According to Fow News, the Obama administration has decided to drop the number of U.S. troops in Iraq at the end of the year down to 3,000, marking a major downgrade in force strength, multiple sources familiar with the inner workings and decisions on U.S.
Pentagon spokesman George Little denied that any final decisions have been made on the troop levels. “Discussions with the Iraqis on our post-2011 strategic relationship are ongoing, and no decisions on troop levels have been made,” Little said. “We continue to proceed with troop withdrawals as directed by the president.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta insisted “no decision has been made” on the number of troops to stay in Iraq. “That obviously will be the subject of negotiations with the Iraqis and as a result of those negotiations. As I said no decision has been made of what the number will be,” he said.
Administration and Pentagon officials had hoped to secure Iraqi-government approval for a larger troop presence in Iraq into 2012, with the U.S. recently pushing for a final figure of around 10,000. But administration officials have lately come to believe that approval would be hard to get for anything more than a few thousand troops.
Currently, about 45,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq. The generals on the ground had requested a reduced number of troops remaining in Iraq at the end of the year, but there was major pushback about “the cost and the political optics” of keeping that many in Iraq. The military’s troop-level request was then reduced to 10,000.
Commanders said they could possibly make that work “in extremis,” in other words, meaning they would be pushing it to make that number work security-wise and manpower-wise.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow for the Center for American Progress, said the ultimate troop figure might actually obscure a much larger presence of armed American personnel in the country, even after the U.S. withdraws.
“Whether it’s three to five thousand, or something larger, the American footprint will remain quite large no matter what,” Katulis said.
According to Fox News sources confirm that the administration has pushed the Pentagon to cut the number even lower, and commanders are concerned for the safety of the U.S. troops who would remain there.
“We can’t secure everybody with only 3,000 on the ground nor can we do what we need to with the Iraqis,” one source said. Another source said the actual total could be as high as 5,000 when additional support personnel are included.
A senior military official said by reducing the number of troops to 3,000, the White House has effectively reduced the mission to training only, Fox News reported.
“There is almost no room for security operations in that number; it will be almost purely a training mission,” this official said. The official added that a very small number of troops within that 3,000 will be dedicated to counter-terrorism efforts, but that’s not nearly what Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, wanted.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that the U.S. has operated responsibly to meet the year-end deadline to remove troops from Iraq, per a 2008 Status of Forces Agreement.
He added that negotiations with the Iraqis will determine the outcome, and while costs are a factor in every decision, the administration makes decisions on what is best for the United States.
Responding to the news, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., who has traveled to Iraq many times, said that in all the conversations he has had on force strength, he has “never heard a number as low as 3,000 troops to secure the gains Iraqis have won over the years.”
Plans outlined publicly by the U.S. ambassador to Iraq earlier in the year indicated that the Iraq mission would be the Americans’ largest diplomatic presence in the world, including more than a dozen embassy, consular and military assistance sites.
Another 5,000 security contractors would be required to protect civilians at these sites. “We’re going to have the largest diplomatic and development presence in the world, and there’s going to be a very large army of private contractors defending them,” Katulis said. [via Huff Post and Fox News]