- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Troops on the ground in Iraq are not bothered by outside commissions such as the Iraq Study Group recommending new military strategies, former officers said yesterday.

And soldiers do not mind frank talk, such as Defense Secretary-designate Robert M. Gates saying at his Senate confirmation hearing this week that the United States is neither winning nor losing in Iraq.

“What we’re not winning is the nation building,” said retired Marine Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong, the deputy commander of U.S. Central Command when the U.S.-led coalition toppled Saddam Hussein. “The troops know exactly what they’re doing and they know basically that in 14 out of 18 provinces, that they are winning the war on the ground.”

Gen. DeLong said the real enemy is sectarian violence. Until the Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims stop killing each other, the United States can take only limited steps to end the fighting.

Charles Krohn, who earned the Silver Star in Vietnam while an infantry officer, said soldiers in combat do not normally concern themselves with “grand strategy,” such as the Iraq Study Group report delivered yesterday to President Bush.

“If you are in a small unit in Iraq, you are so tied to your buddies right next to you and the next mission and getting it right and trying to survive that you don’t have time to think of grand strategy,” the retired lieutenant colonel said.

But an Army Green Beret said such militarily inexperienced panels can hurt morale.

“From what I have seen, they are a lot of white-haired politicos with zero military knowledge and experience,” said the soldier, who asked not to be named. “I hope that it will be politely shelved and Bush will rely on those that have some idea what they are talking about. The only effect this will have on the troops, assuming that it’s ignored, is a slight dip in morale.”

The panel, led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, Indiana Democrat, is made up of five Republicans and five Democrats who held senior government posts or elected offices.

Military officials pointed out that most of the study group’s key military recommendations already were being instituted in some way by Army Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq.

“We should seek to complete the training and equipping mission by the first quarter of 2008 as stated by General George Casey on October 24, 2006,” a key recommendation states.

The study group all but rejects the three major troop plans circulating on Capitol Hill. The group opposes an immediate troop pullout, as pushed by Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat. It issued no recommendation for a specific timeline for the phased withdrawal of the current 15 combat brigades, as championed by Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, the incoming Senate Armed Services Committee chairman.

The third proposal, an increase in U.S. forces principally pushed by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, is mentioned as a faint possibility as a temporary measure to quell violence in Baghdad.

Instead, the panel urges removal of most U.S. combat brigades by the winter of 2008, if battlefield conditions permit, after lead military duties in all 18 provinces are handed over to the Iraqi Security Forces.

Army Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command, told Congress last month that transfer to the Iraqis could be reached by the end of next year and would result in an unspecified U.S. troop exit.

Gen. DeLong said his only concern was that the panel did not include a senior retired military officer.

“If they formed a group of Jesse Jackson, Nancy Pelosi, [Al] Gore and [John] Kerry and if they came up with reasonable proposals, that would be OK with me, too, instead of just saying your policy is broken,” he said. “Come up with something worthwhile.”

Rep. Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat and incoming House Armed Services Committee chairman, struck a conciliatory chord.

“Because these recommendations have bipartisan support from the ISG, I am encouraged that bipartisan consensus might be achieved within Congress and with the administration, as well,” he said.

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