It is looking increasingly likely that American troops will stay in Iraq beyond December 2011 scheduled date of withdrawal for the US military – a prospect that appears to be gaining bipartisan support in Congress.
One congressman suggested Thursday that the politically acceptable size of the force that would remain in Iraq “could be 20,000.”
Senior US officials have recently expressed concern about the ability of contractors and the State Department to take over the responsibilities that the Pentagon currently carries out Iraq, including everything from providing security to maintaining intelligence networks. Under the terms of the US mission in Iraq, however, the US military could stay only at the request of the Iraqi government.
Top Pentagon officials said Thursday that the Iraqi government shares some of their concerns.
“There have been a number of informal conversations with the Iraqis about this,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
During these talks, the Iraqi government indicated that it “is very open to a continuing presence that would be larger where we could help the Iraqis for a period of time,” Mr. Gates said.
He cited three primary areas of US concern with Iraqi military operations as the Pentagon prepares for the pullout of its troops by the year’s end:
• The Iraqi military's ability to exploit intelligence it collects
• Its capabilities with logistics and maintenance of its vehicles.
• The burgeoning Iraqi Air Force's ability to protect its own air space.
“I’m not actually concerned about the stability of the country,” Gates told the committee. “But I am concerned about their ability to address these issues in particular.”
He emphasized that the US military's departure would be abrupt. “Right now, under current circumstances, as of the first of January we will have 157 DoD [Department of Defense] contractors basically processing foreign military sales, and that would be it.”
Gates conceded, however, that US troop presence “is not popular in Iraq. And so the politicians, I think, the leaders understand the need for this kind of help, but no one wants to be the first one there supporting it.”
Congress on board, probably
For its part, Congress seems increasingly braced for the request to extend US troop presence in Iraq. “I think it's also obvious that the Iraqi military doesn't have a lot of the technological capability that they need to combat to this kind of insurgency that is still out there,” Sen. John McCain, the committee's top Republican, said in Thursday’s hearing.
On this matter, there seems to be some bipartisan consensus. In a breakfast with the Center for Media and Security earlier in the day, Rep. Adam Smith, the House Armed Services Committee’s top Democrat, said it is “highly likely” that the Iraqi government will request US troops to stay.
“I’d be very surprised” if that didn’t happen,” he added. Congressman Smith estimated that the number of US troops likely to be requested to stay in the country “is not going to be” as high as 50,000 – the current US troop level – but “could be 20,000.” He said that these US troops “could just be trainers” for the Iraqi military.
Whether Congress will back such a request “depends” on how many troops senior US defense officials request stay in the country. Congress is likely open to a number in range of 20,000 US troops, but if the Pentagon asks for as many as 50,000 troops to remain, Smith said, “We might have a problem with that.”