President Obama's decision to pull all U.S. forces out of Iraq by Dec. 31 is an "absolute disaster" that puts the burgeoning Arab democracy at risk of an Iranian "strangling," said an architect of the 2007 troop surge that turned around a losing war.
Retired Army Gen. John M. Keane was at the forefront of persuading President George W. Bush to scuttle a static counterinsurgency strategy and replace it with 30,000 reinforcements and a more activist, street-by-street counterterrorism tactic.
Today, even with that strategy producing a huge drop in daily attacks, Gen. Keane bluntly told The Washington Times that the United States again is losing.
"I think it's an absolute disaster," said Gen. Keane, who advised Gen. David H. Petraeus when he was top Iraq commander. "We won the war in Iraq, and we're now losing the peace."
U.S. troops will be vacating Iraq at a time when neither Baghdad's counterterrorism skills nor its abilities to protect against invasion are at levels needed to fully protect the country, say analysts long involved in the nearly nine-year war.
"Forty-four hundred lives lost," Gen. Keane said. "Tens of thousands of troops wounded. Over a couple hundred thousand Iraqis killed. We liberated 25 million people. There is only one Arab Muslim country that elects its own government, and that is Iraq.
"We should be staying there to strengthen that democracy, to let them get the kind of political gains they need to get and keep the Iranians away from strangling that country. That should be our objective, and we are walking away from that objective."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Sunday warned Iran not to miscalculate the U.S. decision to withdraw its troops.
"No one, most particularly Iran, should miscalculate about our continuing commitment to and with the Iraqis going forward," she said in an interview with CNN from Uzbekistan.
"In addition to a very significant diplomatic presence in Iraq which will carry much of the responsibility for dealing with an independent, sovereign, democratic Iraq, we have bases in neighboring countries, we have our ally in Turkey. We have a lot of presence in that region," she added.
Leading Republicans shared Gen. Keane's criticism of the withdrawal.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona called the move "a serious mistake."
"I'm very, very concerned about increased Iranian influence in Iraq," Mr. McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told ABC's "This Week."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said Mr. Obama made a dangerous decision that ignored U.S. military recommendations to keep some troops in Iraq next year.
Smaller troop deployment
When Mr. Bush left office in 2009 — as a two-year troop surge turned a looming war loss into a path to victory — planners wanted to keep 10,000 to 15,000 troops in Iraq, possibly until 2020.
The Obama administration was willing to keep a small force of several thousand in Iraq, but could not work out a deal with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to provide troops immunity from the Iraqi justice system.
Gen. Keane said Gen. Lloyd J. Austin, now the top commander in Iraq, wanted the Obama administration to approve at least 15,000 troops for 2012 and a maximum of 25,000.
"They would be needed to increase the growth and development of the Iraqi security forces," Gen. Keane said.
The idea was to ensure that the Iraqi security forces had the tactical skills to find insurgents and execute raids. Now, the Iraqis will try to do such missions without U.S. military intelligence, special operations advisers and air support such as gunships and surveillance drones.
Retired Army Brig. Gen. Mark T. Kimmitt, a former deputy operations chief in Baghdad and a policymaker at the Pentagon, said the effectiveness of Iraq's counterinsurgency operations against Shiite extremists and al Qaeda in Iraq may drop as much as 50 percent.
The Pentagon's progress report on Iraq in June 2010 said its counterterrorism service was "highly trained and effective" but lacked the ability on its own to go after an entire terrorist network as opposed to a single individual.
"At the operational level, it's going to make a significant change because for years the Iraqi security forces have depended on us for counterterrorism support, for counterintelligence support, for logistical support," Gen. Kimmitt said.
"We are now pulling all that out, and they will have to go it alone. By their own admission they are not ready to do it. They had not planned to do it by 2012. Their plans went all the way out to 2020 before they thought they were going to be ready to do this independently."
Iraq's top military officer, Lt. Gen. Babaker Zebari, said last summer that the security forces would not be fully capable for another eight years.
Iranian attack feared
Gen. Kimmitt said his major worry is Iraq's lack of sufficient forces and weapons to blunt an invasion. Iraq has limited ability to control its airspace or to mobilize and maneuver a large army.
"They have virtually no capability for external defense to protect their borders from bad actors in the region," he said.
"They don't have the intelligence. They certainly don't have the hardware — tanks, mechanized infantry vehicles. Let's posit an attack from Iran. They have neither the air support nor the ability to stand and fight at their border. The Iranian army has capacity this Iraqi army does not yet have."
The top brass had wanted to keep a force of quick-reaction commandos, trainers and aviators in Iraq past the 2011 deadline set in 2008 by Mr. Bush in what is called a status-of-forces agreement. Washington always viewed the date as flexible if Baghdad requested a longer presence.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed at his confirmation hearing to a senator's statement that it would be wise to keep troops in Iraq next year.
"I don't know the number, Senator, but it would be a number where we could provide the capability that they would request, that we would be able to protect ourselves, and it would have to meet both of our nations' mutual interests," he said.
Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the Army chief of staff who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, also told senators that Iraq needed a continued U.S. aviation presence to protect its airspace. But he later told reporters that Iraqi security was as good as it had ever been.
Since the surge began in 2007, the average number of daily attacks in Iraq dropped to 14 from a high of 145, according to the command.
'Big win' for Iran
Iran has been providing weapons, including rockets and explosives, to Shiite extremists to kill Iraqi and U.S. troops. Iran also trains Iraqi insurgents inside Iran. It also aids Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shiite cleric who wants Iraq to become a hard-line Islamic state.
"Strategically, it's obvious. This is a big win for Tehran," Gen. Kimmitt said.
"I believe there is a lot of concern [in Gulf Arab states]. We have said one of reasons for keeping American forces in Iraq was to continue a very strong signal to Iran to draw a line between Persian Iran and the rest of the region.
"The Iraqis themselves have to make a decision whether they want to lean toward the West or lean toward the East. Iran has a very aggressive program inside Iraq to spread their influence."
He said Iran, which now aids Syria, and the terrorist groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, would love to have a pathway through Iraq to increase its influence among those groups.
"Removing U.S. troops only enables that," Gen. Kimmitt said.
Gen. Keane added, "We're losing the peace because the No. 1 strategic enemy we have in the region is Iran. And as a result of us pulling away from Iraq, we're losing our influence in Iraq. And the Iranians are gaining influence in Iraq. And that strategically should be unacceptable to us."
Col. Barry Johnson, a military spokesman in Baghdad, told The Times, "I see no point in responding to the opinions of retired military officers and analysts.
"Our job is to turn national policy into action, and we are now in full stride to honor our commitment under the security agreement with Iraq to reposture our forces prior to the end of the year."
The United States wants to maintain a strong diplomatic stance in Iraq and will do some military training with civilian contractors.
Much of the work now shifts to the State Department. But P.J. Crowley, the department's former top public affairs official, said Congress has failed to approve enough money to enable the State Department to broaden its presence throughout the country.
Still, he sees a silver lining in the U.S. troop exit.
"I actually think the removal of all troops and a clean break is very useful politically," he said.
Mr. Crowley said the U.S. and Iraqi forces can conduct joint exercises and Iraqi troops can get more training in third countries, as well as the United States. He said Washington will negotiate those details later.
"Our diplomats will do that, along with the robust security assistance office planned for the embassy," he said.
"Diplomats will take the lead in the future, and they merit the same support we gave our military forces in Iraq."
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