This piece first aired in August, 2010, as part of the show, “Unfinished Business.”
Host Intro: On August 31st U.S forces in Iraq will cease combat operations and the U.S military presence will be drawn down to 50,000 troops. Military operations in Iraq will be reclassified as Operation New Dawn from the previous moniker Operation Iraq Freedom. But what exactly does this mean, and what do Iraqis think about the withdrawal. Kyle Crawford reports.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Shortly after taking office, I announced our new strategy for Iraq and for a transition to full Iraqi responsibility. And I made it clear that by August 31, 2010 America’s combat mission in Iraq would end. And that is exactly what we are doing—as promised, on schedule.
KYLE CRAWFORD: That was President Obama earlier this week reiterating the U.S timetable for withdraw from Iraq. The U.S – Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement established in 2008 sets December 31st, 2011 as the date when all U.S forces must be out of Iraq. In order to meet this deadline, President Obama pledged that troop levels would be down to 50,000 by the end of August. Though much is being made of the August 31st date, the U.S has been significantly scaling back its operations since June 2009 when the U.S pulled out of major cities. Michael Hanna, a fellow at the the Century Foundation and middle east expert, says that we shouldn’t make too much of the specific August deadline.
MICHAEL HANNA: I think it’s important not to put emphasis on a specific date. The Iraq War is many years old at this point. It was launched in March of 03. This isn’t something that has happened over night. This is something US and Iraqi forces have been preparing for for quite some time.
KYLE CRAWFORD: LTC Kennedy, of the army’s 3rd brigade, 3rd infantry division is a brigade commander (correction – battalion commander) based in Wasit Province in Eastern Iraq. He explains how U.S operations have been changing.
LTC KENNEDY : When the security agreement went into place last June. Things changed pretty significantly. I think you remember the security agreement was we want to get the troops out of the cities and we started to move into outposts in more rural areas. So that was really the start of the transition and it’s been a progression since last June and to more of a stability and advise and assist role.
KYLE CRAWFORD: In this “advise and assist” role, U.S forces have the task of training and supporting the Iraqi army and Iraqi police. In a little over a year these security forces will have to operate without any support from the US military and for many Iraqis this is an area of concern. Kennedy primarily works with the Iraqi border patrol on the Iranian border and he describes how his brigade is helping to support Iraqi security forces.
LTC KENNEDY: For instance I’ve got alpha troop they train the Iraqi sherta they are police force a border police. they train them with first aid, they train them in how to secure their forts how to conduct surveillance, how to interdict any border crossings.
KYLE CRAWFORD: In 2003, the Iraqi army was disbanded by the U.S’s representative in Iraq, Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority, since then the U.S has had to deal with reestablishing and rebuilding the capacity of the Iraqi army and police from scratch. Hanna explains that though the security forces have come a long way in their capabilities significant work remains.
MICHAEL HANNA: Iraqi security forces are much better trained and have much greater capacity. They are far from perfect and there are still a lot of gaps in their capabilities They dont have an air force, it is difficult for them to patrol their own borders. They dont patrol their air space they dont control their borders. Obviously logistics are still a concern.
KYLE CRAWFORD: Many Iraqis don’t have much confidence in their own army to provide security. Faisal from Baghdad explains that he wants the U.S to extend it’s timetable for withdrawal.
MOHAMMED FAISAL: Of course it will be too dangerous I told you I want the U.S to stay here. It will be too dangerous if they are leaving.
KYLE CRAWFORD: Faisal doesn’t trust the Iraqi army or the Iraqi police to provide security, however LTC Kennedy thinks most Iraqis have confidence in their forces.
LTC KENNEDY: So I know the people when we do our surveys they have a lot of confidence in the Iraqi army I think they are just more comfortable with us being here because back during the surge when the sectarian violence was at its height they saw us as they people who were defending them. So thats where they have got that confidence..I think they see us as a security blanket but they dont know what they dont know as we start to draw down you know and reduce forces.
KYLE CRAWFORD: Faisal is a Sunni, and in a majority Shiite country he is in the minority. One of the main reasons he doesn’t have faith in the Iraqi army is because he worries the largely Shiite army won’t have his interests in mind.
MOHAMMED FAISAL: they are Shiite people. Now I am Sunni now I am afraid of my life.
KYLE CRAWFORD: Faisal also believes that when the U.S withdraws, the sectarian violence that ravaged Iraq in 2006 and 2007 will reignite.
MOHAMMED FAISAL: I think war will start again in Iraq. When U.S troops go outside. This is what I think.
KYLE CRAWFORD: Hanna, however, thinks this is unlikely to happen.
MICHAEL HANNA: Its difficult to imagine a reignition across the board of insurgency as we saw in the past ..But we do see spikes up and down but their hasn’t been an ability to sustain attacks in a geographically sustained fashion.
KYLE CRAWFORD: The August 31st deadline is by no means the end of the U.S’s mission in Iraq nor does it signal success. Training and supporting security forces still poses a significant challenge and though security has been the main focus of most discussions of Iraq, infrastructure, power, water, sewage, and providing jobs are still at the top of the list of the challenges that face the nation. Despite the changing mission, the cost that the U.S will bear in Iraq is yet to be over.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: The hard truth is we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq.
KYLE CRAWFORD: For War News Radio, I’m Kyle Crawford.