U.S. Adviser’s Blunt Memo on Iraq: Time ‘to Go Home’
By MICHAEL R. GORDON
Published: July 30, 2009
WASHINGTON — A senior American military adviser in Baghdad has concluded in an unusually blunt memo that the Iraqi forces suffer from deeply entrenched deficiencies but are now capable of protecting the Iraqi government, and that it is time “for the U.S. to declare victory and go home.”
Prepared by Col. Timothy R. Reese, an adviser to the Iraqi military’s Baghdad command, the memorandum asserts that the Iraqi forces have an array of problems, including corruption, poor management and the inability to resist political pressure from Shiite political parties.
For all of these problems, however, Colonel Reese argues that Iraqi forces are competent enough to hold off Sunni insurgents, Shiite militias and other internal threats to the Iraqi government. Extending the American military presence in Iraq beyond 2010, he argues, will do little to improve the Iraqis’ military performance while fueling a growing resentment.
“As the old saying goes, ‘Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.’ ” Colonel Reese wrote. “Since the signing of the 2009 Security Agreement, we are guests in Iraq, and after six years in Iraq, we now smell bad to the Iraqi nose.”
A spokeswoman for Gen. Ray Odierno, the senior American commander in Iraq, said that the memo did not reflect the official stance of the United States military, was not intended for a broad audience, and that some of the problems the memo referred to had been solved.
Referring to the Iraq Security Forces, the memo said: “The massive partnering efforts of U.S. combat forces with I.S.F. isn’t yielding benefits commensurate with the effort and is now generating its own opposition. We should declare our intentions to withdraw all U.S. military forces from Iraq by August 2010. This would not be a strategic paradigm shift, but an acceleration of existing U.S. plans by some 15 months.”
Before deploying to Iraq, Colonel Reese served as the director of the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, the Army’s premier intellectual center. He was an author of an official Army history of the Iraq war — “On Point II” — that was sharply critical of the lapses in postwar planning.
Colonel Reese’s memo comes at a sensitive time in the Iraq conflict as American forces are gradually shifting to an advisory role. American combat troops moved out of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities last month, as required by the Status of Forces Agreement concluded by the United States and Iraq.
Colonel Reese’s memo lists a number of problems that have emerged since the withdrawal. They include, he wrote, a “sudden coolness” to American advisers and the “forcible takeover” of a checkpoint in the Green Zone. Iraqi units, he added, are much less willing to conduct joint operations with their American counterparts “to go after targets the U.S. considers high value.”
The Iraqi Ground Forces Command, Colonel Reese wrote, has imposed “unilateral restrictions” on American military operations that “violate the most basic aspects” of American-Iraqi agreement.
“The Iraqi legal system in the Rusafa side of Baghdad has demonstrated a recent willingness to release individuals originally detained by the U.S. for attacks on the U.S.,” he added.
The spokeswoman for Gen. Odierno, Lt. Col. Josslyn Aberle, responded in a e-mail to questions about the memo. “The e-mail was written by Col. Timothy Reese at the beginning of July and sent to selected personnel within Multi-National Division Baghdad on our classified e-mail system,” Colonel Aberle wrote. “It was expressed to a limited audience, and not meant for wider/general distribution.
“The e-mail reflects one person’s personal view at the time we were first implementing the Security Agreement post-30 June. It does not reflect the official views of U.S. Forces in Iraq. Since that time many of the initial issues have been resolved and our partnerships with Iraqi Security Forces and G.O.I. partners now are even stronger than before 30 June.” G.O.I. is the abbreviation for Government of Iraq.
Under the plan developed by General Odierno, the vast majority of the approximately 130,000 American forces in Iraq will remain through Iraq’s national elections, which are expected to be held next January. After the elections and the formation of a new Iraqi government, there will be rapid reduction in American forces. By the end of August 2010, the United States would have no more than 50,000 troops in Iraq, which would include six brigades whose primary role would be to advise and train Iraqi troops.
Some experts, such as Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former adviser to General David H. Petraeus, have argued that this timetable may be too fast given the host of remaining problems in Iraq, including differences between Kurds and Arab leaders, remaining Sunni-Shiite tensions and the possibility that the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki might become more authoritarian.
“Renewed violence in Iraq is not inevitable, but it is a serious risk,” Mr. Biddle wrote in a recent paper. “A vigorous preventive strategy is clearly preferable, therefore. The most effective option for prevention is to go slow in drawing down the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Measures to maximize U.S. leverage on important Iraqi leaders — especially Maliki — can be helpful in steering Iraqis away from confrontation and violence, but U.S. leverage is a function of U.S. presence.”
During his recent appearance in Washington, Mr. Maliki also appeared to be contemplating a possible role for American forces after the December 2011 deadline for the removal of all American troops under the Status of Forces Agreement.
The Iraqi prime minister noted in an appearance at the United States Institute of Peace, a Washington-based research organization, that the Status of Forces Agreement, would “end” the American military presence in his country in 2011. “Nevertheless, if Iraqi forces required further training and further support, we shall examine this at that time based on the needs of Iraq,” he said.
During his visit to Iraq earlier this week, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates indicated that might be a “modest acceleration” the number of American forces that are withdrawn from Iraq this year. At the same time, Pentagon and military officials indicated that Kurdish-Arab friction remains a serious worry and that the American advisory role is still very important.
But Colonel Reese questioned the value of an extended advisory role.
“If there ever was a window where the seeds of a professional military culture could have been implanted, it is now long past. U.S. combat forces will not be here long enough or with sufficient influence to change it,” he wrote. “The military culture of the Baathist-Soviet model under Saddam Hussein remains entrenched and will not change. The senior leadership of the I.S.F. is incapable of change in the current environment.”
Colonel Reese appears to have anonymously circulated a less colorful version of his memo on a blog dubbed “The Enchanter’s Corner.” The author is described as an active-duty Army officer serving as an adviser in Iraq who is “passionate about political issues.” Since word of the memo began to spread, the memo has been removed from the site.