Iraqi Troop Readiness Update

The generals in Iraq have been reporting to the Senate about the progress of Iraqi troops. Some of the news is discouraging:

“The number of Iraqi army battalions that can fight insurgents without U.S. and coalition help has dropped from three to one, top U.S. generals told Congress yesterday, adding that the security situation in Iraq is too uncertain to predict large-scale American troop withdrawals anytime soon.

Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who oversees U.S. forces in Iraq, said there are fewer Iraqi battalions at “Level 1” readiness than there were a few months ago.

…Officials did not say specifically why two battalions are no longer rated at Level 1 and thus unable to operate on their own. They said generally readiness ratings can change for numerous reasons, such as if a commander resigns, or if more training is needed. Casey also said that the “Iraqi armed forces will not have an independent capability for some time.”

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On the other hand, not all of the news is bad:

“Over the past 18 months, we have built enough Iraqi capacity where we can begin talking seriously about transitioning this counterinsurgency mission to them,” Casey said. Military figures show that there are about three dozen army and special police battalions rated at Level 2 or above, meaning they are taking the lead in combat as long as they have support from coalition forces.”

The generals refused to give any sort of answer about when we’d be pulling our troops out which isn’t a big surprise given that the President has refused to give a date for a pull-out.

While the latest news isn’t fantastic, it isn’t terrible either.

Having 36 (750 man) battalions that can take the lead in combat with let’s say an American special forces agent leading them or American air support is no small thing considering they’re getting more on-the-job experience every day and since there are 6 times as many Iraqis in the pipeline, getting trained.

At the earliest, we’re probably 3 months away from any American troops pulling out of Iraq and it’s possible we won’t see any significant withdrawls until next summer. So keep an eye on the progress we’re making, but remember that we’ll know more at the start of the year.

*** Update #1 ***: From the comments section: cmcnally asks:

“What do we do if they never get up to speed? From what I understand the South Vietnamese units were quite happy to let Americans do the fighting for them. If that attitude becomes prevalent in Iraq, what to do?”

Keep in mind that next year is an election year and as time continues to march on, the political pressure is going to continue to ratchet up on the President. If the Iraqi troops haven’t progressed significantly by next summer, Bush will be savaged not only by Democrats, but by a lot of Republicans who’ll be looking to distance themselves from his handling of the war. Bush is well aware of this and at some point, ready or not, large numbers of Iraqi troops are going to get tossed into the water and it’ll be sink or swim time.

But, don’t get the wrong idea. My expectation is that the Iraqis will make it just fine.

With all the training, field time, and combat experience the Iraqis are getting, they’re going to make a lot of progress. Moreover, given that most of the action occurs in only 4 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, US troops could probably be replaced by Iraqis in much of the country, even today, with a minimal amount of risk. That’s probably what Iraqi President Jalal Talabani was thinking when he said that: “40,000 to 50,000 American troops can be [withdrawn] by the end of this year.”

Still, the more training we give the Iraqis, the better. Since a democratic Iraq is vital to American interests in the region, we need to do as much as we practically can to prepare them for the days ahead, when there are no Americans on the streets.

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