Despite Obama’s Vow, Combat Brigades Will Stay in Iraq

WASHINGTON, (IPS) — 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.

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 Feb. 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).

Lt. Col. Gary Tallman, a spokesman for the Joint Staff, confirmed 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 CENTCOM and the Army is to determine “the exact composition of the BESO.”

But the U.S. 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 organised 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 military operations.

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.

Maj. Larry Burns of the Army Combined Arms Centre at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, told IPS that Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey directed the Combined Arms Centre, which specialises 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 Maj. Robert Thornton of the Joint Centre for International and Security Force Assistance at Fort Leavenworth.

Gen. 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 Feb. 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 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 independent investigative journalist and historian and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. His latest book, with John Kiriakou, is The CIA Insider’s Guide to the Iran Crisis: From CIA Coup to the Brink of War. Read other articles by Gareth.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on March 27th, 2009 at 12:50pm #

    Don’t forget that all of this pre-supposes that US economic might will not decline, but, in fact, it is already declining. It will be very easy for Obama to go back on all this, pleading economic difficulties.

  2. rosemarie jackowski said on March 27th, 2009 at 1:51pm #

    It’s an old trick – change the name (not the mission) and hope nobody notices that it is the same old, same old. Hummmmm The School of the Assassins at Fort Benning, Blackwater, combat troops……

    This is a nation that thrives on perpetual war. Maybe the failed economy will make war even MORE likely.

    How many countries has the USA bombed since WW2? Bill Blum gives the list in his books.

  3. Daniel Gerber said on March 27th, 2009 at 4:29pm #

    While I hate to see permanent US presence in Irak, ther e is no denying that at the end of the day we went in, created a hunge vaccum by eliminating the leadership and fundamentally destabilized the country. We dropped Humpty dumpty, it is our responsibility to pu thim back together. In all likelyhood that will mean that if we can get a governement with a strong visionary leader that is no worse than Saddam was (probably no more democratic either), and the country can return to a relative peace accross ethnicities and religions, we will have done our job.

    It is laudable to see the President sense moral responsibility towards Irak, even though it means breaking a campaign promise. Of course, it also means the neocons won, American has its bridgehead in Arab lands to control supplies of oil, but that is not Obama’s fault. It was a clever 2 way trap from which we cannot extract ourselves.

  4. Hue Longer said on March 27th, 2009 at 4:48pm #


    You say it is our job t0 fix things after messing them up but also recognize that the goal was the control of oil. So what was messed up? If the latter is the goal, a moral president would get out but you are saying that poor Obama recognizing the immoral goal of oil control will allow that to happen because he has a moral goal to “fix” things that were messed up?

    Do you think that just maybe after killing 2 million people over there for the past 18 years, that “we” don’t care about “fixing” things that we messed up? Citing the possible death and chaos that would ensue from breaking away from the immoral goal of oil control is reaching VERY far

  5. Max Shields said on March 27th, 2009 at 7:59pm #

    Daniel Gerber
    It’s Iraq. If you want to be taken seriously than begin by not degrading the name of the country the US invaded in 1990, set about destroying, and have continued to occupy to this very moment.

    That nation has been walled and in many parts (given most who left – millions and do NOT want to return) is just about unhabitable. Obama is not rebuilding Iraq. He’s OCCUPYING it.

  6. Beverly said on March 27th, 2009 at 10:11pm #

    If Obama gave a shit about “moral responsibility,” his cabinet wouldn’t be overrun with the same crooks and co-opted louses who were key players in bringing about the disaster in which we now find ourselves.

    And exactly what campaign promise is he breaking? His quasi-withdrawal from Iraq campaign rhetoric was always full of equivocations and caveats – enough for any kool-aid free thinker to deduce the US military would be a presence in Iraq for years to come.

    Yes indeedy, Mr. Gerber, the neocons won. Obama is fulfilling their wildest dreams and more. It’s amazing how much damage one faux progressive and his band of poser Democrat synchophants can wreak on the world. Maybe Dick Cheney isn’t the only satanic cousin Obama has. Based on his ability to bewitch the public worldwide, I’m betting Reagan, the original king of public bamboozlement, is close kin too.

    Iraq may not be Obama’s fault but his willingness to continue the mayhem under the guise of fixing it – along with kicking up the chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan – makes him as guilty as those whose lies started the war.

  7. bozh said on March 28th, 2009 at 7:47am #

    O gave people lotsof verbal brilliance but when such mafioso lingo was put in any context and especially in one that wld include iraq, afgh’n, pak’n, iran, syria, palestina. slavery, indigenous extirpation, 180 wars, etc., it was clear at least to me that i cld expect only more and greater evil from uncle sam.

    as i have noted many times, WH staff is mere management; thus, blaming it is like blaming safeway manager for rotten fish it sells from time to time.
    it’s the USA, USA, USA or the UNCLE and not any presider. tnx

  8. Max Shields said on March 28th, 2009 at 8:10am #

    Beverly to your point about the neocons, not a peep from them regarding Obama’s foreign policy, and some praise has been give from their flanks.

    Obama is a continuation of most of the Bush policies, both foreign and domestic. Not one policy “change” has been anything more than flimsy and cynical. At bottom, he has moved NOTHING beyond Bush/Cheney.

    He’s continuing the “war on terror” in Afghanistan/Pakistan, upping the ante and with the same rationale as Bush/Cheney. No difference. The “policy” in Iraq is exactly where Bush left off. No difference.

    Even his executive order on stem cell research, while differing with Bush was exactly the same as McCain’s. In fact, there was nothing significantly different, policy wise between McCain and Obama during the campaign except the simplistic Dem/Repub talking points about taxes. Both ultimately favored bailing out the banksters.

    Why would anyone think Obama was against continuing US warring ways? He simply thought that the Iraq war was mis-managed and maybe more force was needed in other parts of the ME. That’s like “do we use a blind fold or leave it off before killling the prisoner?” kind of difference.

    The real problem with this Obama is the deep cynicism, playing progressive while acting on the principles of America Corporate Inc.

    The right sees Obama for what he is – just read people like David Horowitz. He’s as happy as a pig in shit about Obama’s military swagger.