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Gen. Perkins on the Future of the Iraq Mission

So: how does Maj. Gen. David Perkins, director of strategic effects for Multinational Forces-Iraq, view the final three years in Iraq? Here’s what he told a bloggers during a conference call this morning.

It’s still a population-centric counterinsurgency campaign. Perkins talked about gradually moving U.S. troops out of installations in Iraqi cities by June in accordance to with the Status of Forces Agreement. To counterinsurgents, that raises red flags, since the idea of “commuting to the fight” from large Forward Operating Bases outside the population centers has a record of failure. So I asked Perkins if population-centric counterinsurgency was still the order of the day until the combat mission ends next year. “What’s important to understand is that the strategy is not changing, it’s still a counterinsurgency fight being waged,” he said.

The difference is that now it’s the Iraqi security forces that are increasingly charged with holding the population centers and living amongst the people. “As we move out, the Iraqis move in,” Perkins said. They’re already the “landlords” of the cities’ Joint Security Stations established during the surge, and the United States will withdraw from those as “tenants” gradually.

It’s worth noting that Tom Ricks, author of two authoritative books about Iraq, doubts this will work and thinks the whole withdrawal plan is overly optimistic, too reminiscent of President George W. Bush.

Getting a warrant isn’t that hard. Sure, U.S. troops now have to get warrants to detain Iraqis. But it turns out not to be an overly cumbersome process. There’s a joint U.S.-Iraqi military operations committee that helps get “preapproval” for missions. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and his deputies “sit down with the Iraqi leaders [and] discuss what operations we want to conduct” along with the force mix of U.S. and Iraqi troops, and there are “judges that we and the Iraqis work with.” Intelligence-driven operations that have to be conducted quickly are pretty much fast-tracked; and Iraqi commanders on-scene help execute whatever follow-on operations might be necessary. Overall, Perkins said that the consultative U.S.-Iraqi process is increasingly part of the United States’ “battle rhythm.”

There may not be a set structure for the Advisory and Assistance Brigades yet, but don’t panic. As I reported Monday, the U.S. military doesn’t yet know what the training brigades that are going to replace the combat brigades in Iraq will look like. Perkins said that Odierno’s command, Central Command and the Joint Staff ( the staff officers who support the Joint Chiefs) were all looking at the question, particularly in regards to what assets the new brigades will require. But the process isn’t really so new, he said. “We’ll look to units we have in the military, figure out what we need to do to them to task-organize them,” Perkins said. “Rarely do we send a unit as it existed at [its] home station without task-organizing it to conduct the mission.” It’s important to remember that “every soldier is a combat soldier,” he added. “They’re trained to take part in combat [and] defend themselves. The issue is what mission do they have.” Perkins remembered commanding a tank unit in Macedonia as part of a peacekeeping operation; to say the least, that’s not what tank units are used to.

It’s the Embassy’s time to shine. Or not. I asked Perkins about what the military’s mission will be in support of diplomatic activities. As it turns out, his division is based in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The news that he broke — as far as I’m aware, that is — is that the Provincial Reconstruction Teams have just secured “additional funding”; I’m trying to find out more on that. Maybe the State Department isn’t so rapidly transitioning to “a normal diplomatic mission” just yet. Beyond diplomacy, Perkins said, his command still works with development specialists, agronomists, the United Nations, the World Bank and the IMF to ensure that Iraqi governance and economic activity, including the provision of necessary social services, remains in the wake of U.S. troop withdrawals.

Sayonara to the contractors. My pal Paul McCleary from Ares asked about the Christian Science Monitor’s story yesterday about reducing the number of contractors in Iraq. Perkins said it was sensible, and a function of need. “It’s logical that as our force structure comes down, … our logistical support comes down.” Besides, providing jobs for the Iraqis was both cost-effective to the American taxpayer; economically stimulative for Iraq; and a good way of denying an insurgent outfit a potential recruit who needs the money. Wonder why we didn’t think of that before.

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