The U.S. military will maintain human tethers inside Iraqi combat units, even those out on their own, because they do not yet have resupply and intelligence capabilities needed to fight independently.
The tethers, which could stay in place for years, come in the form of 10-man U.S. teams who embed with Iraqi battalions and brigades. The teams have emerged as a critical enabler for U.S. forces to be able to go home someday.
The U.S. has turned over sections of Baghdad to Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) units. But it left behind the embedded teams who will stay until Iraq develops a logistics and joint-combat capability. The command hopes this trade-off will be repeated throughout Iraq's four most volatile provinces in the coming months.
Iraq still has no air force, for example, or medical evacuation capability. When ISF units need air support, they make the request through the 10-man team.
"We believe as we kind of review our progress that it has been a major catalyst for improvements in the capability of Iraqi security forces," said Maj. Gen. Douglas Lute, the director of operations for U.S. Central Command, which oversees Iraq. "Those 10-man teams will probably continue to reside with their Iraqi-sponsored units for some time after battle space is traded off."
In place now for several months, the teams have another purpose: to report firsthand on the competence of Iraqi battalions so commanders can judge readiness levels. The judging is crucial, because U.S. troops cannot go home until the Iraqis can take over.
"We didn't have that a year ago," said Gen. Lute, according to the transcript of a recent briefing he delivered at the U.S. Embassy in London.
The Pentagon said there are now more than 180,000 Iraqi forces, with an increasing number of battalions able to fight independently or in conjunction with American units. Some Democratic Party critics of President Bush's war strategy dispute this. Led by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, they say only a small number of battalions are fully trained and equipped.
Retired Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey gave a somewhat more upbeat assessment in a trip report in June after touring Iraq at the request of U.S. Central Command in his role as an adjunct professor of international affairs at West Point. He said in an interview that 35 battalions can engage in combat, with another 100 playing some type of security roles.
Gen. McCaffrey, a highly decorated Vietnam War combatant who was President Clinton's top counterdrug official, called the ISF "a real and hugely significant factor. ... They have uniforms, automatic weapons, body armor, some radios, some armor, light trucks and battalion-level organizations. At least 60,000 are courageous patriots who are actively fighting."
Gen. McCaffrey predicted that by next summer the ISF will reach 250,000 personnel as a "dominate security factor in Iraq."
Like Gen. Lute, Gen. McCaffrey took note of the fact that ISF units cannot yet sustain themselves. "There is no maintenance or logistics system," he said. "There is no national command and control. Corruption is a threat factor of greater long-range danger than the armed insurgency."
Gen. McCaffrey told The Washington Times the embedded training teams, the idea of Gen. John Abizaid, CentCom commander, are "an absolute war winner."
Such teams were started too late in Vietnam, he said, to buttress the Vietnamese army. "Abizaid has made this happen at the front end of war."