Colonel: No point in lingering in Iraq

(MILITARY TIMES)    Army adviser to the Iraqi military command in Baghdad argues in an internal memo that the U.S. should “declare victory and go home” next year, 16 months ahead of schedule.

Col. Timothy R. Reese wrote that the years-long American effort to train, equip and advise Iraqi security forces has reached a point of rapidly diminishing returns, and that Iraqi forces already are good enough to defend the government against the weakened terrorist and insurgent forces that remain.

“The massive partnering efforts of U.S. combat forces with ISF (Iraqi security forces) isn’t yielding benefits commensurate with the effort and is now generating its own opposition,” Reese wrote in a memo early this month to a number of U.S. military officials in Baghdad.

Reese argued for ending the U.S. military mission in Iraq in August 2010. That is the date when President Barack Obama has said all combat troops will have withdrawn but a residual force of 35,000 to 50,000 troops will remain to continue training and advising the Iraqi security forces until a final pullout by December 2011.

There are now 130,000 U.S. forces in Iraq.

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said after visiting Iraq that conditions have improved so much that it might be possible to accelerate slightly the withdrawal of combat forces this fall. But he did not address the separate question of whether to shrink or eliminate the post-August 2010 residual force.

The rationale for leaving a fairly large residual force beyond August 2010 rests on an expectation that the Iraqi government will require continued American military assistance even after the combat mission ends.

U.S. commanders say security gains are fragile and reversible, and the Iraqi government needs years of assistance in developing a force capable of defending against external security threats.

“We will retain a transitional force to carry out three distinct functions,” Obama said Feb. 27 in explaining the post-2010 mission. The residual force will be there to train and advise Iraqi forces, Obama said, “as long as they remain non-sectarian.” It also will conduct counter-terrorism missions and protect U.S. civilians.

There has been little public debate in the United States in recent months about the wisdom of leaving as many as 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq after August 2010. Much of the focus has been on whether the pullout of U.S. combat forces over the coming year will leave a security void to be exploited by insurgent groups.

In a study released Thursday, the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research group that performs analyses for Congress, concluded that the biggest risk to stability is that an Iraqi faction will abandon the peaceful political process that has developed over the past two years.

“U.S. withdrawal of combat units could make this more likely insofar as opposition groups see greater opportunity or need to resort to force,” the study said.

The Reese memo was circulated this week to military officials, experts and journalists on an Internet distribution list. U.S. officers in Baghdad verified its authenticity.

Reese previously served as director of the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Last summer he co-authored an official Army history of the war from May 2003 to January 2005.

Retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, who taught with Reese at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in the 1990s and served with him at Fort Leavenworth in 2006, said in an interview Thursday that he is not convinced the Iraqis will not need or want U.S. forces to perform an extended advisory role.

“A lot of what this Iraqi government is doing is for internal consumption to solidify its nationalist credentials going into the national elections in January,” Mansoor said. “Once those elections are over and a government is in place they may look at their situation differently and realize that a longer-term relationship with the United States — to include a military relationship — is in their interests.”

Reese wrote his memo shortly after U.S. combat forces moved out of Iraqi cities in accordance with a U.S.-Iraqi security agreement and shortly after Vice President Joe Biden visited Baghdad over the July 4 weekend.

Reese mentioned the Biden visit as evidence supporting his argument that the U.S. has accomplished about all it can in Iraq.

“The vice president received a rather cool reception this past weekend and was publicly told that the internal affairs of Iraq are none of the U.S.’s business,” Reese wrote.

Reese cited a growing Iraqi chilliness to U.S. advisers and commanders, unilateral Iraqi restrictions on U.S. forces and a declining Iraqi willingness to conduct combat operations with U.S. troops.

“As the old saying goes, ‘guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days,’“ he began his memo. Since the signing of the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement late last year, “we are guests in Iraq, and after six years in Iraq, we now smell bad to the Iraqi nose.”

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