Col. Reese on a Quick Withdrawal

The NYT on Friday published a memo from Col. Timothy R. Reese, Chief, Baghdad Operations Command Advisory Team, MND-B, Baghdad, Iraq, in which he argued for a more or less immediate departure of US troops from Iraq.

AP notes that most US officers in Iraq do not agree with Reese. Some believe he is being defeatist, others are not as sure as he is that the new Iraqi military is able to go it alone. And the Obama administration has decided that the timetable for withdrawal into which the Mahdi Army and the Iraqi parliament forced W. is good enough for them, and is moreover politically safe. They have their eye on 2012, and want to be able to campaign on a successful withdrawal from Iraq that did not damage US security. A slower withdrawal might suit them. The last thing they want is for the US military to draw down quickly, for all hell to break loose at the head of the Persian Gulf, and for them to be drawn right back into Iraq on the eve of the election.

While AP makes some fair points, they are clustered at two ends of the argument, on whether US officers on patrol with Iraqi troops think they could go it alone, and on what the White House is possibly thinking.

I think the opposition to Reese’s argument will mainly come from command officers on strategic grounds. Reese is arguing tactically.

What Reese says is:

1. The new Iraqi army, despite its extensive deficiencies including massive corruption, sloth, Soviet-style rigidity, etc., can now nevertheless patrol on its own and can face down Sunni guerrillas and Shiite militias. It is just all right for internal security. The US military can now leave that task to the Iraqis.

2. The main US military mission now appears to be further training of the Iraqi army, which is not necessary, at least on the scale contemplated, because that army is already just all right and is unlikely to get much better than that, despite further training, any time soon.

3. Because of an aggressive interpretation of the Status of Forces Agreement by the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, US troops are now increasingly sitting ducks. There is a significant danger of them being attacked in a way aimed at ruining US-Iraqi relations if they are kept as sitting ducks, and which might force an ignominious US withdrawal harmful to US prestige.

4. There is little political progress in Iraq, which is extremely corrupt and factious, and there is not likely to be any political progress any time soon, so if that is why the US military is remaining on this scale, it may as well leave now.

5. The very US military presence is generating the terrorist attacks that the Americans are attempting to curb. Such terrorism against the US military in Iraq is now instrumental and a way for local forces to jockey with one another for relative power.

Although Col. Reese at one point portrays his memo as concerned with strategy rather than tactics, for the most part it remains tactical. The question for him is, what is the military mission and how (tactically) to accomplish it?

He examines the possible missions and lists them as 1. further training of the Iraqi Army to make it self-sufficient, and 2. helping the Iraqi government resolve ethno-sectarian disputes. He concludes that neither of those goals is necessary or realistic.

On the negative side, US troops are now, he implies, somewhat in the same position they were in Lebanon in fall of 1983, when the Marine barracks was bombed by Islamic Amal.

But what if there are other strategic goals to which the commanding officers in Iraq are attached? Foremost among them appears to be having the sort of presence and influence through the January parliamentary elections to forestall a big surge of Iranian influence through manipulation of the elections. That appears to be what is on the mind of Gen. Ray Odierno.

It could be replied that the US military is not actually any longer in a position to block Iran, either. As for Odierno’s worry that Iran-trained guerrillas are becoming disruptive again, it should be remembered that the Iraqi army is probably only as good as Reese says it is because al-Maliki inducted large numbers of Badr Corps Shiite paramilitary elements into it. They in turn had been trained by, and continue to have favorable views of, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. That is, the cow of Iranian influence is already out of the barn.

But if the high officers and the NSC think there is some chance of blocking Iran in Iraq through 2011, and possibly of helping broker an Arab-Kurdish accord within the country, that might be enough impetus for them to risk the Reese scenario, of a big attack on the dwindling US troops that weakened the US posture for decades, as Beirut 1983 did.

It is Iran strategy and possibly to some extent Kurdistan strategy that will drive US military presence in Iraq for the next year and a half. And maybe, as AP says, just general nervousness in Washington about a rush for the door.

In Reese’s favor is the Iraqi security forces’ attack on Camp Ashraf of the Iranian “Islamic Marxist” dissident movement, the Mojahedin-e Khalq (People’s Holy Warriors or MEK). The Iraqi government knew that the US did not want them to enter the camp in this way, but they did it anyway, and during the visit of Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates. The assault left between 8 and 11 Iranians dead and hundreds wounded, as well as some 17 members of the Iraqi security forces dead. If the Iraqi state is willing to act so brutally against persons designated as refugees by the United Nations when it is clear that the US wants them protected, then it is not trustworthy on a whole host of other issues, including putting pressure on Iran.

Apparently against Reese is Friday’s frightful harvest of 28 dead in bombings targeting 5 Shiite mosques in Baghdad and other targets elsewhere.

But, such bombings routinely occurred when US troops were able to patrol the streets, and it is too early to tell if anything really has changed. Likely the Sunni Arab guerrillas wil go on engaging in protest terrorism for some time to come.

Aljazeera English reports on Friday’s mosque bombings:

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