqi government in Diyala
province "nonfunctional." He also said candidly that he did not
have enough soldiers in Diyala. As one officer here put it, his
comments were of the sort that generals in Iraq once discussed
in private but avoided stating publicly.
"I think there's a greater appreciation for complexity," said
Lt. Col. Brad Brown, a crisis manager for the 1st Cavalry
Division, which is overseeing operations in Baghdad.
Officials now dismiss the 2004-06 years -- when Gen. George W.
Casey Jr. was in command -- as a fruitless "rush to transition,"
as one senior defense official here put it. "The idea was, 'As
they stand up, we'll stand down,' " he said. That phrase has
been all but banished from the Green Zone, as has the notion of
measuring U.S. progress in Iraq by the number of Iraqi troops
trained or by changes in U.S. casualty counts.
"We had previously 'transitioned' ourselves into irrelevance,
and the whole thing was going to hell in a handbasket," a senior
official commented in an e-mail.
Top military officials even say that Iraq's elections in
December 2005 only deepened sectarian divides and contributed to
the outbreak of a low-grade civil war in Baghdad last year. "We
wanted an election in the worst way, and we got one in the worst
way," one U.S. general here said.
Another major difference is that U.S. officials, both political
and military, say they are more willing to take chances than
before. The clearest gamble was the decision in January to move
U.S. troops off big, isolated bases and into 60 small,
relatively vulnerable outposts across Baghdad. However, the
risk-taking also includes reaching out to people once declared
enemies of the United States, such as Sadr, the Shiite cleric.
"Some people say he might be ready to negotiate behind the
scenes," Odierno said in an interview.
In addition, commanders will be forced to lean heavily in coming
months on Iraqi security forces, whose performance has been
mixed at best. The U.S. strategy in Baghdad of "clear, hold and
build" calls for clearing neighborhoods of enemy forces, then
holding them with a sustained military presence while
reconstruction efforts get underway. Yet by itself, the United
States does not have enough troops to "hold," so that mission
must be executed by Iraqis.
"My nightmare -- the thing that keeps me up at night -- is a
failure of Iraqi security forces, somehow, catastrophically,
mixed with a major Samarra-mosque-type catastrophe," Maj. Gen.
Joseph F. Fil Jr., commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, said
last week, referring to the February 2006 bombing of a mosque in
Samarra that sparked renewed civil strife.
Even as they focus on the realities in Iraq, officials here are
also keeping an eye on Washington politics. Despite the talk in
the U.S. capital that Petraeus has only until September to
stabilize the situation in Iraq, some officers here are quietly
suggesting that they really may have until Jan. 20, 2009 -- when
President Bush leaves office -- to put the smaller, revised
force in place. They doubt that Bush will pull the plug on the
war or that Congress will ultimately force his hand.
Such timing matters because, despite some tactical success in
making some Baghdad neighborhoods safer, officials here believe
the real test of the U.S. troop increase will be its ability to
create space over time for political accommodation among rival
Iraqi factions. Officers agree that hasn't happened yet -- at
least not significantly enough to make a difference in
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