The last time that Army Sgt. 1st Class Trevis Goods served in Iraq, during the troop surge of 2006-07, he said, "it was pretty rough." His unit hit roadside bombs two or three times a day, but at the Iraqi police checkpoints that were supposed to keep the insurgents from mining the roads, the Americans often found their nominal allies "literally laying down on the ground, sleeping," Goods said. "They didn't care."
Today, however, the Iraqis are "properly manning the checkpoints, they're always alert," Goods told National Journal in a phone call from Al-Muthanna province in southern Iraq, where he is once again working with the Iraqi police. And the Iraqis are not just sitting at checkpoints while the Americans handle raids, bomb-clearing, and patrols. "Back then, it was like pulling teeth to get them to lead on any type of mission," he said. "Now everything is actually Iraqi-led.... We don't go anywhere without them."
The word from Goods and other troops on the ground is that a dramatic increase in the capability of the Iraqi security forces and a dramatic decrease in the threat from the insurgents are allowing the United States to safely draw down its forces in Iraq. But 117,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, and many of them say that the Iraqis will need U.S. help for the foreseeable future.
The number of American troops in Iraq has fallen steadily every month since October 2008 -- but not as fast as the number in Afghanistan has risen. (The total of troops deployed in both countries will actually rise by 10,000 in 2009.) President Obama may well meet his campaign goal to draw down to 50,000 troops in Iraq by August 2010. Despite his pledge to remove "all combat brigades," however, that 50,000 will include six Army brigade combat teams with all of their regular personnel, albeit retrained and redesignated as "advise and assist" brigades.
The adviser brigades, two of which are already in Iraq, are the U.S. military's new model for managing a still-substantial commitment in radically changed circumstances. On June 30, the last U.S.-controlled areas were formally handed over to the Iraqis, in accordance with the status-of-forces agreement negotiated last year under the Bush administration. American forces now lack the legal authority to lead operations, and they no longer may even enter urban areas without an Iraqi escort.
Goods's brigade commander, Col. Peter Newell, is no pacifist -- he received the Silver Star for fighting in Falluja in November 2004 -- but when he returned to Iraq as an adviser, he said, "we came in with a message to the Iraqis that we weren't here to do combat missions. I don't do patrols separately. I don't do raids.... I provide advice."
That change of mission hardly makes the Americans reticent, however. After the initial frictions of handing over control, Newell said, "I literally have more U.S. soldiers living in the cities today than I did before the 30th of June, because the Iraqis have insisted on having [American trainers] embedded with them." In two of the three provinces where the brigade operates, Newell went on, "the provincial governors paid for remodeling their provincial [police] headquarters to make room for our guys to live in there with them.... Everywhere you find an Iraqi [army] brigade headquarters, you will find a combined operations center with both Iraqis and Americans in it."
The two forces need to work so closely together because U.S. personnel and technology remain critical to the Iraqis' day-to-day operations. The Iraqi air force got its first armed planes in October -- Cessna Caravans fitted with Hellfire missiles -- and it has only a handful of helicopters fitted with rocket pods. So the Americans provide almost all air support. The U.S. also provides other essential "enablers," from unmanned drones to bomb-sniffing dogs to assistance with staff work on planning, intelligence, and logistics.
"It will be extremely difficult for Iraq to develop all of the security capabilities it needs for even the counterinsurgency mission before the full U.S. withdrawal scheduled to take place by the end of 2011," Anthony Cordesman, one of the nation's leading experts on Middle Eastern militaries, wrote in an August report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The capability to fight off conventional threats, such as the Iranian military, is even further away, Cordesman warned. "They are still not equipped to be an army that can control its own borders," acknowledged Col. Newell, whose brigade assists not only the army and police but also the Iraqi border patrol force facing Iran.
Even civilian reconstruction efforts depend on American troops. Despite efforts led by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to mobilize more Foreign Service officers, police trainers, and other civilian experts as the military draws down, the U.S. still has thousands of troops in any given province, compared with a few dozen civilian advisers.
In Anbar province, for example, where the Army's second adviser brigade arrived in late August, "our [provincial reconstruction team] is pretty small. They need help," said Col. Mark Stammer of the Army's 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division. "Clearly, they are the subject-matter experts on politics, on economics, on public diplomacy, on reconstruction," Stammer said, but they have only 58 people to cover a province of 1.2 million inhabitants.
Stammer currently has about 26 civilian trainers drawn from police departments across the U.S. By comparison, his brigade, with reinforcements, has more than 4,500 personnel. Only a few of his troops are specialists in directly relevant areas such as military policing or civil affairs, but any military unit has the capacity to provide transportation, security, supplies, communications, and detailed planning on a scale the civilian teams simply lack. Stammer said, "We can do a lot of things on the periphery to ensure that a PRT member or an international police adviser can focus singularly on what he's an expert on."
Newell's brigade performs a similar role in southern Iraq. Goods and other combat soldiers train Iraqi police on weapons, recognizing roadside bombs, and maintaining vehicles so that the relative handful of military police and civilian police advisers can focus on training the Iraqis in collecting evidence, building a case, and following the rule of law.
Newell has dedicated an entire reinforced battalion, about 450 soldiers, to full-time support of the region's three provincial reconstruction teams. Originally an artillery unit, the battalion has been extensively retrained in civil affairs, including visits for staff officers to officials in El Paso and Austin, Texas, to learn about urban management. This training hardly transforms the artillery troops into reconstruction experts, but they can do grunt work across the province for the civilians who are.
"I cannot go and monitor 110 projects" at once, said the chief of the Dhi Qar provincial reconstruction team, Anna Prouse. She is an Italian Foreign Service officer, one of just 14 American and Italian civilians on the team, who are supported by about 45 Iraqis. After six years in Iraq and three in Dhi Qar, she said, "I've got the relationships on the ground, so we have the total approval, the buy-in from the Iraqis; and you [Americans] have the numbers, the know-how, to make it actually happen."
Prouse credits the advise and assist brigade model with bridging long-standing gaps between military and civilians in Iraq. "Before, there were quite a few frictions," she said. "When I first arrived here three years ago and I walked into the [U.S.] commander's office, he literally kicked me out," she went on. "He had no idea what a PRT was about." Prouse could not even get food or fuel for her team until the top general in Iraq at the time, George Casey, personally intervened with the local U.S. commander. By contrast, Prouse can get Newell on the phone to resolve civilian-military frictions in minutes. "I see him every day," she said. "I had him over here for dinner last night."
So it is not just the Iraqis who have had a lot to learn: The American military has as well. Both partners have come a long way but still have a long way to go.
Officially, the status-of-forces agreement requires the Americans to leave the country before 2012. "The commitment of the United States is through December 2011," Stammer said, "and while we're here, we will continue to improve their capabilities." Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, however, has already expressed willingness to "examine" an extension of the deadline "if Iraqi forces required further training and support." Most experts say that they certainly will. The odds are that U.S. advisers such as Sgt. 1st Class Goods will be in Iraq for years to come.
This article appears in the December 5, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine.
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