December 7, 2005
What's Next in Iraq?

By Jack Kelly

Critics of the war in Iraq say there is nothing new in the "National Strategy for Victory" President Bush outlined at the Naval Academy last week. This is one of the rare instances where critics of the war in Iraq have gotten something right.

I read carefully both the 35-page document prepared by the National Security Council and the text of President Bush's speech outlining it, and found in them nothing I didn't already know. This is what I expected. One shouldn't change a sound strategy when it is clear it is bearing fruit. All that's happening is that the president finally is explaining his strategy to the American people.

When can most of our troops come home? The short answer is: when Iraq has a stable, democratic government capable of defending itself.

So when will that be? Pretty soon. There need not be a significant weakening of the resistance before there can be a substantial withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The key to the U.S. security strategy is to create Iraqi army and police units of sufficient size and quality to be able to protect the country (mostly) by themselves. As the president put it in earlier contexts: "As they stand up, we'll stand down."

The Iraqi army will be "built out" (reach the size planned for it) by May or June of next year, and the Iraqi police are slated to be "built out" early in 2007.

Despite a large number of casualties from terrorist attacks, there's been no shortage of recruits for the Iraqi army and police. Though performance has sometimes been spotty, for the most part Iraqi soldiers perform well in combat. "A year ago, (insurgents) freely attacked the Iraqi military," said Army Brigadier Gen. Daniel Bolger, who is in charge of training Iraqi soldiers. "So the hostiles have resorted to remote bombings because they cannot stand and fight the Iraqi soldiers anymore."

The security situation is much improved over a year ago, said Steve Southerland, a retired Air Force officer now working as a civilian contractor in Iraq. "I have been here nearly 14 months, Steve said in an email to me. "When I arrived I was greeted by no less than 5-18 mortar attacks per day at Camp Anaconda (in Baghdad). The International zone was no better. All that has changed. We actually see people walking their pets on the streets and the mortar and rocket attacks are extremely rare."

The security situation has improved chiefly because there are now so many Iraqi troops in the field. The president said 80 Iraqi battalions (500-800 men each) are now in the fight, and 3,500 new police officers are being trained every 10 weeks.

The increasing number and skill of the Iraqi soldiers and cops means that they can garrison communities once they have been cleared of insurgents.

"Clear and hold" is having a powerfully deleterious effect on the resistance, because it means the terrorists (largely) are unable to recover lost ground. The harmful effect on the resistance will multiply in the months to come, as more Iraqi units join the fight, and existing units gain more experience.

Currently, there are about 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, up from 137,000 to provide additional protection for the referendum on the constitution in October (which proceeded almost without incident), and for the election for a permanent government under that constitution scheduled for Dec. 15th. A few weeks after that election is over and a new government is formed, troop levels will drop back to the 137,000 level, probably a little further. More reductions -- to or just a little more than 100,000 troops -- will be made once the Iraqi army is "built out" in May or June.

The role of the U.S. forces that will remain in Iraq will change. Iraqis will take the lead in fighting and patrolling, with U.S. forces as backup. Most of the bases from which U.S. troops currently are operating will be turned over to the Iraqis.

Currently, only one Iraqi army battalion is considered capable of operating entirely on its own. The others rely on Americans for fire (artillery and air) support, logistical support, and some intelligence support.

It will take a few years to build up support units in the Iraqi military. But most U.S. combat units likely will be out of the country by the end of 2007, sooner if the resistance continues to weaken at the rate it has in the last several months.

The war in Iraq is being won everywhere except in the news coverage of it. The president must continue speaking out. The people aren't going to get the truth unless he tells it.

Jack Kelly is national security columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Blade of Toledo, Ohio.

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