27 March, 2009
Despite President Barack Obama’s statement at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina Feb. 27 that he had "chosen a timeline that will remove our combat brigades over the next 18 months," a number of Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs), which have been the basic U.S. Army combat unit in Iraq for six years, will remain in Iraq after that date under a new non-combat label.
A spokesman for Defence Secretary Robert M. Gates, Lt. Col. Patrick S. Ryder, told IPS Tuesday that "several advisory and assistance brigades" would be part of a U.S. command in Iraq that will be "re-designated" as a "transition force headquarters" after August 2010.
But the "advisory and assistance brigades" to remain in Iraq after that date will in fact be the same as BCTs, except for the addition of a few dozen officers who would carry out the advice and assistance missions, according to military officials involved in the planning process.
Gates has hinted that the withdrawal of combat brigades will be accomplished through an administrative sleight of hand rather than by actually withdrawing all the combat brigade teams. Appearing on Meet the Press Mar. 1, Gates said the "transition force" would have "a very different kind of mission", and that the units remaining in Iraq "will be characterised differently".
"They will be called advisory and assistance brigades," said Gates. "They won't be called combat brigades."
Obama’s decision to go along with the military proposal for a "transition force" of 35,000 to 50,000 troops thus represents a complete abandonment of his own original policy of combat troop withdrawal and an acceptance of what the military wanted all along - the continued presence of several combat brigades in Iraq well beyond mid-2010.
Other names for the new variant that were used in recent months but eventually dropped made it explicitly clear that it is simply a slightly augmented BCT. Those names, according to Burns, included "Brigade Combat Team-Security Force Assistance" and "Brigade Combat Team for Stability Operations".
The plan to deploy several augmented BCTs represents the culmination of the strategy of "relabeling" or "remissioning" of BCTs in Iraq that was developed by U.S. military leaders in the wake of the surge of candidate Barack Obama to near-certain victory in the presidential election last year.
Late last year, Gen. David Petraeus, the CENTCOM chief, and Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, were unhappy with Obama’s pledge to withdraw all U.S. combat brigades within 16 months. But military planners quickly hit on the relabeling scheme as a way of avoiding the complete withdrawal of BCTs in an Obama administration.
The New York Times revealed Dec. 4 that Pentagon planners were talking about "relabeling" of U.S. combat units as "training and support" units in a Dec. 4 story, but provided no details. Pentagon planners were projecting that as many as 70,000 U.S. troops would be maintained in Iraq "for a substantial time even beyond 2011".
That report suggested that the strategy envisioned keeping the bulk of the existing BCTs in Iraq as under a new label indicating an advisory and support mission.
Secretary Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen discussed a plan to re-designate U.S. combat troops as support troops at a meeting with Obama in Chicago on Dec. 15, according a report in the Times three days later.
Gates and Mullen reportedly speculated at the meeting on whether Iraqis would permit such "re-labeled" combat forces to remain in Iraqi cities and towns after next June, despite the fact that the U.S.-Iraq withdrawal agreement signed in November 2008 called for all U.S. combat forces to be withdrawn from populated areas by the end of June 2010.
That report suggests that Obama was well aware that giving the Petraeus and Odierno a free hand to determine the composition of a "transition force" of 35,000 to 50,000 troops meant that most combat brigades would remain in Iraq rather than being withdrawn, as he ostensibly promised the U.S. public on Feb. 27.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist with Inter-Press Service specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.