Obama announced in February plans for a responsible drawdown of forces in Iraq. His plan, in accordance with the U.S.-Iraq security agreement signed in 2008, called for U.S. forces there to cede operations within city limits by June 30 and ultimately transition into an assistance and advisory force for the Iraqis. By Aug. 31, 2010, only 50,000 troops are expected to remain in country, and by Dec. 31, 2011, all U.S. forces should be withdrawn.
"We've continued along the timeline laid out by the president," Michelle Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy, said before the House Armed Services Committee. "We continue to plan for and implement a responsible U.S. drawdown, one that advances our goal of a stable, sovereign and self-reliant Iraq. We are continuing our efforts to train and equip [Iraqi security forces] so they can effectively defend the Iraqi people and protect Iraqi institutions by the end of 2011."
Since January, the U.S. military footprint in Iraq has decreased from more than 143,000 troops to about 120,000. And this week, an Army brigade combat team was off-ramped from its scheduled January deployment there.
"[Iraqi security forces] have performed quite well since June 30, 2009, and the security situation in Iraq continues to improve despite a few high-profile attacks," Flournoy said, noting improvement in Iraq's security forces.
Transitioning full security responsibility within the cities to the Iraqis was an important first step in demonstrating the U.S. commitment to the timeline, Flournoy said, and was much more. The Iraqis gained more confidence in their abilities, and the population is becoming more accustomed to seeing their own countrymen patrolling the streets and protecting their rights, she said.
However, she added, Iraqi forces still depend on U.S. support. Flournoy explained that budget shortfalls caused by the past year's global recession have made it difficult for Iraqi forces to field critical equipment and increase their numbers.
The Iraqi government contributed nearly $10 billion of its own money to fund the country's forces this year, a stark contrast from 2005, when less than $2.5 billion came from Iraq. But that amount isn't enough to meet budget and equipment needs within the necessary timeline, she said.
"Much remains to be done to enable the [Iraqi forces] to assume full responsibility by Dec. 31, 2011," she said.
Iraqi forces must be able to provide security for Iraq's population and to conduct internal defense and basic external defenses to maintain stability there, she explained. Congress recently granted the Defense Department authority to provide "excess material" and some "non-excess material" to help the Iraqis meet that goal.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is authorized to transfer excess U.S. material such as commercial trucks, clothing, helmets and body armor. Non-excess material includes pistols, cargo trucks and up-armored Humvees, among other things.
"It will certainly help to ensure that [Iraqi forces] can fulfill their mission by the time U.S. forces depart, an obviously vital step towards the goal of a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq," Flournoy said.
Pentagon officials also are evaluating plans to address equipment shortfalls beyond transferring equipment, she said, meaning the United States may end up purchasing some new equipment for Iraqi forces. Determining the amount of U.S. equipment and financial support to Iraq depends on the needs of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, she explained.
"A core principal in our decision making is that equipment will only be considered for transfer if it is not needed by U.S. forces," she said. "[The Defense Department] will also work with the military services to manage the cost of replacing that transferred equipment."
What to do with equipment not appropriate for transfer also factors into the effectiveness of the U.S. drawdown, she said. About 3.3 million pieces of U.S. equipment are in Iraq now, and although some will transfer to Iraq and eventually to Afghanistan, the majority will stay with U.S. forces.
The department has been preparing such a scenario for more than year, and Flournoy said those plans look to be working well. The services already have identified non-mission-essential equipment that can be brought back early and allow a responsible and gradual drawdown of equipment as troops redeploy, she said.
"We're committed to conducting the drawdown of troops, equipment and material in a manner that addresses the needs of our military and our obligation to the American taxpayer," Flournoy said. "While doing all of this presents significant challenges, we're confident that we're making progress in our goals on the timeline laid out by the president."
Navy Vice Adm. James Winnefield, strategic plans and policy director for the Joint Staff, followed Flournoy's testimony and added that some aspects of the withdrawal plan are ahead of schedule. U.S. troops occupy around 200 fewer bases in Iraq than in January, and 35,000 fewer civilian contractors are on the ground there today, he said.
Winnefield also reminded the committee of the Army brigade this week that was off-ramped, and that only 10 brigade-size units will be operating in Iraq by the country's January elections.
Pentagon officials are "well on our way to the six advise-and-assistance brigades that we plan to have on the ground by Sept. 1," Winnefield said. Two U.S. advisory brigades already are in Iraq, working with and training Iraqi forces.
Leaders in Iraq are planning the final phase of the drawdown, Winnefield said. Brigade combat teams will redeploy one by one and by battalions through summer to ensure the remaining forces can maintain their Iraqi partnerships.
The current plans keep the drawdown process on track with Obama's timeline and ensure training operations will follow through after Sept. 1, when U.S. troop levels are expected to be at 50,000, the admiral said.
"We do remain on track," he added. "We intend to continue the drawdown in a manner that protects our military forces and civilians, exercises good stewardship of the resources provided to us, does not jeopardize the readiness of our military as we reset and leave a stable, secure and self-reliant Iraq as a long-term strategic partner to the United States."