Troop-Strength Assessment in Iraq Expected This Summer
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 30, 2005 The commander of Multinational Force Iraq is expected to assess the situation on the ground in mid-summer to recommend how many troops are required to sustain operations in Iraq, Air Force Lt. Gen. Lance L. Smith, deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, said today.
Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. will assess a variety of factors, from progress in training up the Iraqi security forces to the level of insurgent activity, to determine the plausibility of reducing U.S. force strength, currently at 145,500, Smith told Pentagon wire service reporters here.
An equally important factor will be upcoming activities in Iraq, including the Aug. 15 target date for drafting the constitution, the Oct. 15 deadline for a referendum to approve the constitution, and the mid-December schedule for elections for the new Iraqi government.
At this point, it's unclear whether Casey will recommend drawing down the force, then boosting it back up for the elections, or "to just hold the line" through the elections, Smith said. He pointed to a similar situation in Afghanistan, in which the U.S. planned its troop rotations to coincide with the national elections to ensure a plussed-up, experienced force capable of handling a potential surge in violence.
Once these milestones are reached in Iraq, Smith said there's agreement between Casey and other U.S. officials that U.S. troop numbers in Iraq can be ramped down and shaped, with troops either returning home or relocating elsewhere in the region. The consensus, Smith said, is that "we can have a smaller force size this time next year than we have now."
This decision, however, is dependent on the level of violence in Iraq and the ability of the Iraqi security forces to handle it, Smith said.
Mid-summer is probably the earliest after Iraq's Jan. 30 elections to accurately evaluate "where the insurgency is going," he said. The current rate, down slightly since the elections, is likely the result of Iraqis' growing anger over violence and increasing willingness to cooperate with the coalition and Iraqi troops, and successes among Iraq's security forces, Smith said.
"The Iraqi security forces seem to have a self-confidence that they didn't have before," and leaders are stepping forward despite "great risk to their lives," Smith said after returning from Iraq last week. "The intimidation and assassination campaign on the part of the insurgents has not gone away. I can't tell if it's increasing, but it certainly does not look like it's increasing."
So far, 151,000-plus Iraqis security forces have been trained and equipped, 84,000 for the Ministry of the Interior and 67,000 for the Ministry of Defense, Smith said. And these numbers continue to climb, with 14,000 troops in training and another 35,000 in uniform, waiting for their training to begin.
"So there is a lot of activity in the building of the Iraqi security forces over there," Smith said. "They are actively engaged in operations ... And a lot of it, they are doing with minimal assistance from the coalition."
The big question, Smith said, is whether the insurgency will remain at its current rate or increase, and how ready the Iraqi forces will be to take the lead in confronting it.
"As Iraqi security forces are better able to replace our forces and allow us to step back and be quick-reaction forces, we are able to look at our forces and shape them differently than they are right now," Smith said. "In other words: Bring some troops home or put them in some different place in the region."