Tuesday night, Nov. 22, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice assured CNN “the number of coalition forces (in Iraq) is clearly going to come down because Iraqis are making it possible now to do those functions themselves.”
Commenting on the suggestion that up to 50,000 or 60,000 troops be brought home next year, Rice said: “I suspect that the American forces are not going to be needed in the numbers that they are there for all than much longer, because Iraqis are continuing to make progression in function – not just in numbers…”
US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke in the same vein last week, when he said that he wanted to move back to a “baseline” number of 138,000 troops after the Dec. 15 general elections. The commander of US forces in Iraq, General George Casey, was therefore planning for a significant reduction in the US military presence there.
Wednesday, Nov. 23, The Washington Post reported a possible withdrawal of three of the 18 US combat brigades early next year under a “moderately optimistic” Pentagon scenario that called for the reduction of American troop numbers in Iraq to fewer than 100,000 by the end of 2006. Some of the units would remain in the region, mostly likely in Kuwait, in case they were needed quickly in Iraq again.
No artillery, no air force, no logistics, no supply structure
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and Iraq experts view these prognoses as responses to fend off political criticism at home rather than reflecting a positive reality in Iraq.
The facts on the ground are quite different from those put before the public:
- Not a single Iraqi unit, even a company – much less a battalion or brigade – is capable of fighting unaided – even for as long as a couple of hours.
The new Iraqi army lacks armor, artillery and air support; it has no autonomous field intelligence, medical structure, or logistics resources capable of responding to the demands of the battlefield for ammo, fuel and vehicles for moving troops from place to place.
All these functions are filled by the US army. The general presumption is that not before by 2008 or 2009, will these structures have been set up for the Iraq army – and even then, not all their components will be in place. Therefore, no realistic prospect is in sight for the Iraqi army to be able to perform combat functions on its own, without US military leadership.
- The number of Iraqi units on which the Americans can depend – and certainly not with their eyes shut – can be counted on one hand. Except for a few hundred Sunni Muslims, they all come from Kurdish and Shiite forces which are commanded by their own officers or Kurdish and Shiite militia leaders. They are not under the control of the central government in Baghdad.
The conclusion this week of the US-led Operation Steel Curtain to eradicate insurgent-al Qaeda presence in the Euphrates Valley towns of al Qaim close to the Syrian border was the first opportunity to test in real conditions the ability of Iraqi units to provide a permanent presence and keep the insurgents from stealing back into the purged towns. But these units too will depend heavily on the American military to come to their aid in an emergency and on US logistical and air force support.
US field intelligence officers warn in their reports that the situation prevailing at the end of Operation Steel Curtain – and three similar cleansing operations conducted in the last three months – is far from matching up to descriptions heard from officials in Washington.
The targeted towns were indeed cleansed of al Qaeda and insurgent guerrilla fighters. But the main objective, to stem the flow of fighters, weapons, explosives and cash from Syria to central Iraq through the Euphrates valley route, was not achieved.
Al Qaeda fighters, seeing approaching US and Iraqi forces, faded out of the towns. But they stuck to the river crossings and the paths cutting through the dense foliage lining the river banks. From there, they could spring back after the towns were evacuated by the US and Iraqi raiders.
Sunday, Nov. 20, in a briefing to the US media in Beijing, Rice who accompanied President George W. Bush on his Asian tour said:
When we talks about clear, hold and build, what we really mean is that we and the Iraqis have been successful now in clearing areas. Iraqi forces are now attaining the numbers and capabilities that will allow them to hold those places and not allow the bad guys to come back. And then they can build economic and political institutions.
“I saw one of those places in Mosul, which, frankly, six months ago when I was there before, they didn’t want me to go… So it says something about the progress that is being made.”
Shortly after Rice left this northern Iraqi town, US forces fought a major battle against an al Qaeda group which had set up a base in the middle of Mosul.
- A cardinal issue of the Iraqi army’s preparedness to take charge of security in the country’s cities is the deep penetration the Sunni guerrillas and al Qaeda have achieved. They are not only planted deep in Iraqi military and police units, but also in the branches of intelligence and many of the decision-making ranks in the defense and interior ministries responsible for security.
US commanders and intelligence leaders work on the assumption that very little time elapses before operations-linked information reaching the Iraqi command level and passed on to the defense minister and the office of the Iraqi chief of staff falls into insurgent and terrorist hands.
These days, it is practically impossible to deploy Iraq units outside the Kurdish peshmerga and the Shiite Badr and Wolves units without advance knowledge reaching al Qaeda and the Sunni guerrillas.
Kurdish brigades are in good shape, but dogged by tribal dissent
For all these reasons, talk in the Pentagon of planning to move a part of the US army to nearby Kuwait where they will stand by for contingencies in Iraq is premature.
The only possible exception might be the Kurdish units in the north.
Progress there in building autonomous units is much more rapid that in the rest of Iraq. It is estimated that by early summer 2006, three or four Kurdish brigades will have their own artillery unit and combat helicopter air force, as well as a supply network that is independent of the Americans.
But here too, DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports that a typical Iraqi snag has turned up.
The fine progress in setting up the Kurdish army was contingent on understanding and amity prevailing in relations between the two Kurdish leaders, Iraqi president Jalal Talabani and Kurdistan president Masoud Barzani.
Their reconciliation was negotiated ahead of the 2003 Iraq war as a key element of US strategy. However, since both have attained high office, their relations are strained and marred by envy. The two figures are beginning to revert to their old tribal enmity.
If this goes on, the construction of the Kurdish army will be brought to a halt and worse, the units which have become combat-ready will be divided by competing allegiances. The American troops stationed in the north will be disappointed in their hopes of being the first to retire to Kuwait, counting on the local units to soon be ready to stand on their own feet.
In any case, according to our terror experts, Kuwait may not be the safest place to station a large number of American troops out of harm’s way. A very strong al Qaeda cell operates in the little oil principality which has become a way station for terrorist traffic between Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Abu Musab al Zarqawi is fully capable of turning up the heat in Kuwait and exporting key terrorist resources from Iraq to its small neighbor.