How to smooth the transition in Iraq

The town of Mahmoudiya is ready for the next step: a Transition Task Force.

Mahmoudiya, a town south of Baghdad, was part of the area long known as the "Triangle of Death" because of the extraordinary number of Sunni insurgent attacks against coalition forces and Iraqi civilians it suffered – often half a dozen daily in 2006. Today, with violence down to only a few ineffective attacks in any given week, it has earned the moniker "Triangle of Love."

The progress there is due in part to the new US strategy. It involved living among the local population to break the hold of the insurgents and now focuses more on partnering and empowering local Iraqi forces than depending on US troops to target and capture enemies.

This switch in Mahmoudiya has spurred economic growth in the area and sheds light on how to manage a drawdown of US forces without sacrificing the hard-won security gains of the past 18 months.

It's clear that the ultimate success of our counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq requires not just a reduction in all types of enemy activity, but also an increase in the capacity of the Iraqi Security Forces and the local governing councils.

Improving Iraq's security and governance sectors will be America's enduring role in the country long after most American troops have left. But we need a new paradigm to transition our large-scale combat presence into a lower profile advisory role. A new concept called the Transition Task Force (TTF) shows us the way in Mahmoudiya.

The TTF will help the Iraqi Army internalize the lessons our own army has learned over the past five years about fighting an insurgency by mentoring and enabling its Iraqi Army partners to be an effective force in Mahmoudiya.

Slated to begin work next month, it will help prepare and educate the Iraqi Army about its expanding civil security responsibilities, support legitimate institutions of government and civilian leadership, and empower and inspire the Iraqi police while supporting the rule of law within Iraqi society.

A flexible battalion of about 800 soldiers will replace the 5,000-some soldier brigade combat team in place in Mahmoudiya. The smaller force will be specifically designed to develop the Iraqi Army, police, and local government given the new security situation on the ground today.

As part of the TTF, embedded US training teams will continue to partner the Iraqi Army division and brigades in Mahmoudiya and provide oversight of their development, while an embedded provincial reconstruction team focuses on encouraging political and economic progress.

The creation of a Transition Task Force in Mahmoudiya is a bold but calculated effort to mitigate the risk of a US drawdown of forces.

This area has historical relationships with active insurgent groups that are still trying to reestablish a foothold in the area. So any real or perceived failure of this program could degrade the economic and physical security in Mahmoudiya. Thankfully, the improving capabilities of the Iraqi Army in Mahmoudiya make that a risk worth taking.

The leadership of the professional Iraqi Army units in Mahmoudiya have earned the trust and confidence of the local population over the past year and continue to demonstrate the ability and the will to maintain security and improve the quality of life in the region.

The lessons of Mahmoudiya have much to tell us about the future of US policy in Iraq. While the US military has built a consensus on how to wage counterinsurgency, we are still thinking through how to make our successes lasting and responsibly transfer authority to our Iraqi partners.

The Transition Task Force model is just one of several possible ways to draw down US forces in Iraq while maintaining security there. Every sector of Iraq will require a slightly different solution based on the situation on the ground and the readiness of the local Iraqi forces. Inshallah, (God willing), this way forward will help keep the Triangle of Love from ever again becoming the Triangle of Death.

John Nagl is a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He helped write the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual and recently returned from a visit to Iraq. Capt. Adam Scher is currently serving with the Third Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division in Mahmoudiya. He is helping implement the Transition Task Force there.

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