By Army Sgt. Sara Moore
American Forces Press Service
April 10, 2008 - After the last of the surge brigades leaves Iraq this summer, future troop withdrawals will be based on conditions on the ground and will be evaluated continuously, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said in a recent television interview. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, appeared on ABC's "Nightline" on April 8 after a full day of testimony to Congress about the situation in Iraq. He concluded his testimony yesterday.
In his testimony, Petraeus recommended that after the last of the surge brigades leaves Iraq, the United States take a 45-day period of consolidation and evaluation to determine when future troop reductions can take place.
The process of withdrawing troops is like "battlefield geometry," in that commanders must position forces relative to the strength of the enemy and the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces in certain areas, Petraeus said. Assessment of conditions on the ground has been happening and will continue on a "segment by segment" basis, he said, with commanders looking at what areas of Iraq are ready to be taken over by Iraqi forces.
"That process is ongoing, and we'll continue that process in the fall," he said. "We're keenly aware of the strain on the force, of the strain on our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, and civilians, and their families, and also the strain on the budget -- the sheer cost in blood and treasure of this endeavor."
Both Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker, who appeared on the show with the general and also testified before Congress, agreed that the United States will need to maintain a presence in Iraq for quite some time, because the Iraqi forces and government have a lot of progress to make.
"The overall development of Iraq into a stable, secure democratic state governed by the rule of law is going to be a multi-year project; there's no question about it," Crocker said. "That does not mean that over that period we are going to need to be in Iraq in anything like the numbers we are now or anything like the missions we have now, but total recovery for Iraq is going to be a very long-term affair."
Iraqi forces will need U.S. support in some key areas, such as air support, for a long time because these capabilities take time to develop, Petraeus said. He noted that until now, the focus has been solely on the counterinsurgency effort, and now the focus is shifting to building internal capabilities.
There are now more than 500,000 members in the Iraqi security forces, Petraeus said, and the United States has been steadily handing over security responsibility to them. That process has not always gone smoothly, he admitted, but the Iraqis are steadily increasing their capabilities.
As the United States looks at transitioning responsibility to the Iraqi government and security forces, the goal for the country remains the same, Petraeus said: an Iraq that can secure itself, is at peace with its neighbors, has a representative government, and participates in the regional and global economy.
The situation in Iraq still will be hard and complicated, but the United States will be able to diminish its presence when Iraq can deal with security challenges on its own, even if the government or security forces aren't completely at the level they need to be, Crocker said. The most important thing, he emphasized, is to ensure that Iraq does not spiral into violence again, which could have ramifications around the world.
"I understand how tired and frustrated Americans are of the experience in Iraq," Crocker said. "We're out there. We live the frustration every day -- just how hard it is to get things right. But it's also important to understand what the consequences are if we decide we're tired."
If America withdrew from Iraq prematurely, a resurgence of al-Qaida would be inevitable, and the insurgents would seek to plant their roots into Iraq again and use it as a base for attacks, Crocker said. The world would also see immense human suffering in Iraq, he said.
"If Americans haven't liked the first two reels of this film and don't want to watch it any more, decide we're not going to sustain this commitment, I can guarantee you the next three reels that will go on without us are going to be really, really ugly, and we'll pay for it in our most vital national interests," Crocker said.