U.S. Forces Build Flexibility into Iraq Exit Plan

MOSUL, Iraq, Aug. 1, 2011 — Though U.S. forces in Iraq are plan­ning to draw down to zero in Decem­ber, they are pre­serv­ing capa­bil­i­ties in the coun­try should the Iraqis ask for con­tin­ued help, the top U.S. com­man­der in Iraq said here today.

Speak­ing to reporters trav­el­ing with Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III said Iraqi lead­ers are think­ing about the way ahead and are try­ing to fig­ure out the direc­tion they want to go.

In the mean­time, we stay focused on our com­mit­ments to be down to zero by Decem­ber, and our plans and all of our actions are tak­ing us that way,” the gen­er­al said. “We’re on the glide path, and I think we are where we need to be about right now.”

About 48,000 Amer­i­can troops are in Iraq today, and in accor­dance with the strate­gic agree­ment between the Unit­ed States and Iraq, all will be out of Iraq by Dec. 31. But gaps exist in Iraqi secu­ri­ty force capa­bil­i­ties, and U.S. offi­cials have said they would lis­ten to an Iraqi request for some U.S. forces to stay in the coun­try after the dead­line. The Iraqi air force, for exam­ple, can­not defend the coun­try against an exter­nal threat, and the Iraqi forces still have short­ages in com­mand and con­trol, intel­li­gence capa­bil­i­ties, and in logis­tics and main­te­nance.

Austin is plan­ning the with­draw­al with an eye toward the capa­bil­i­ties the Iraqis would need, if they ask.

In all our plan­ning, all of our actions, all of our down­siz­ing of our foot­print, we’re been very pru­dent about pre­serv­ing as much flex­i­bil­i­ty for our lead­er­ship as we can,” Austin said. “So if the Iraqis ask, and our lead­ers think it is the thing to do, we will have some capa­bil­i­ty to do what­ev­er we need to do.”

But as the dead­line approach­es, that becomes hard­er and hard­er to do, he said. “Still,” he added, “I’m very con­fi­dent that we have pro­vid­ed the flex­i­bil­i­ty to our lead­er­ship.”

Even if the Iraqis ask late in the draw­down process, any­thing is pos­si­ble, the gen­er­al said. “Some things just cost more mon­ey than oth­ers,” he explained. “As we begin to dis­man­tle here, the con­cern is we don’t want to dis­man­tle some­thing that we’ll have to put back into place. Our plans have cre­at­ed a fair amount of flex­i­bil­i­ty for us up to this point.”

But the longer the Iraqis wait, the more dif­fi­cult it becomes to accom­mo­date any request they might make, Austin said.

Each day is pre­cious,” he said. “We’ve con­veyed to the Iraqis on a num­ber of occa­sions that soon­er is always bet­ter.”

The trend lines are going in the right direc­tion, the gen­er­al said. Over­all, U.S. casu­al­ties are low­er this year than last, and the num­ber of inci­dents is down slight­ly. But that only tells part of the sto­ry, the gen­er­al said. He put the sta­tis­tics in a larg­er con­text.

In 2007, we had 145 inci­dents a day on aver­age, with some days up over 200 inci­dents,” he said. “Look at where we are today, aver­ag­ing around 14.5 inci­dents per day. That’s a tremen­dous change over the years, and the trends have con­tin­ued to head in the right direc­tion.”

Iraq remains a chal­leng­ing envi­ron­ment, Austin acknowl­edged, and one of those chal­lenges emanates from Iran.

June was a pret­ty tough month for us, because we had a cou­ple of inci­dents where Iran­ian-backed mil­i­tants employed weapons such as impro­vised rock­et-assist­ed muni­tions, and in two cas­es we suf­fered a num­ber of casu­al­ties from those attacks,” Austin said. “We have increased pres­sure on those net­works and are work­ing with our Iraqi coun­ter­parts. I think we’ve had some pret­ty good effects over time.”

The com­mand also has increased force-pro­tec­tion mea­sures, and the Iraqis have tak­en steps to take on the net­works con­duct­ing the attacks. Iraqi coun­tert­er­ror­ism forces have been more active over time, and they are part­ner­ing with Amer­i­can forces “to go after some pret­ty sig­nif­i­cant folks,” Austin said.

Though Austin said he believes the Iraqi gov­ern­ment is push­ing back on the Ira­ni­ans to stop sup­ply­ing weapons to the Iraqi mil­i­tants, he added that he expects mil­i­tants to try using more explo­sive­ly formed pro­jec­tiles –anti-armor weapons – against Amer­i­can vehi­cles and mor­tars, and impro­vised rock­et-assist­ed muni­tions against large con­cen­tra­tions of U.S. troops.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)