AL ASAD, Iraq — Maj. Gen. Fadhil Jameel Birwari, commander of the Iraqi Special Forces’ First Brigade, granted a brief interview early this month at a celebration of the opening of a base for one of his battalions within the larger expanse of the Forward Operating Base here.
The first and, as it turned out, only question was one everyone is asking with the approach of Tuesday’s June 30 deadline for handing most combat duties to Iraqis: Were General Fadhil’s counterterrorism soldiers, among the country’s most elite, ready to take over from the Americans after they withdraw from all Iraqi cities and towns?
“We need at least 10 to 20 years with the American Special Forces to get to that level,” he replied in Arabic, or so a United States military interpreter said.
At that, Lt. Col. Marshal Bridges of the Special Forces stepped in, bristling. “That’s not what he meant,” said the colonel, who does not speak Arabic. “Sometimes things get lost in translation. I’ve worked with him for the last 10 months so I know exactly what he meant. What he meant was his forces are ready now but he would like us to stay another 10 to 20 years.”
The interpreter “corrected” his translation, and General Fadhil smiled, uncomprehending of the dispute, but aware that he had best end the interview.Continue reading the main story
It was a small but illuminating episode. No doubt, many Iraqi military and police units are competent enough to operate on their own, but most military analysts who have studied the matter will concede that many if not most still are not. “We need to extend the SOFA” — the Status of Forces Agreement between Iraq and America — “to 2020, 2025,” said Qassim Daoud, an independent Shiite legislator and former national security adviser.
He said he believed that the current deadline for total withdrawal, the end of 2011, is unattainable, even though Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki insisted on it when the agreement was negotiated with President George W. Bush last year. “I just hope the prime minister realizes we don’t have competent security forces yet.”
Come July 1, most American combat troops remaining in the cities will become trainers. In some cases that will be nothing more than a semantic dodge. For the most part, it really will be happening, and many Iraqi troops will indeed be on their own by Wednesday.
Except, that is, for their embedded trainers and advisers, who will be fairly numerous — at least 10,000 now, according to military estimates, rising to 35,000 to 50,000 by the high point, according to a Congressional Research Service report last month. In addition, each team will need force protection — that is, other American troops to guard the trainers, mostly from Iraqis they’re teamed with. They will number from 10 to 20 per team of trainers. The fear of fragging is so strong that most trainers live in compounds fortified against the people they’re training, a sort of American fort within the Iraqi fort.
Those American troops who do withdraw from the cities, as the bulk of the troops already have, will relocate in huge forward operating bases, or F.O.B.’s, like this one, an old Iraqi airfield in the middle of the Western Desert. Here, there are at least four dining halls seating thousands each, several military bus lines on which to get around, and “cans” or container housing in vast sheds with bombing-resistant thick metal roofs. The United States military has spent more than $100 million on improving its largest forward operating bases in Iraq, leading many critics to suggest that the presence looks permanent.
American troop strength will remain at roughly 130,000 until next September, most of them living as “Fobbits,” in G.I. slang. The Iraqis will be able to call on the Fobbits if they get in trouble, but there will be serious political and public relations pressure to make sure that doesn’t happen too much.
The insurgents, of course, are likely to do all they can to make sure it does happen. “One would anticipate that there will be fireworks in Baghdad in July,” said John Pike, a military analyst and head of GlobalSecurity.org. Or, as Gen. David Petraeus was fond of saying, “the enemy gets a vote too.”
That thought inevitably invites comparisons to President Richard M. Nixon’s Vietnamization strategy, which lasted six years and was a great success at turning over the war effort to the South Vietnamese Army, but a complete failure at helping South Vietnam win.
Tens of thousands of American advisers remained behind, but their presence and high profile “gave the perception that the U.S. was in charge, undercutting the Vietnamese officer corps and creating an unconscious dependency,” Col. Dan Smith, a military analyst and critic of that war, has written. And once American financial, military and advisory support was withdrawn, as it was abruptly in 1975, South Vietnamese Army defeats rapidly became routs.
Here, Tuesday is only the first hurdle, of course. Next summer, all American combat forces must leave, and by the end of 2011, all United States troops — trainers and all — unless there’s a renegotiation of the status of forces agreement, which seems politically implausible now. Once American troops are gone, it will be time to start dealing with the 800-pound gorilla in the room — Iran, a subject that the Iraqis have studiously evaded discussing publicly, even with the present election turmoil next door.
A Shiite Iraqi member of Parliament who did not want to be identified talking about Iran recently related the following conversation with the Iranian ambassador to Iraq:
“I asked the Iranian ambassador if he thought there would be a power vacuum in Iraq after the Americans leave,” the official said.
The answer was that there certainly would be.
And would Iran fill it? The ambassador said no.
“So I asked him who would fill it, and he said, ‘Al Qaeda and the Baath,’ ” referring to the Sunni-led party of Saddam Hussein.
“ ‘If that happens and I call you to help, will you come?’ ” the Shiite official said he asked. But this time he got no reply. “He couldn’t answer, because he knew that would be like dropping a hundred atomic bombs. All of our Arab neighbors would go to war, even NATO and the United States.”
As nearly everyone has realized by now, invading Iraq is a lot easier than withdrawing from it.
An article last Sunday about the ability of the Iraqi military to deal with the withdrawal of American troops from most combat duties misstated the name a Web site whose director, John Pike, commented on the prospects for violence in Baghdad this month. It is globalsecurity.org, not Globalsecurity.com.