US debates paring down Iraq mission

2011-09-08 14:10

Washington - As the White House debates keeping a much smaller force in Iraq after 2011, it will have to decide whether to give up a peacekeeping role in the country's volatile north, officials and analysts said on Wednesday.

Amid negotiations with Iraqi leaders on the scope of a future US military mission, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has approved a tentative proposal to retain as few as 3 000 to 4 000 troops beyond an end-of-year deadline, a senior defence official said.

The proposed smaller footprint, first reported by Fox News, has been floated as a way of navigating the politically-charged talks with Baghdad, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

US officials and senior officers had previously spoken of a larger training force of at roughly 10 000.

"If you go in with 10 000, then you may get nothing. You don't want to go heavy and overplay your hand," the official said.

The Obama administration's internal debate on Iraq requires the president's advisers and commanders to contemplate what tasks will be carried out by any follow-on force, and what missions might have to be jettisoned.

With the Iraqi military designed as a counter-insurgency force, US officers and experts have long argued that Iraq will need help with logistics, intelligence, counter-terrorism, air power and naval security.

3 000 not enough

But a lighter force of roughly 3 000 would be too small to address what top generals have said is perhaps the most serious threat to Iraq's stability, ethnic tensions between Kurds and Arabs in the country's oil-rich north.

"The presence of American troops on that border has diminished tensions and de-escalated a number of incidents," said John Nagl, a decorated former Army officer and president of the Centre for a New American Security.

The administration is examining what tasks now performed by troops could be handed over to private contractors, who are mostly American retired soldiers, but the peacekeeping mission in ethnically-mixed northern Iraq would likely not be one of them, he said.

"Probably the big mission that you can't imagine contractors doing is maintaining stability on the Kurdish-Arab border. That is probably an inherently governmental mission," said Nagl, whose think tank has had close ties with the administration of President Barack Obama.

US forces deployed in the north act as mediators between Kurdish and Iraqi army units, working to prevent misunderstandings and potential violent clashes over territorial disputes.

Roughly 4 000 to 5 000 troops would be needed to carry out the "honest broker" peacekeeping role in the north, Nagl said.

Panetta and Pentagon spokespersons have insisted no final decision has been made on future troop numbers, but Obama has already come under criticism for mulling such a scaled-back force.

We shouldn’t give up victory

Three senators issued a statement on Tuesday saying they were "deeply troubled" at the proposal and that such a scaled-back force would put at risk "hard-won" progress.

"We've won there, we should not give up that victory," House Armed Services Committee Chairperson Buck McKeon told reporters on Wednesday.

Obama faces competing demands over Iraq, with fellow Democrats urging him to make good on his promise to end the US involvement there, while Republicans and some military officers warn the country could unravel without enough US troops on the ground.

The administration has tried not to pile public pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki over the explosive issue, but the clock is ticking under the current security agreement that requires the remaining 46 000 American troops to withdraw by the end of the year.

Given the political difficulties, the defence official said a proposed lighter footprint likely would have a greater chance of winning support both in Baghdad and Washington.

"Three to four (thousand) is probably something Maliki can sell in Iraq and it is palatable to the American public," the official said.

  • daniel elliott - 2011-09-13 03:54

    What is the right amount of US soldiers to leave in Iraq? How many US troops seem to be enough troops to sustain the fragile gains while continuing to enable the Iraqis to defend themselves against internal and external threats? I would imagine we need to discover a valid formula for calculating the risks associated with US troops remaining in Iraq. What lethal attacks are due specifally to US troops still with boots on the ground occupying Iraq and which attacks are related to sectarian issues, criminality and attempts at destablizing the country? What are the alternatives to the US providing soldiers? What are the specific objectives that need to be achieved in Iraq? What is the plan, the objectives, the costs?,...these measureables are the things that need to be known in order to make troops remaining in Iraq palatable to the America public and to the Iraqi public. I am sure the Iraqi public is more of a hard sell. I'm assuming from what I know about on the ground by an occupying force fuels insurgencies and violence. I would also assume, the larger the footprint of the occupying force, results in a greater resistance to the presence of that force regardless of what end state the foreign force is intending to achieve. These are my personal thoughts and do not reflect nor are intended to represent the views of the US Army. Major Dan Elliott

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