Something important and historic occurred in August. More accurately, something did not happen: For the first time since the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, no US troops were killed in that country. This breakthrough came even though some 45,000 American troops were still in Iraq into September.
This milestone occurred because US forces have successfully shifted the security mission to Iraqi forces, with Americans now responsible for training, advising, and support missions. Iraq is still plagued by ethnic tensions, and its fragile peace is threatened by extremist elements. But the nation has seemingly stabilized and moved away from the chaos that engulfed it in 2006 and 2007.
The importance of Iraq’s ability to keep itself secure can hardly be overstated. Stability will both ensure Iraq’s viability as a nation and allow the US to bring home most of the forces still deployed to that country.
President Obama of course campaigned on a promise to end the Iraq war. The US presence has already declined nearly by three-quarters, relative to the 170,000 American troops deployed there near the beginning of the 2007 "surge" that painfully turned the tide toward peace in Iraq.
So what comes next? Under the terms of the 2008 US-Iraq agreement, all US forces are supposed to be out of the country by the end of 2011. In mid-September, with this deadline less than four months away, the US and Iraqi governments were heavily engaged in behind-the-scenes negotiations to determine what sort of follow-on force was needed and agreeable.
There are several competing interests here, but one thing most US and Iraqi officials agree on is that Iraq is not yet ready to defend itself. "Iraqi security forces have not reached a level that can provide security inside Iraq," said Masoud Barzani, president of northern Iraq’s largely autonomous Kurdish region. "Neither can the Iraqi military forces protect Iraqi borders," said Barzani.
The US will abide by its 2008 agreement to completely withdraw from Iraq unless a new agreement is reached, so the US has been pressing Nouri al Maliki, Iraq’s Prime Minister, to hurry up and negotiate a follow-on agreement before the American troops have all left. But the issue is complicated by politics and sentiment on both sides.
In the US, the public is weary of the Iraq war and has little desire to see a large force remain or to witness additional American casualties.
In Iraq, even officials who favor a continuing US presence are afraid to say so in public. (This is a region where the locations of several massive, essentially permanent US bases around the Persian Gulf are not officially acknowledged, at host nation request.)
Perception is important. The larger the force we leave behind, explained Gen. Ray Odierno, the new Army Chief of Staff, the more easily Americans can be portrayed as an "occupation force" instead of being present to help ensure lasting peace in Iraq.
Odierno cautioned that the US must "be careful about leaving too many people in Iraq," because "there comes a time … when it becomes counterproductive."
The Administration is reportedly proposing a follow-on force of 3,000 to 5,000 US forces to continue the training and advisory mission. Some officials want every last American out immediately. Other military suggestions have gone as high as a request for 18,000 troops to remain.
Without a new agreement, however, by early 2012 only a handful of American forces will remain there to defend US diplomatic facilities in Iraq.
Iraq’s security shortcomings are exactly the US Air Force’s strengths, and for this reason Maj. Gen. Russell Handy recently stated that USAF’s mission in Iraq will likely ramp up toward the end of the year.
"That is a growth area for the Air Force," said Handy, the senior USAF representative in Iraq. Regardless of the final disposition of US forces, the majority of personnel and most of their equipment are on the way out. "We will need a lot of airlift," he noted.
USAF air advisors are helping to build Iraq’s air force from the ground up, and other core Air Force missions may be of direct interest to Iraq.
The Iraqi government has "no qualified military to defend its soil, airspace, and shores, [so Iraq’s] security forces cannot protect its citizens," said Kurdish leader Barzani.
"There are some gaps in their military capability, security capability, that we believe we could offer some assistance with," said Navy Capt. John Kirby, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Until Iraq is able to take on a full range of airpower operations, the Air Force can offer enormous assistance through missions it is performing today. The US can continue to support Iraq through airpower at relatively low cost and with minimal risk to American lives.
Air Force intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance resources currently keep an eye out for insurgents and impending terrorist attacks. This will help protect and defend US forces during the drawdown, and USAF could offer similar support for Iraqi security forces in 2012 and beyond.
Similarly, the Air Force has unique ISR capabilities that can monitor Iraq’s borders far more effectively than Iraq’s nascent air arm can today.
Strike missions have tailed off enormously in Iraq in recent years, a good thing. But as friendly forces move about the country, US fighters and remotely piloted aircraft still provide "armed overwatch"—another capability that could prove to be of enormous value to Iraq as its government continues to stabilize and ward off extremist elements.
The Air Force can do all of this without the sort of large US ground presence that could be portrayed as a permanent occupation. The last thing any American or Iraqi leader wants is for extremist elements to metastasize and try to push Iraq back into another period of violence and retribution.
Air Force-led airpower can go a long way toward defending Iraq while it builds up its domestic capabilities. This will be true whether 180 or 18,000 ground troops remain in Iraq.
All Iraq has to do is ask.
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