By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
March 1, 2009 - The U.S. military will conduct "a very different mission" in Iraq after combat troops withdraw in August 2010, with troops slated to remain there through 2011 serving primarily as trainers and advisors, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today on CNBC's "Meet the Press." Gates said the residual force in Iraq – currently estimated at 35,000 to 50,000 – will have a limited counterinsurgency mission but will focus primarily on training Iraqi security forces. Gone will be combat brigades, replaced by "advisory and assistance brigades" that Gates said will build on current successes in building Iraqi security capability.
"Iraqi forces already are standing up in a significant way," Gates said. "They organized the security for the provincial elections last month and did a very good job." U.S. forces supported these efforts through planning and logistics help, but the Iraqis maintained the lead.
Gates conceded that Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, and many other ground commanders would have preferred to keep more combat troops in Iraq longer. Some in the Defense Department "argued strongly" for a 19-month exit strategy, versus the 16-month plan President Barack Obama approved.
"So having a somewhat larger transition force mitigates the risk of having the combat units go out sooner," Gates said.
The secretary called the move from a combat force to a transition force a step toward fulfilling the terms of the exit strategy established in the status or forces agreement with Iraq. "In the absence of any new agreement with the Iraqis, we have to be at zero by the end of 2011," Gates said. "So that 50,000 or 35,000 is a way station on the way to zero."
Any extension of the U.S. presence in Iraq is "completely hypothetical" at this point and would come only through a completely new agreement negotiated with the Obama administration at the Iraqis' initiation, Gates said.
Obama has acknowledged that as commander in chief, he "always retains the flexibility and the authority to change or adjust a plan if he thinks it is in the national security of the United States," Gates said.
"The fact is, I don't think any of us believe that will be necessary. I would characterize the likelihood of significant adjustments to this plan as 'fairly remote,'" he said. "We have a signed agreement with the Iraqis that says we have to be out of there by the end of 2011, and that is what we are all planning on."
Gates conceded that the problems over the security situation in Mosul, Arab-Kurd tensions and the need for a law to structure Iraq's oil industry continue to loom.
"There is no question, we have had a significant military success," he said. "There has been real progress on the political side, but there is clearly unfinished business in that arena as well."
Significant progress made during the past six to 12 months is expected to continue, he said, meaning that the risk faced by the residual force in Iraq after August 2010 is likely to be "substantially less" than in the past.
But Gates said it's too soon to characterize the success of the overall mission in Iraq. That, he said, will depend on where Iraq stands when the United States ultimately leaves.
"If Iraq is basically stable, if the level of violence remains at the relatively low levels that it is now, if they have had national elections, if they are an ally of the United States, I would call that a substantial success," Gates said.