A Best Defense Exclusive:
In a move that could force President Obama to break his vow to get all combat troops out of Iraq by August of this year, his top commander in Iraq recently officially requested keeping a combat brigade in the northern part of the country beyond that deadline, three people close to the situation said Wednesday.
Gen. Raymond Odierno asked for a brigade to try to keep the peace in the disputed city of Kirkuk, but only got a polite nod from the president when the issue was raised during his recent meetings in Washington, according to two of the people familiar with the discussions. If the brigade in northern Iraq is indeed kept in Iraq past the deadline, there will be a fan dance under which it no longer will be called a combat unit, but like the six other combat brigades being kept past the deadline, will be called an advisory unit. I can imagine the press releases that will follow-"Three U.S. Army soldiers were killed last night in an advisory operation . . . ."
The feeling in the corridors of the White House is that the general is asking the right questions, but a bit clumsily, and certainly too early for political comfort, especially in Iraq, which is about to hold a national election. So I suspect the administration's bottom line for Odierno was, Hey, Shreko, put a sock in it until after the Iraqi elections, because what we need is a new Iraqi government to be formed so it can quietly begin talking to us about re-visiting some of those 2008 SOFA agreements about future troop levels.
This debate is just beginning. I expect that Obama actually is going to have to break his promises on Iraq and keep a fairly large force in Iraq, but of course that won't be the first time he's had to depart from his campaign rhetoric on this war.
Speaking of which, CNAS, the little think tank that could, plans today to post a report (Update: now posted) by me titled The Burden about the way forward in Iraq. It argues that we need to think about keeping troops there for many years, not because I think it is a good answer, but because I think it is the least bad one.
Let's open the betting: How many U.S. military personnel will be in Iraq four years from today--that is, Feb. 25, 2014? The person who guesses closest gets a signed copy of any of my books. My guess: 28,895. Not "combat" troops, of course! Goodness no. Just "advisory" troops who carry M-16s and call in airstrikes and such.
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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.