An Army colonel's colorfully worded memo arguing for the U.S. to declare victory in Iraq and leave next summer suggests the possibility of an important shift in the debate about U.S. withdrawal plans.
Until now the question has been whether thousands of U.S. troops might need to stay beyond a December 2011 deadline for a complete U.S. pullout, in order to continue training and advising Iraqi forces.
The memo written by Col. Timothy R. Reese, a U.S. adviser to the Iraqi military command, turns that question on its head by asking whether it makes more sense to get out long before the deadline — scrapping President Barack Obama's plan for an extended advisory mission.
For now, Reese's view — "It's time for the U.S. to declare victory and go home" — seems to be in the distinct minority. The conventional wisdom is that in order to avoid an Iraqi collapse that would squander six-plus years of enormous U.S. sacrifices, a residual force of as many as 50,000 U.S. troops should remain to train and advise Iraqis for 16 months after all combat troops depart in August 2010.
Might that change in coming months as Iraqi forces take firmer control and perhaps lose interest in U.S. help?
Might the post-August 2010 advisory mission go forward but with far fewer U.S. troops participating?
Among those who foresee that possibility is Conrad Crane, director of the Army Military History Institute and an expert on counterinsurgency. In an interview Friday, he said it's too early to know but that if violence levels continue to decline there may be more talk of an early scaling back of the mission.
"I don't see what constituency is going to seize upon the Reese argument and insist that the time has come to pull the plug," he said in an e-mail exchange. "Remember that the vast majority of the American people have tuned Iraq out."
As much as the Obama administration and top Pentagon officials would like to get out of Iraq — in part to shift more effort and resources to the war in Afghanistan — they also are leery of going too fast.
"The military leadership of the nation is committed to meeting the timelines as laid out" in the agreement that the administration of former President George W. Bush signed with the Iraqi government last fall, Navy Capt. John Kirby, spokesman for Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, said Friday.
"I think the author is conveying that the problem is too hard, and therefore we should quit," said Col. John Robinson, spokesman for Multi-National Corps Iraq. "But it's clear that (the war effort) has been much harder many times before when the fight was tougher and the violence much greater. It's important we honor our approved plan. We have a long-term goal of strategic partnership with Iraq."
Robinson said Reese was temporarily out of Iraq and not immediately available for comment.
In one narrow but significant way, the Reese view does align with the standard U.S. military line: that the goal in training and equipping Iraqi security forces is not to make them as good as U.S. forces but simply to make them "good enough" to keep order.
The trick is judging what is good enough.
In his memo, which was intended for limited distribution among U.S. military officers in Baghdad but has ended up circulating on the Internet, Reese throws a lot of strong criticism at the Iraqi military. He cites "grievous shortcomings," calling them corrupt, lazy and unable to stand up to sectarian pressures.
But his larger point is that for all their flaws, they are "good enough for Iraq in 2009." And he says that staying beyond August 2010 is not going to make Iraq forces or their government much better.
It's not hard to find a wide variety of views about Iraqi forces' competence and potential for improvement.
Spc. Mike Tidd of D Company, 252nd Combined Arms Battalion of the North Carolina National Guard's 30th Heavy Brigade, told an Associated Press reporter July 24 during a patrol on the southern outskirts of Baghdad that he's not sure the Iraqi security forces are ready to stand on their own.
"I kind of feel like right now if we just up and left, it would be kind of 50-50," said Tidd, 22, of Boone, N.C.
Maj. Gen. Robert Caslen, commander of U.S. forces throughout northern Iraq, acknowledged Friday in an e-mail exchange that U.S. troops are feeling frustrated with some aspects of the relationship with Iraqi forces, particularly in the weeks since U.S. forces moved out of Iraqi cities June 30.
But he said the overall outlook is positive.
"Before 30 June the Iraqi people saw the United States as in the lead, but now the Iraqi security forces are celebrating their leadership," Caslen wrote. "That is something I view as a good thing. It shows competence, confidence, and commitment. This is the army we trained them to become, and this is who they want to be."
In a new report to Congress on conditions in Iraq, the Pentagon on Friday painted a mostly rosy picture of Iraqi security forces.
"The increasing professionalism and effectiveness of the ISF continues to foster the trust, confidence, and support of the Iraqi populace," it said. "However, the ISF continues to rely heavily on the (U.S.) for logistics, fire support, close air support, communications" and other forms of military support.
Source: AP News