Obama at LeJuene
“Next month will mark the sixth anniversary of the war in Iraq. By any measure this has already been a long war.”
Those were the first substantive words of today’s speech by President Barack Obama at the U.S. Marine Corps base, Camp Lejuene, NC. I listened to/watched the speech and then found the text posted on the New York Times website.
There is good news, not so good news, almost bad news, and news many hoped they would not hear.
The “good news” is that in meeting his pledge to end the war in Iraq “responsibly,” Obama will adhere to the target date of December 31, 2011 for all U.S. troops to depart Iraq as called for in the U.S.-Iraq withdrawal agreement signed this past December by President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The “not so good news” in the speech is that U.S. brigade combat teams will continue to go on “combat missions” through August 31, 2010. This comes out to be 18 months following Obama’s inauguration whereas when he was campaigning for the presidency he repeatedly pledged a 16 month period – but always with the caveat of consulting with military officers on the ground.
The “almost bad news” is the number of “non-combat” soldiers and Marines who will remain in Iraq after the end of combat missions: 35,000-50,000. They will be designated as enablers, advisors, training support, possibly “force protection” units – but the words “offensive” or “combat” will not be associated with the missions performed.
So what exactly will this “residual” one-third of the current U.S. contingent (142,000) do in the 16 months between the end of “combat missions” and the final withdrawal date?
As outlined by the president, the troops that are in Iraq during this transitional period will:
- advise, train, and support operations of non-sectarian Iraqi security forces;
- conduct “targeted” counterterrorism missions; and
- provide security for civilians (e.g., U.S. diplomats and aid workers) working with
Iraqis to rebuild their country.
The White House will strenuously deny that any of these three transitional missions involve “combat.” Their argument will revolve around the absence of “offensive operational planning,” with emphasis on the absence of “offensive intent” by commanders on the ground. (Such word games go back to the 1940s when the U.S. created the Department of “Defense” and the Secretary of War became the Secretary of the Army – a nominative “who” rather than a descriptive “activator.”Of course, had the change not been made, the “Secretary of War” would have invited the creation of a “Secretary of Peace.)
The news no one wanted to hear was that more Marines would be going to Afghanistan to fight the insurgencies there. Given the condition of the country and the growing strength of the Taliban opposition, there is always the prospect that U.S. residual forces will not be able to sustain the “gains” in Iraq, possibly requiring that more troops go into Iraq or come out on an extended scale.
And then there is the historical record of administrations diverting troops or intentionally withholding from Congress information on the role of “advisors.” One need only think back to Vietnam which started as an “advisory mission.” In the 1980s 55 training “advisors” were dispatched by the Reagan administration to El Salvador while another contingent went to the Philippines. They were ostensibly to train government forces in how to conduct counterinsurgency operations against communists. Some of the U.S. “advisors” started to accompany the indigenous units on operations, prompting Congress, when it discovered the advisors were participating in the operations (as “observers” only, the Pentagon assured lawmakers), to end the practice. The same rational infected the “advisors” sent to Colombia to train Colombian army troops on how to fight the drug lords – a task complicated by the two powerful anti-government insurgent groups that at times controlled fully a third of the country.
As for the other two “transitional” missions, no matter how one cuts it, “counter-terrorism” is an offensively oriented operation because it requires seeking out terrorists and denying them the opportunity to implement their plans. Similarly, “force protection” might be an “operational defensive activity” as part of a campaign plan, but tactically it is clearly offensive-oriented.
Finally, it is important not to overlook the fact that while somewhere around 100,000 U.S. troops will filter out of Iraq over the next 18 months, next door in Afghanistan some 17,000 more Marines and soldiers will arrive to “defend” the government of Hamid Karzai.
How long that effort will last was not addressed by Mr. Obama. That undoubtedly will be in a not-too-distant future speech before too many more lives are lost.