By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
MOSUL, Iraq, Aug. 1, 2011 – Though U.S. forces in Iraq are planning to draw down to zero in December, they are preserving capabilities in the country should the Iraqis ask for continued help, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said here today.
Speaking to reporters traveling with Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III said Iraqi leaders are thinking about the way ahead and are trying to figure out the direction they want to go.
“In the meantime, we stay focused on our commitments to be down to zero by December, and our plans and all of our actions are taking us that way,” the general said. “We’re on the glide path, and I think we are where we need to be about right now.”
About 48,000 American troops are in Iraq today, and in accordance with the strategic agreement between the United States and Iraq, all will be out of Iraq by Dec. 31. But gaps exist in Iraqi security force capabilities, and U.S. officials have said they would listen to an Iraqi request for some U.S. forces to stay in the country after the deadline. The Iraqi air force, for example, cannot defend the country against an external threat, and the Iraqi forces still have shortages in command and control, intelligence capabilities, and in logistics and maintenance.
Austin is planning the withdrawal with an eye toward the capabilities the Iraqis would need, if they ask.
“In all our planning, all of our actions, all of our downsizing of our footprint, we’re been very prudent about preserving as much flexibility for our leadership as we can,” Austin said. “So if the Iraqis ask, and our leaders think it is the thing to do, we will have some capability to do whatever we need to do.”
But as the deadline approaches, that becomes harder and harder to do, he said. “Still,” he added, “I’m very confident that we have provided the flexibility to our leadership.”
Even if the Iraqis ask late in the drawdown process, anything is possible, the general said. “Some things just cost more money than others,” he explained. “As we begin to dismantle here, the concern is we don’t want to dismantle something that we’ll have to put back into place. Our plans have created a fair amount of flexibility for us up to this point.”
But the longer the Iraqis wait, the more difficult it becomes to accommodate any request they might make, Austin said.
“Each day is precious,” he said. “We’ve conveyed to the Iraqis on a number of occasions that sooner is always better.”
The trend lines are going in the right direction, the general said. Overall, U.S. casualties are lower this year than last, and the number of incidents is down slightly. But that only tells part of the story, the general said. He put the statistics in a larger context.
“In 2007, we had 145 incidents a day on average, with some days up over 200 incidents,” he said. “Look at where we are today, averaging around 14.5 incidents per day. That’s a tremendous change over the years, and the trends have continued to head in the right direction.”
Iraq remains a challenging environment, Austin acknowledged, and one of those challenges emanates from Iran.
“June was a pretty tough month for us, because we had a couple of incidents where Iranian-backed militants employed weapons such as improvised rocket-assisted munitions, and in two cases we suffered a number of casualties from those attacks,” Austin said. “We have increased pressure on those networks and are working with our Iraqi counterparts. I think we’ve had some pretty good effects over time.”
The command also has increased force-protection measures, and the Iraqis have taken steps to take on the networks conducting the attacks. Iraqi counterterrorism forces have been more active over time, and they are partnering with American forces “to go after some pretty significant folks,” Austin said.
Though Austin said he believes the Iraqi government is pushing back on the Iranians to stop supplying weapons to the Iraqi militants, he added that he expects militants to try using more explosively formed projectiles –anti-armor weapons – against American vehicles and mortars, and improvised rocket-assisted munitions against large concentrations of U.S. troops.