U.S. commanders are devising a plan for as many as 10,000 soldiers and Marines to accompany Iraqi units as advisers and trainers, a substantial increase from the few thousand doing such work now, defense officials say.
The theory is that after Sunday’s election some U.S. troops will begin focusing less on directly fighting insurgents and more on training Iraqi forces to do it themselves.
This latest proposal to accelerate the troubled training program comes amid rising calls in Washington for the Bush administration to start working on plans for a phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq. There also is concern that U.S. offensive operations are increasing anger among Iraqis.
Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said Tuesday it was too soon to talk about a pullout, adding that U.S. troops could not leave until Iraq builds up its security forces. “Setting final dates will be futile and dangerous,” he said in Baghdad.
Indeed, the Army disclosed that it was planning to keep troop levels in Iraq at the current level of roughly 120,000 for another two years.
That could change as security gets better or worse, Lt. Gen. James J. Lovelace Jr. told reporters Monday, but official planning is for little change in numbers through 2006.
Advisers in the expanded training plan would come from U.S. units already in Iraq, where some U.S. teams already are working with Iraqi units, doing joint patrols and fighting side by side. Commanders want to expand the program countrywide and have talked about several possible numbers, including a 10,000-man total.
No decision had been announced as of Tuesday. But the idea is to make training the No. 1 priority of U.S. forces in Iraq and gradually put Iraqis out front in the fight, one senior official said on condition of anonymity. He suggested that American forces may be nearing the point at which they will be gaining diminishing returns on their combat operations.
Counting all the military services, the United States has 150,000 troops in Iraq, spends more than $1 billion a week and is continually killing and capturing suspected insurgents.
U.S. envoy: No change in insurgents
Still, the level of insurgent activity is about the same as it was six months ago, U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte said Sunday.
A statement from coalition forces in Baghdad last week said that enough progress had been made in training Iraqis that it “has prompted the coalition to focus in 2005 on transitioning the counter-insurgency fight” to local forces.
“Once you’ve put in place a popularly elected government, the next step in nation building is to provide it with some independent security,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute think tank. “And the administration has recognized the fundamental reality that if the Iraqis can’t defend their democracy with independent force, they’re not going to have one.”
Officials have been working for months to accelerate training of Iraqi forces, which have suffered from desertions, low morale and leadership problems.
The Pentagon early this month sent retired Army Gen. Gary E. Luck to help the Iraq government and U.S. commanders develop an accelerated program.
Short term, ‘nothing will change’
Some experts have suggested that new Iraqi officials elected Sunday may be more eager to ask the U.S. military to leave. But the United States hopes that an elected Iraqi government might command broader public support in the campaign against the insurgents and says any new government will know it needs continued coalition help.
Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy scholar at the Brookings Institution, said he expected little difference in the U.S. role in Iraq after the election.
“In the short term, nothing will change,” he said.
Placing more emphasis on training and less on the insurgency may be something officials want to do, but it remains to be seen whether the level of violence and abilities of Iraqis will make that possible, analysts said.
“It’s something that is logical to aim for, but ... at this point, it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen,” said Richard K. Betts of the Council on Foreign Relations. “They’re going to have to continue to do both until Iraqis have a force that can hold together.”