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Iraq Commander Signals No Accelaration in Troop Withdrawal

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/10/odierno.jpgGen. Raymond Odierno, center, pictured with Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Gen. David Petraeus (WDCpix)

The commander of U.S. troops in Iraq did not give much indication in congressional testimony Wednesday that he would accelerate his schedule to withdraw troops to accommodate a possible troop increase in Afghanistan, a move the Obama administration is debating.

Gen. Raymond Odierno, testifying for the first time as commander of Multinational Forces-Iraq, told the House Armed Services Committee that his plan to reduce his 124,000 troops to 50,000 non-combat forces by August 2010 had “flexibility” built into it, and said that he would consider speeding up the drawdown as circumstances permit. He added that he foresaw removing 4,000 troops, about a combat brigades’ worth, by the end of October, which he said was ahead of his schedule.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

But Odierno focused much more on the dangers of drawing down forces too rapidly. “The important part is that we do not want to lose the security progress that has been made,” Odierno said in response to a direct question from Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), the committee’s chairman. Odierno said that U.S. troops serve as a “psychological” backstop for both Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi government so “drivers of instability” do not overtake Iraq’s “nascent democracy.”

“The plan we have, I believe,” Odierno said, “allows us to withdrawal deliberately and maintain what I believe is an appropriate level of security that the Iraqi security forces ultimately can sustain.” While Odierno said he and Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia, are working to transfer surveillance equipment and other so-called “combat support” assets from Iraq to Afghanistan, the most Odierno committed to changing his timetable was to say he was open to “speed up [withdrawal] if I think the situation on the ground allows it, or to slow down, and I will continue to make those judgments as we move forward.”

Shortly after Odierno testified, the White House held its first meeting of President Obama’s war cabinet to review Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy since the Afghanistan war commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, delivered a still-classified request for additional resources to the Pentagon late last week. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said on ABC’s “ThisWeek” that the U.S. does not have any uncommitted combat brigades to send to Afghanistan before January, owing to deployments in both Afghanistan and Iraq, raising questions about whether the Iraq drawdown needs to proceed more rapidly. Soldiers in Iraq, by Pentagon policy, must receive at least fifteen months of so-called “dwell time” to rest between deployments, and so the pace of withdrawal from Iraq impacts — but does not solely determine — the availability of Army combat brigades for Afghanistan. In July, Gates floated the idea of increasing Odierno’s withdrawal schedule, although he did not explicitly link it to a prospective Afghanistan troop infusion.

With ethno-sectarian violence down 77 percent in August 2009 compared to August 2007 — with, Odierno said, only 19 ethno-sectarian incidents over Ramadan 2009 compared to 978 in 2006 — Odierno proclaimed himself “confident” in the ultimate strategy to withdraw combat forces by August 2010 and all U.S. forces by December 2011. He repeatedly praised the performance and espirit d’corps of the Iraqi security forces and noted that “high-profile attacks” continued to decline across Iraq even after U.S. combat forces left their Iraqi counterparts in charge of stability in Iraqi cities and towns on June 30.

Yet Odierno said that security is “not yet enduring.” He cited weak Iraqi ministerial institutions and continued competition for land and resources — particularly between Iraq’s Arab majority and Kurdish minority — as continuing dangers, and said that one of his priorities was to build enduring Iraqi capabilities for security and governance in concert with the U.S. Embassy. By January 1, Odierno told the panel, he hoped to release a revised Joint Campaign Plan with the Embassy, a blueprint for concerted military and diplomatic action to strengthen Iraqi institutions in advance of ultimate U.S. military departure.

Odierno sidestepped a question on his relationship with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, which is reportedly uneasy, saying instead that his staff works closely with the Embassy’s diplomats. “We’re completely integrated at every level, we continue to be completely integrated,” Odierno stated.

When asked what counterinsurgency lessons learned in Iraq might apply to Afghanistan — as the 2007 counterinsurgency strategy there was recently cited by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) to argue for a troop increase for Afghanistan — Odierno warned not to view one war through the prism of another.

“One of the lessons I’ve learned is that you’ve got to understand the environment. And you’ve got to understand the socio-economic, military, political issues that underpin the reason why violence is occurring. And from what I’ve seen, Gen. McChystal is doing exactly this,” Odierno said. But he did say that the U.S. would need to take a “whole-of-government approach” to integrate civilian and military components of the strategy in order to succeed.

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