When a withdrawal is not a withdrawal By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - Despite United States President Barack Obama's statement at Camp
LeJeune, North Carolina, on February 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 US Army combat unit in Iraq for
six years, will remain in Iraq after that date under a new non-combat label.
A spokesman for Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Lieutenant Colonel Patrick S
Ryder, told Inter Press Service on Tuesday that "several advisory and
assistance brigades" would be part of a US command in Iraq that would 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 would be accomplished
through an administrative sleight of hand rather than by actually withdrawing
all the combat brigade teams. Appearing on Meet the Press on March 1,
Gates said the "transition force" would have "a very different kind of
mission", and that the units remaining in Iraq "will be characterized
"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.
National Security Council officials declined to comment on the question of
whether combat brigades were actually going to be left in Iraq beyond August
2020 under the policy announced by Obama on February 27.
The term that has been used internally within the army to designate the units
that will form a large part of the "transition force" is not "Advisory and
Assistance Brigades" but "Brigades Enhanced for Stability Operations" (BESO).
Lieutenant Colonel Gary Tallman, a spokesman for the Joint Staff, confirmed on
Monday that BESO will be the army unit deployed to Iraq for the purpose of the
transition force. Tallman said the decision-making process now underway
involving Central Command (CENTCOM) and the army is to determine "the exact
composition of the BESO".
But the US Army has already been developing the outlines of the BESO for the
past few months. The only change to the existing BCT structure that is being
planned is the addition of advisory and assistance skills rather than any
reduction in its combat power. The BCT is organized around two or three
battalions of motorized infantry, but also includes all the support elements,
including its own artillery support, needed to sustain the full spectrum of
Those are permanent features of all variants of the BCT, which will not be
altered in the new version to be deployed under a "transition force", according
to specialists on the BCT. They say the only issue on which the army is still
engaged in discussions with field commanders is what standard augmentation a
BCT will need for its new mission.
Major Larry Burns of the Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas,
told Inter Press Service that Army Chief of Staff General George W Casey
directed the Combined Arms Center, which specializes in army mission and
doctrine, to work on giving the BCTs the capability to carry out a training and
advisory assistance mission.
The essence of the BESO variant of the BCTs, according to Burns, is that the
Military Transition Teams working directly with Iraqi military units will no
longer operate independently, but will be integrated into the BCTs.
That development would continue a trend already begun in Iraq in which the BCTs
have gradually acquired operational control over the previously independent
Military Transition Teams, according to Major Robert Thornton of the Joint
Center for International and Security Force Assistance at Fort Leavenworth.
General Martin Dempsey, the commander of Army Training and Doctrine Command,
has issued Planning Guidance calling for further refinement of the BESO. After
further work on the additional personnel requirements, Casey was briefed on the
proposed enhancement of the BCT for the second time in a month at a conference
of four-star generals on February 18, according to Burns.
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 US military leaders as the surge in popularity of then-candidate Barack
Obama suggested he was certain to win last year's presidential election.
Late last year, General David Petraeus, the CENTCOM chief, and General Ray
Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, were unhappy with Obama's campaign pledge
to withdraw all US combat brigades within 16 months. But military planners
quickly hit on the re-labeling scheme as a way of avoiding the complete
withdrawal of BCTs in an Obama administration.
The New York Times revealed on December 4 that Pentagon planners were talking
about "relabeling" US combat units as "training and support" units in a
December 4 story, but provided no details. Pentagon planners were projecting
that as many as 70,000 US 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
Gates and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen discussed a
plan to re-designate US combat troops as support troops at a meeting with Obama
in Chicago on December 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 US-Iraq withdrawal agreement signed
in November 2008 called for all US 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 US public on
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US 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.