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DOD News Briefing with Maj. Gen. Buchanan via Teleconference from Iraq

Presenters: Director of Strategic Communication (J9) and Official Spokesman for U.S. Forces-Iraq Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan
October 12, 2011

            MR. GEORGE LITTLE: Good morning. I'd like to welcome to the Pentagon Briefing Room Major General Jeffrey Buchanan, the director of the J-9, and official spokesman for U.S. Forces in Iraq.

            General Buchanan has served in Iraq for the past 14 months, and this is his first time to join us in the Pentagon Briefing Room. His directorate, in partnership with U.S. Mission-Iraq, employs political, economic and information means to assist the government of Iraq to sustain security and to advance political and economic development throughout the country of Iraq.

            He'll make an opening comment, and then we'll take your questions. And with that, I'll turn it over to him.

            MAJOR GENERAL JEFFREY BUCHANAN: Well, thanks for every -- thanks to everybody for joining us today.

            And like -- like was said, I'll make some brief comments about the progress and status of United States Forces-Iraq's transition efforts and then open it up for questions.

            First, in just a little bit more than 2 1/2 months, United States Forces-Iraq is going to case its colors. As you all know, we signed a bilateral security agreement in 2008, and one of the requirements of that security agreement was that U.S. Forces-Iraq completed our transition to a civilian authority and withdraw all our forces by the end of 2011. We're completely on track to do just that.

            There have been a number of discussions lately, and discussions are ongoing between the Iraqi and United States governments about the potential for U.S. military assistance above and beyond what would normally fall under the ambassador's purview extending beyond the end of the year. But I think it’s important to recognize there are no agreements to this date about any -- about any such military assistance after the beginning of January of 2011 (sic). We have honored all of our commitments to both Iraq and the United States under the security agreement, and we're on track to meet all of our obligations.

            I do want to talk a little bit about our reposture efforts. So first let me talk about equipment. You know, if you look at our reposture efforts and all that we have undertaken to redeploy United States Forces-Iraq from Iraq back to the United States and other areas, we've undertaken a massive effort, but all is on track.

            With respect to equipment, we've redeployed more than 1.6 million pieces of equipment since the start of Operation New Dawn in September of last year and have about 800,000 pieces of equipment to go.

            And just to give you an idea of the scope of what we're talking about, last week on the -- on the road we had 399 convoys and more than 13,900 trucks moving this equipment out of Iraq as well as sustaining our forces with food and fuel.

            For bases, we have -- we have come down from a high of 505 U.S. military bases in Iraq at the start of 2008 to 92 at the start of Operation New Dawn. And since Operation New Dawn started in September of 2010, we've transitioned 69 bases, with the last two going yesterday and today. So we're now responsible for 23 U.S. military bases in Iraq. And again, we're on track to transition all of those by the end of the year as well.

            For personnel, our troop numbers are about -- as of last week we had about 41,000 U.S. military personnel in Iraq. And as you all know, that number has been fairly constant since the start of New Dawn, mostly between 45 and 49,000 troops. We wanted to preserve the number of troops at a fairly steady level throughout this year because we had a lot of work to do in stability operations, and also we wanted to maintain as much flexibility as we could for General Austin. But we are on track, and we will meet our requirement to redeploy the last remaining military personnel, so right now from 41,000 down to zero by the end of the year.

            All of our redeployments, base transitions, redeployment of equipment and certainly redeployment of personnel goes with a hundred percent accountability, takes a significant amount of effort to plan, coordinate, synchronize all these operations, coordinate with the Iraqi security forces so that they're on track helping us clear routes and provide security as we move our equipment out.

            And all along the way, we're very cognizant of our responsibility to be the best possible stewards of all of our equipment and protect our forces all along the way throughout the period of redeployment.

            Like I said, we are on track for all of the transition tasks for redeploying equipment, transitioning bases and personnel, but the last piece is what we do on our mission set, I think is also important to talk about.

            The second agreement we signed, back in 2008, in addition to the security agreement, was a strategic framework agreement. And as this audience probably knows, that agreement aspires to an enduring partnership between our two countries. Both of our countries are committed to this relationship. And it sets the conditions for a wide variety -- or for cooperation in a wide variety of areas. One of those areas is defense and security cooperation. And to that vein, we have transitioned from U.S. Forces-Iraq some missions to U.S. mission-Iraq, or United States embassy responsibility just this month.

            The first of those is we transitioned our police professionalization and police development program under -- from the responsibility of the military forces to that of the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement. And they're well on track to continue to provide mentorship for Ministry of Interior forces in Basra, in Baghdad and in Irbil.

            We also have stood up fully the Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq. And though it won't have the same mission responsibilities, obviously, as USF-I, it will be responsible for case management of foreign military sales cases that the government of Iraq and the government of the United States have both committed to.

            So what we're talking about here is under the ambassador's authority, a small organization, about 200 personnel -- military, civilians, contractors, including Iraqi contractors, that provide for the sound fielding and technical training of equipment. And again, we're set to do that on a number of different sites throughout the country.

            So like I said, all our -- all our transition efforts are on track. And with that, I'd like to turn it back over to the moderator for questions.

            CAPT. CAMPBELL: All right. Thank you, General Buchanan. Lita.

            Q: General, Lolita Baldor with the Associated Press. There've been some reports that the Iraqis have made sort of a request for about 5,000 U.S. personnel to stay beyond the end of the year. Does this, do you think, represent at least a small milestone in that they've actually come forward with a hard request? And can you talk a little bit about whether you think that's going to be a rational number to start negotiating on?

            GEN. BUCHANAN: Well, I think that the -- probably the most -- the important thing I can say is I've seen the media reports of the specific request, but like I mentioned, the discussions between Iraq and the United States are ongoing. And honestly, when it comes to numbers, it's usually not helpful to speculate about numbers because I don't want to limit any ongoing discussions. But also, I think the important thing to nail down would be what the roles and missions of the forces or of the trainers would be.

            And again, all of this is predecisional. There is no agreement to this point. We are committed to an enduring relationship with Iraq, but there is no agreement for any U.S. military assistance beyond the OSC-I at this point.

            Q: General, Larry Shaughnessy from CNN. How much is the subject matter of immunity for any U.S. troops who might stay behind part of the negotiations? Is it a -- is it a large part of the discussions, or is it a relatively small part of what your people are discussing?

            GEN. BUCHANAN: Well, Larry, we've been very up-front with the Iraqis throughout this discussion phase and even before these actual discussions started that any U.S. service members that we have serving in Iraq would have to have the same sort of legal protections that they do now have under the security agreement or the same sort of legal protections our soldiers have that are serving in any other country around the world. So I'm confident that it would be part of the discussions.

            Q: General, thanks. Chris Carroll from Stars and Stripes. You had mentioned that one of the reasons for keeping the troop levels relatively constant as the bases are shut down is to maintain maximum flexibility for General Austin. I wonder if you could expand on what that means.

            And secondly, as the -- I guess more troops get packed into fewer bases, are there any logistical or infrastructure challenges as a result of this that might be limiting the ability to stay on the mission?

            GEN. BUCHANAN: Oh, I'll take the second question first, and the bottom line is, we have a finely synchronized plan that brings troops in and moves them out. When it comes to redeploying equipment, whether it goes out through the north or the west or the south, all of that is coordinated and synchronized. And we time it of course so that we can maintain accountability of equipment, and we move the personnel, medical evacuation capability and all of that is -- it's really synchronized.

            So it has not been a challenge and it will not be a challenge for any of our efforts from this point forward.

            We do anticipate bumps along the road, if you will. And for this reason, we approach every one of these operations as in fact an operation. It's not an administrative move. So every one of these is -- you know, we start with looking very closely at the potential threats, and then we develop a plan to understand what's going on in the area and mitigate all of those threats. And like I said, all of this is coordinated with the Iraqi security forces so that we can ensure that our troops are protected every step of the way.

            The first part of your question actually dealt with flexibility. Force stability operations -- let me just back up and talk very briefly about OND, or Operation New Dawn, and how we shifted -- when we shifted to stability operations, our focus changed. Our focus went from leading combat operations or leading security operations to three tasks, three major tasks for the military troops. The first was to advise, train, assist and equip the Iraqi security forces. So it was really about us helping them as they conduct operations. And the second task was to conduct partnered counterterrorism operations. Those are ongoing. We're in operations nearly every day in a combined fashion with the Iraqi special operations forces.

            And then the third task was to support and protect the members from -- the civilian members of the U.S. mission in Iraq as they work to build civil capacity throughout the country.

            As the PRTs have closed over the period of this summer, we have less and less of that third task in action. We do still provide some military movement support to members of the embassy, but it's not nearly in the same scope that we had when we had a number of PRTs throughout the provinces.

            But as far as our advise, train, assist and equip mission went, if we had started cutting our troop numbers early on, that would have significantly limited what we could get done with the Iraqi security forces. We have achieved a lot over this last year, and honestly -- and we can go into this in more depth if you'd like -- I think they do still have a ways to go, but we've accomplished quite a bit.

            The last part of flexibility has to do with dealing with the unknown. The CG wants to be able to -- and all of his commanders want to be able to deal with the unknown, and obviously, had there been a threat that we had not anticipated or, you know, any one of a host of different possibilities, if you have trained personnel that are equipped properly to deal with it, they can better deal with the unknown. And so that's why we wanted to preserve as much flexibility as possible.

            Q: General, hi. This is David Cloud with the L.A. Times. What does the slope of the line look like on the reductions from here till the end of the year? I mean, is it a sort of constant reduction? Is it a kind of plateau and going off a cliff? I mean, I don't want to -- you know, just give me a sense of what the plan is for bringing the last man out here.

            GEN. BUCHANAN: Well, obviously, it's going to be done in a coherent fashion, and we conduct these movements by units. So we don't send individuals out other than when we redeploy individual augmentees by air. But if you're thinking of the ground move, we do all of that in a coherent fashion. And so sometimes you get -- it's probably best described, with the way you framed the question, it's best described as a series of stair steps.

            You know, we had two different brigade -- advise and assist brigades -- one was actually an advise and assist task force -- task force -- leave from USD-North since the early part of September. One was based out of -- out of Mosul and was responsible for Nineveh province, and then another one based out of Kirkuk. They were replaced by one. So as units move out and are replaced by fewer and fewer forces, you do have a series of stair steps.

            As you know, we did -- for the bulk of this last year, we had three divisional headquarters in Iraq: one in the north, one in the center and one in the south. And in the early part of September, we went to two: one in the north; and one that took responsibility for two-thirds of the country, USD-Center, 25th Infantry Division Headquarters, which is responsible for Baghdad, Anbar and all nine southern provinces.

            Before the end of this month is up, USD-North, the great 4th Infantry Division -- I know Dave Perkins was on a couple of weeks ago with you -- they will redeploy, and so then we'll be down to one division-level headquarters. So it's really a series of stair steps, but the -- but the way we maintain security throughout is actually by conducting unit moves.

            Q: General, Craig Whitlock with The Washington Post. I was wondering if I could follow up on some of your comments about General Austin wanting to maintain 40,000-plus troops as long as he can, to provide himself with more flexibility. You know, to what degree does he also -- has he wanted to keep that many troops there to factor in these negotiations about possibly keeping thousands of U.S. troops here after January 1st? Because otherwise, it appears that it's going to be a very rapid withdrawal that could possibly lead to some sort of a vacuum.

            GEN. BUCHANAN: Well, I think the first -- the first thing I can answer is that we have no plan to leave thousands of troops here beyond January 1st.

            And like I said up front, we're a hundred percent on track to honor all of our commitments to both Iraq and the United States under the security agreement. And one of those obligations under the security agreement is complete withdrawal of U.S. forces. So, you know, speculation about what may last beyond the beginning of 2012 is not part of this equation.

            Now, having said that, when we started planning and coordinating and synchronizing all of this redeployment last year -- and we've been at this a while -- one of the things that we wanted to do is preserve as many options for the commanders as we could, because we didn't know what was going to happen in discussions and whether or not the Iraqis were going to request some military assistance, or if they did, what roles and missions they might be requesting the U.S. forces to perform.

            And so, based on that, we kept our troop numbers high, or steady, at least, through the bulk of this year. And that was one of those things -- you know, again, part of our job in the military is to provide options and to provide courses of action to our decision makers in Washington, D.C. If we had limited our troops early on, there are less options and less courses of action available to the decision makers about how to meet any requests that could come. But that was part of the plan all along. We haven't had to change that plan and it hasn't affected our calculus.

            Q: General, it's Mike Evans from the London Times. Are you still confident that the Iraqis, once you do move out completely by the end of the year, will be able to cope on their own in places like Anbar province, for example?

            And also, can I -- just out of curiosity, are there any other nations currently working with the American forces in Iraq, or have they all gone by now?

            GEN. BUCHANAN: Again, I'll take the second part of your question first. And there is a NATO Training Mission in Iraq, and it’s commanded by Lieutenant General Bob Caslen, who took command of that on the -- that mission -- on the 1st of October. So there are a number of nations involved with helping to professionalize the Iraqi military forces as well as the federal police under a NATO umbrella, but it is a relatively small mission -- less than 150 professionals from a number of different NATO countries.

 

            Again, their focus has been dominantly on helping with professional military education at the -- and working at the strategic level, along with a heavy professionalization effort by, in particular, the Italian Carabinieri with the federal -- Iraq's federal police. And they've had quite a -- quite a positive impact over the last several years.

            So the contributions of other nations is small in number compared to the U.S. forces, but obviously very important to Iraq's -- the professionalization of Iraq's forces in the future.

            Now, I'm sorry, but I forgot the first part of your question again. Could you say that again, please?

            Q: I mentioned Anbar in particular, whether you're confident that the Iraqis can protect and be -- you know, carry out security operations in a place like Anbar province.

            GEN. BUCHANAN: Now, I think -- I mean, Anbar is a -- is a case in point but, you know, today in Baghdad we've had a number of explosions. I think this demonstrates that Iraq is still a dangerous place.

            Now when you put it in the context of where we have come from, the levels of violence pale in comparison to what they once were. I think for the year of 2007, for example, we were averaging 145 attacks per day, nationwide, against all targets. And if you go back to 2007, certainly 2005 and '06, one of the most dangerous places in Iraq was in Anbar province.

            By the time 2008 had come around, that total attack number had dropped to about 49 attacks per day. By 2009, it was down to 20. By 2010, about 15 attacks per day. And we're about 14 or a little bit less than that for the first nine months of 2011.

            As such, the attacks in Anbar, the overall level, have gone down, but we do still see signs of violence. And in particular, al-Qaida has raised its head in Anbar a number of times over the past month.

            I think it's -- it determines -- or it shows that al-Qaida is determined to drive a wedge between the population and the government. They've never changed their desire to overthrow the government and install a Salafist caliphate in its place, and they've never shied away from any tactics, to include murder, rape, whatever they think may forward their aims. They've never changed their tactics to further their aims.

            What I think is different, though, is -- and this is one of the reasons I'm optimistic about the future -- is that the people here seem universally determined not to go back to sectarian conflict. And if you look at Anbar in particular, we saw a couple of things over the past month. We saw a massacre of a number of Shia pilgrims from Karbala on a bus that were headed to Syria -- probably, not confirmed, but in all likelihood conducted by al-Qaida -- and then the week after that a targeting of a naturalization headquarters in Karbala, probably conducted by al-Qaida.

            Again, no specific claims to that yet, but the tactics, the target and the methods used for both of those attacks line up very closely with what al-Qaida in Iraq has done in the past. But in both cases the people -- the people seem to be wanting to deal with al-Qaida as a specific terrorist threat.

            We saw the imam from the mosque that was attacked in Baghdad at the end of August saying this is not about Sunni Arabs or Shia Arabs, this is about terrorists and we're going to take on and defeat the terrorists. And if you look at the response of the national government, both the provincial governments of Anbar and Karbala, they're determined to take on these enemies as terrorists.

            So I think, you know, al-Qaida is still dangerous. They certainly still pose a threat. And it's going to take a concerted pressure on all parts of our network to completely defeat them. But unlike the years past, they're universally hated and they're isolated.

            Q: (Inaudible.)

            GEN. BUCHANAN: (Inaudible) -- they're headed. They don't yet have the security that they need, but they're headed in the right direction.

            Q: General, it's Luis Martinez with ABC News. Do you have an update on these bases they have transitioned over the past year? And when they transition to Iraqi security forces, what happens to them? Do the Iraqi forces continue to maintain them? Were some of them abandoned? There have been reports that some of the equipment that's been left behind has been looted right after the U.S. pulls out. Can you provide us some context?

            GEN. BUCHANAN: I sure can. First of all, some of these -- some of these bases are very small, have been very small operating bases, and so when those transition, they are sometimes -- you know, if it was a company-size patrol base or a small patrol base where we had one of our special operations teams, it may not be occupied again by Iraqi security forces.

            If it was a location that had a special forces team, it probably also was already occupied by an Iraqi force, and they just continued to operate there.

            On most of our larger bases, they are transitioned to Ministry of Defense forces. But the way we have to work the transitions, some of the property for these bases is not just geared towards the Ministry of Defense. So we deal with one government entity, and it's called the Receivership Secretariat. With them, we have worked out all the plans and all the -- we've coordinated ahead of time to do detailed inventories of all equipment that will remain, that gets transitioned to Iraqi forces, as well as things like barrier material that they're going to take responsibility for. And it's the central Iraqi government that then makes decisions about which of this property is going to the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Transportation, Interior, et cetera. So some places, it's a fairly clean changeover to Ministry of Defense forces, and others, it actually goes to several different ministries.

            Now, most of the equipment, if we take the U.S. equipment that's on these bases, if it's military equipment, the vast majority of that actually gets redeployed back to the United States or at least back to Kuwait to get reconditioned and potentially moved onward to another theater if they may need the use for the equipment. Some of our military- specific equipment has been transitioned to the State Department. We also have a number of equipment that's not military-specific, and some of that has been transitioned to the government of Iraq. And a couple of examples are our air conditioners, civilian generators, what we call containerized housing units or trailers that our troops have been living in.

            You know, our troops have been living in trailers in some places for seven years in a row. And actually we've saved the U.S. government $600 million over the past couple of years by not shipping back unneeded equipment like these old trailers or air conditioners and instead transitioning it to the Iraqi government.

            But what we don't do is just abandon it. All of these -- the Iraqi government actually signs for all of that -- all the remaining equipment on a base and then makes decisions about the -- about who gets it.

            CAPT. CAMPBELL: Time for one more question.

            Q: Can you tell us, General, whether or not that equipment that you -- that you are leaving behind -- would any of that be weapons like tanks or heavy machine -- heavy trucks like up-armored Humvees, MRAPs [Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles], any aircraft, or is it more along the lines of the air conditioners and the containerized housing?

            GEN. BUCHANAN: No, it's more along the lines of the air conditioners and containerized housing units.

            We have transitioned over the years -- we have reconditioned Humvees in country and transferred a significant number to the Iraqi security forces, but that has not been part of base transitions. And that was -- if you look when -- when we changed our model of Humvee, for example, from the M-1114 to the 1151, significant improvements in the type of Humvee, rather than just redeploy these to the United States, we transferred control, we reconditioned a number in country and transferred control to the government of Iraq.

            Now also when you look at what the government of Iraq has done, early on, most of this equipment that was provided to the security forces was based on gifting or donations from the United States government to the government of Iraq.

            Now they pay for more than 90 percent of their equipment, so all -- you know, the aircraft that they have, the patrol boats, the modern patrol boats they have, that they've bought through the Foreign Military Sales program, the M-1 tanks. The 140 M-1 tanks that the Iraqi army now has were actually bought from the United States. They're manufactured in the United States and shipped specifically to Iraq to field to the Iraqi army. And as part of that contract, you know, we provided and are still providing training for those who operate the tanks, who shoot the tanks, who maintain the tanks. But it's part of a contract with -- government-to-government contract in the Foreign Military Sales program. The equipment that we're transferring to the government of Iraq as part of these base transitions is not military-specific.

            Now, some of the equipment that we have transitioned to the State Department is in fact military-specific equipment. And one example are mine-resistant vehicles, the MRAPs, that, as you know, have a V- shaped hull and give the State Department a specific capability for more protection, more than they would get from an up-armored Suburban, for example, to give them ground mobility if they should need to use that from either the embassy in Baghdad or the consulates general in Basra or Irbil or the consulate in Kirkuk.

            CAPT. CAMPBELL: General, we genuinely appreciate you taking some time out of your evening to join us here this morning in the Pentagon. And with finishing up the questions, we'd like to turn it back over to you for any closing remarks that you may have. Over to you, sir.

            GEN. BUCHANAN: Sure. And first of all, thanks again for joining us today. I think it's important that we stay engaged through the -- obviously, through regular communication, with what's going on in Iraq.

            And, you know, from somebody who has served here for a number of years and watched the development over time, I've got to say that I can't help but be inspired by where we are now. But I recognize up front that we have gotten to this point because of a lot of sacrifice on behalf of the Iraqi people as well as the U.S. service members who have served here, their families who have supported them, the brave civilians we've had serving here over the years, and honestly, all of the American people. They've given us tremendous support every step of the way. Regardless of their politics, we have enjoyed a hundred percent support, and to all we owe a great debt.

            But the opportunities that the Iraqi people have are none like they have ever had in the past. And just a couple of comments. One, democracy. You know, when we saw a number of protest movements throughout the region in the early part of this year, and some of those, of course, are still going on, but whether it was Egypt or Tunisia or Libya or now Syria, we had protests here in Iraq, too, but the fundamental nature of those protests were different. Because the first comment that was driving the protests in all those other places was that the people did not have a choice in their future. They did not have a vote. They didn't have a choice of what type of government they were going to have or who in fact was running that government.

            And the protests in Iraq were different because they recognize that, and they had the freedom here to protest without fear of retribution, unlike the opportunities that they would have had under Saddam Hussein. They recognize that. And so the protests here were about the performance of the government and whether or not the government was providing the people the situation they deserve. And so that's just one example.

            Now, I think democracy here continues to evolve. And it will continue to evolve in the future. But the opportunities that the Iraqi people have now are far different than what they had in the past.

            Another example is economic development. You know, a number of things have come together for Iraq's economy. And I think, honestly, they're on the verge of really reaching their economic potential in a couple of years. But it's going to still take a couple of years to get the infrastructure, especially oil-export infrastructure, infrastructure for electricity to such a point where the Iraqi people can reach -- can reach their potential.

            And lastly, the security situation. You know, the security here is not what the Iraqi people deserve. We really do believe that they deserve a country that is stable, that is sovereign and that is self-reliant. And they don't have the stability. They don't have the security yet that they really deserve.

            But they're really headed in the right direction. When we look at the performance of the Iraqi security forces over the last years, how they have fundamentally changed, how the culture of the security forces has changed to one that understands its role in the -- in a democracy, to one that -- to a set of security forces that are a learning organization with an empowered non-commissioned officer corps -- these are things that the U.S. troops who have served here have really helped move these people in a different direction than they were headed in the past.

            So you know, again, we think that the Iraqi people and their government is on the right road. And what my greatest hope is is that they're able to take advantage of all the opportunities that they now have because of all of our shared sacrifice over the past years.

            But what I hope is that they're able to take advantage of the opportunities that they have to reach their potential. Thanks.

            CAPT. CAMPBELL: General Buchanan, thank you. We appreciate you spending the time with us. And have a good night, sir.

            GEN. BUCHANAN: OK. Take care.