WASHINGTON — One year after U.S. forces withdrew from Iraqi cities, the chief of staff for the 3rd Infantry Division and Task Force Marne said yesterday that Iraqi security forces have proven themselves capable of conducting independent operations.
During a “DoD Live” bloggers roundtable, Army Col. Thomas S. James said that in his estimation, Iraqi security forces are well prepared for the withdrawal of the final U.S. combat troops and the completion of the U.S. transition from combat to stability operations on Sept. 1.
“What we have seen across the board in the five Iraqi army divisions that we have in the north is the ability to take the ball and run with it,” James said.
Task Force Marne covers an area north of Baghdad that encompasses seven provinces and more than 11 million people. The 3rd Infantry Division is in the ninth month of a 13-month rotation. In that time, James said, the U.S. footprint has been greatly reduced, from 22,000 to 15,000 servicemembers. He said he expects that number to dip below 9,500 by September.
Another sign that the drawdown is in full swing, James said, is that in June alone, Task Force Marne has turned in some 750 vehicles and more than 5,000 pieces of equipment. Of the 41 U.S. bases that were operating when he first arrived in U.S. Division North in November, only eight bases are still open, the colonel said, and the focus of U.S. operations has changed dramatically.
“For the most part, we are focused on training the Iraqi security forces, enabling their operations and working the civil capacity line through our provincial reconstruction teams,” he explained.
Despite this success, James said, the situation is not perfect. He described an extremist enemy force that represents less than 1 percent of the population but still is capable of carrying out high-payoff attacks. Fortunately, he said, that threat is dwindling.
In the past nine months James said, he has seen “a great reduction in [extremist] resources, a reduction in their command and control and capability of conducting coherent attacks.”
He credited the growing prowess of the Iraqi security forces, accompanied by public confidence in them, with thwarting the power of insurgents. As a result, James said, it’s not surprising that morale among American troops is now “sky-high.”
“To see the progress that has occurred, and to see civil capacity starting to grow and to see markets starting to flourish, and compare that to our prior rotation, I think, really, really builds morale,” he said.
This is the fourth rotation for the 3rd Infantry Division into Iraq. James said that before the soldiers leave this time, they want to set conditions in place for the 4th Infantry Division to come in and finish the task.
That will include continued training and improving the Iraqi forces’ ability to carry out intelligence-based operations, as well as improving their overall command and control. A long-term goal for Iraqi forces, James added, will be to defend the country’s borders from outside threats. But for now, James expressed satisfaction with the level of skill among Iraqi forces.
“From our foxhole, from here in U.S. Division North, the best way that I see it is that they are capable of handling the existing threat right now, which will buy them time to be able to work towards [handling] a larger threat to their country in the future.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)