Turn from war, train Iraqis, group advises

A continued mission with a new focus


December 07, 2006|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- Documenting a broad and deepening U.S. failure in Iraq after more than three years of war and 2,900 American dead, the long-awaited Baker-Hamilton report lays out a new course that would require a large U.S. military presence there for years, with prospects for continuing American casualties.

Rejecting the idea of a speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops, the bipartisan group of 10 senior Washington insiders chaired by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee H. Hamilton said that such a move would risk chaos in Iraq and could ignite a broader war in the region.

The group also rejected the idea of beefing up U.S. forces in Iraq, primarily on the grounds that the Army and Marine Corps are stretched too thin to provide more troops.

Instead, echoing a recommendation made last month by Gen. John P. Abizaid, the U.S. commander in the Middle East, the report said the military should change its mission from war-fighting to training and advising Iraqi security forces, which would take over responsibility for combat.

The group portrayed that option as the last remaining strategic choice after what it described as the "disheartening" result of the military plan embraced by President Bush last summer. That idea was to move thousands of troops into Baghdad to clear neighborhoods of sectarian militias and to maintain security there.

But only two of the promised six Iraqi battalions showed up for Operation Forward Together II to patrol alongside U.S. troops, the group reported. Violence in Baghdad has jumped more than 43 percent since the operation began.

There aren't enough U.S. or Iraqi troops to hold neighborhoods that are cleared, the report said. "The same holds true for the rest of Iraq," it added, in what seemed like an admission of failure of the entire U.S. war effort.

The report leveled a broad indictment of the Bush administration's handling of the war, describing "dire" consequences in Iraq and at home. It said the conflict has overstretched U.S. forces and thrown the defense budget into "disarray."

U.S. intelligence agencies have failed to understand the insurgency in Iraq, the report said. Fewer than 10 analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency have more than two years' experience in counterinsurgency operations, and there is a widespread shortage of language skills. Only six people among the 1,000-person staff at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad speak fluent Arabic.

In a sharp jab at an administration that prides itself on respectful relations with the military, the report said that relationships between senior officers and Pentagon civilians had "frayed." Without mentioning outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who has a reputation for stifling senior officers with whom he disagrees, the report said the new Pentagon chief must establish an environment "in which the senior military feel free to offer independent advice not only to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon but also to the president and the National Security Council."

On a broader strategic front, the report urged a new focus on training and advising Iraqis, and said that most of the 20,000 new advisers should come from combat units already in Iraq.

In a carefully qualified statement, it said: "By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq."

Combat forces withdrawn from Iraq, the report suggested, might be used for "an increased presence in Afghanistan," where U.S. and NATO efforts to suppress Taliban and al-Qaida fighters have been flagging.

The report acknowledged that in addition to the advisers, U.S. military personnel will be needed to provide logistics, air support, intelligence, maintenance and other backup to Iraqi forces.

At present, none of Iraq's 112 army battalions can operate on its own, Abizaid has acknowledged. Force protection units, designed to protect Americans in Iraq, could require tens of thousands of U.S. combat troops.

U.S. military forces must provide quick-reaction combat units on stand-by, special forces to track terrorists, and units for intelligence, search-and-rescue, combat air support and reconnaissance, air and ground transportation, and other support functions, the report said. These American troops would require their own bases, logistics, supply, medical and administrative personnel.

The Baker-Hamilton group declined to put a number on this continuing American military presence. But senior officers said the logistics effort alone would require 30,000 troops and 50,000 contractors.

Altogether, these missions could require a U.S. military presence of at least 100,000 personnel. There are now just under 140,000 American troops in Iraq.

"There would be a considerable force there," said study group member Edwin W. Meese III, a former U.S. attorney general under President Ronald Reagan.

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