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Look beneath the Bush Administration spin on planned troop drawdowns for the failed Iraq war and you will find the truth about U.S. presence in that civil war-torn country: American troops will be there for the next decade.
Or probably longer.
While Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters that plans to reduce U.S. troop presence in Iraq “remain on track” he hedged by saying “further withdrawals will depend the readiness” of the country’s army.
Switch to a video conference by General Raymond Odierno, the number two leader of US forces in Iraq, who said “”are not yet equipped the way they need to be.”
He then went on to say:
We’ll have some people here, if the government of Iraq wants it, for some period of time, it could be five to 10 years.
When Gates promises a troop drawdown, all he means is that the troops that were part of the surge will be brought home:
All the evidence available to me suggests that we will be able to complete the draw-down of the five brigade combat teams that General (David) Petraeus recommended back in September by the end of July.
It remains my hope that the pace of the draw-downs in the second half of the year can be what it was in the first half of the year. One of the things that’s very much on General Petraeus’s mind is where we stand in training and equipping the Iraqi army and the importance of handing over responsibility to the Iraqi army.
However, Pentagon sources tell Capitol Hill Blue that current contingency plans for Iraq call for a continued, and possibly permanent, presence in the country.
The United States plans to lower the number of its troops in Iraq from 160,000 to 130,000 by July — reversing President George W. Bush’s “surge” strategy which pumped 30,000 fresh troops in last year and has been credited with improving security in the insurgency-wracked country.
Gates said the United States aimed eventually to take a more hands-off role, overseeing the Iraqi forces’ own security operations from a distance.
“Ultimately the mission will be one of what we call strategic overwatch, which is basically that we are not engaged on a daily basis, the Iraqis in the lead and we are providing support,” he said.
“We have begun that process of transition.”
The US general in charge of training Iraq’s security forces judged however that a full handover of duties to those forces would not be possible until some time between 2009 and 2012.
“The Iraqi security force structure and capability still lack some maturity,” Lieutenant General James Dubik told a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.
“They cannot fix, supply, arm or fuel themselves completely enough at this point.”
General Raymond Odierno, the number two leader of US forces in Iraq, on Thursday reported improving security in Iraq, with attacks declining and successes in disrupting the Al-Qaeda extremist network.
But the Iraqi forces “are not yet equipped the way they need to be,” lacking fighting vehicles and aircraft, Odierno told reporters in a video conference from Baghdad.
He declined to speculate whether further reductions of troops would take place after July, but gave a more optimistic estimate for a handover.
“I think if we continue along the path we are on now we will be able to do that by the end of 2008,” he said, stressing that he did not favor a sudden withdrawal.
“We’ll have some people here, if the government of Iraq wants it, for some period of time, it could be five to 10 years. But it won’t in the levels we are at right now.”
The Iraqis will not be in a state to take over defending their country from external threats until 2018 to 2020, Dubik added, confirming an estimate by Iraq’s Defense Minister Abdel Kader al-Obeidi that was reported Tuesday.
Iraq’s own security forces are currently more than 500,000 strong, but need to reach at least 600,000 to ensure security, according to Dubik.
Nine of the 18 provinces are currently under Iraqi security control. The United States plans by the end of April to hand over security duties in Anbar province — once the heart of the anti-US insurgency.