Discounting reports of a timetable being set for a U.S. troop pullout from Iraq, an American military commander in Baghdad says the pace of U.S. troop withdrawal will be determined entirely by how quickly Iraqis can take over the job of handling security matters on their own.
Last Wednesday, the top American military commander in Iraq, General George Casey, told reporters that he believed that a substantial number of U.S. troops could be sent home by the early part of next year, if Iraqis can make progress on the political front and if the insurgency does not expand.
Despite the caveats, General Casey's comments, coupled with a call from Iraq's interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari for a speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops, has fueled speculation here that Baghdad and Washington were discussing specific ways for Americans to exit Iraq as quickly as possible.
In an interview with VOA, U.S. Army Brigadier General Karl Horst, who oversees the training and operations of tens of thousands of Iraqi security forces in the greater Baghdad area, says that as far as the U.S military is concerned, American forces will begin withdrawing only when Iraqis prove themselves capable of protecting their own streets, cities, and borders.
"Look, we would all like to see us leave. But a reduction of U.S. forces is event-driven, not time-driven, which means you meet the goals and objectives," General Horst says. "The fact of the matter is that we've made a commitment and so we have an obligation to see our commitment through. Whether you agree with it or not, the fact is a decision was made and we have an obligation to see this through, for the Iraqi people, for the American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who have sacrificed their lives to help make this a better place."
Despite a raging insurgency and acts of terrorism which have killed more than one thousand Iraqi police and army personnel in the past year, the U.S. military has had little problem finding Iraqi volunteers. Most of them are unemployed young men attracted to the idea of receiving a steady salary.
A year ago, there was only one American-trained Iraqi battalion. Now, there are more than 100 battalions of Iraqi army and paramilitary police units, totaling nearly 170,000 men.
But U.S. commanders, including General Horst, acknowledge that most of those battalions are not yet combat-ready and are suffering from myriad problems, including insufficient training and a weak command structure that often lead to breakdowns in discipline.
"A lot of them are having a hard time getting beyond tribal, religious considerations as a matter of selecting who their leaders are going to be. So, we've asked them to look at things from an objective standpoint rather than a subjective process based on what family I'm from, what tribe I'm from, what region I'm from, what religion I'm from," General Horst says. "And frankly, it's a challenge because it represents a cultural shift for them. I mean, we're changing not only their military but in a lot of respects, we're changing some of their cultural ideas and as you know, changing culture is a very difficult and sometimes a long process. It can't be done overnight. It takes time."
Supporters of setting a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal say the move is necessary to, among other things, counter growing Iraqi suspicion that the United States has long-term economic and strategic designs on their country. It is a claim that has long been made by insurgents.
The Bush administration argues that setting a timetable without credible Iraqi forces to replace departing U.S. troops would only embolden the insurgents to create more chaos.